Losing My Religion

Just reading that title makes me want to break out into Michael Stipes mode, but for the sake of my neighbour’s sensibilities, and desire to not be serenaded, I shall refrain. This blog and website has been an on-again-off-again affair over the past year, partly because I am pretty busy with our company, and there are lots of things and people that need my attention. The other part, is that I have needed some time to figure out a few things for myself, and to find my own comfort level of how I can express the fact that I have given up my previously held religious beliefs. The thing is, to what degree I have abandoned them, and if there is something remaining, what is it, and for what reason or purpose to I hold onto them, is still not fully determined. I suppose that my ambivalence may be a healthy thing. After all, it is not an easy task to have everything decided in your mind how the universe should be, who is God, and what is the purpose of human existence. There is much to discuss and explore.

Calvin-Nice-ThingsI have several dear friends who are outright atheists, and when I was a kid that would be like shaking hands with Lucifer himself. I don’t believe in devils or demons plotting our downfall. I like the book by C.S. Lewis entitled, “The Screwtape Letters”, a set of correspondence of one senior devil advising his pupil as how to entirely corrupt the unsuspecting host with hedonism, secularism, and justifications to leave the church community. But, I am not convinced our reality is a reflection of that book, and I know that the great C.S. Lewis had misgivings about that book himself. As for other C.S. Lewis books I like, I enjoyed “The Great Divorce”, “Surprised by Joy”, and “Mere Christianity”. There is cohesion and empathy and compassion throughout, and while I think that the views may be tempered in light of scientific advancement and more rigorous exposure to different viewpoints available today, these are good reads.

Coming through one time on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage was a good experience for me, but I found it more to be an intellectual and cultural study than a spiritual experience. The hurried pace from one temple to the next by tour bus is not the best way to be at peace, and calm, and to let something come to your mind. I recognize that and hope to do the actual walk itself in the next few years. My goal is to see if I can get away when I am 50 for a couple of months and do it. Might be a bit tight, considering how much I am still needed daily for our company. But we will see!

Calvinism-Some-Lives-MatterBack to the topic at hand. I am not sure if I mentioned it, but I grew up in a rather staunch and rigid Calvinist upbringing. My parents came to Canada from Holland, and while the Netherlands are all things liberal and progressive, the Calvinists of Holland are anything but. There are lots of good people in those pews, for sure, but I have grown surprisingly weary of how wretched it was to be forced to sit through endless dull sermons, attend catechism classes, and feel like I was being brainwashed.

I went to a Christian school from kindergarten all the way through my first undergraduate degree. College had some great bright spots, but even so, I felt hedged in by the tribe, by the church-going religiosity and “justified by faith” crowd. It wasn’t until I spent a year away in China, then three years in Japan, and then graduate school at the University of Alberta, that I started to make the mental and psychological shift away from all the things that had been formative in my growing up.

calvinism-when-thinking-youre-better-than-everyone-else-just-isnt-enoughIt wasn’t all bad, I must confess. I had a pretty sharp education and I developed powers of rote memorization that have been useful. Being forced to memorize chunks of Bible verses has been helpful, and some of the Bible is quite beautiful and profound, so I am not yet keen to throw all the babies out with all the bath water.

Another element of my need to lose my religion was my own very fractured, and now lifeless, relationship with my own parents. There was much Bible pounding, and kid pounding, going on in our household. And I needed to get away from that, perhaps that is what has sent me away from Canada for so many years. At least that is a part of it.

I think that my story about my departure from organized religion is hardly original. Lots of people lose their faith, and lose their church memberships. It might be part of growing up. It might be part of recognizing the beauty and significance in others and experiences defined outside the walls of church. Nature, other countries, travel, new friends, and falling in love on the other side of the world can change a person a lot. Is it an abandonment? An evolution? Or just a steady pace on the path of living one’s own life?

Some parts of each again, perhaps.

I am going to update this blog, from time to time, with ideas and things I have written about my departure from Calvinism, and from much of the quiet hatred I have seen and lived through within. I hope that does not deter you from reading all the other pages here as well. I think that the reasoning for this expansion in this blog is that a pilgrimage, a journey of your mind and soul, takes a lot of different forms. I want to explore that, and share some of the things I have been thinking and writing, or the books I have read that I think are helpful.

Thanks for your patience in advance as I fumble about, and if you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to zap me here, or by email at: mark.a.groenewold@gmail.com

Travel safe fellow pilgrims,



Gaijin Snub

The other day I was out picking up some lunch from a convenience store. It is still surprising to me how it is possible to find several things that are actually edible in a convenience store. In my home country of Canada, I would not expect much. Maybe there are some donuts and coffee to grab with gas, but I have long been wary of those plastic covered sandwiches in the white bread. Or the hotdogs…. I just have to give it a pass.

But Japan is pretty good. I can buy spaghetti in meat sauce, sushi, rice balls, and even oden (a kind of broth that can have meats and vegetables, like a stew, kind of). Anyway, I am in the shop getting my purchases together and a foreign ohenro comes in. I look up from my orange basket and look in his direction. He sees me. I smile. I raise my hand to wave and say hi….. and then that guy turns to his right and just walks away…

ignoreMaybe he didn’t see me. Maybe he did not see the tall 6’3 guy with the goofy smile waving to him in a small convenience store. He did have sunglasses on after all…. I turned and saw him at the end of the aisle, and I could sense, maybe, just maybe with his hunched up shoulders and his feet purposefully pointing in the opposite direction that he did not want to interact with me at all.

Maybe it is me. Did I smell. Maybe… I did bathe this morning, and deodorant… yes, okay, check! Bad breath? Hmm… I did have a mint just a few moments ago.. Probably okay… Maybe it is the “cut of my jib”. Maybe I give off a bad vibe. Maybe ….

Maybe I shouldn’t worry about it too much. After all, I have seen this kind of behaviour a whole bunch of times over the past 20 years here in Japan. I even have a clever name for it. I call it, “gaijin snub”.

RUDEGaijin snub is when you meet a fellow non-Japanese person and when you say hi, or make eye contact, or wave, you get blown off, and just flatly ignored. The other person may even sigh, or roll their eyes, or mutter something under their breath as they pass by. In all cases, you have become beneath their notice. You have been gaijin snubbed.

Gaijin snubbing is different than regular snubbing. Gaijin snubbing is when you are offended that other non-Japanese people are actually in Japan and somehow, in someway, interfering with what should have been YOUR cultural experience. Other foreigners get in your way. They want to say hi, probably in English. They smile. You hate smiles. They wave. How un-Japanese and insensitive. You hate them. You hate them because they intrude in what should be your pure Japanese experience. You are like that guy in the book “Shogun”, and here those other nasty foreigners are, cluttering up your mossy landscape. Irritating….

I don’t know how you guys cope with this, or if you even care. For my part, I have been in Japan for a pretty long time, and whenever I see ANYONE who is obviously not from around here I try to say hi, or make friendly contact. Being an expat in Japan can be rough, and sometimes you need a friend. Over the years I have been able to help out a few people along the way. There was a woman who couldn’t get to the airport because her English school bosses screwed her out of her last month’s salary. I could put her on the bus. There was a guy who needed someone to help him talk to the police. I could do that for him. There have been a lot of people who were just lost on the street and I could point them in a good direction. And I made some friends along the way too.

I am not terribly offended at the gaijin snub. I think it says more of the snubber than the snubbed (that would be me). I am not diminished in my willingness to say hi, or ask how can I help. That’s just how I am built. But if you are coming to Japan for the first time, or getting out to travel outside your country, I hope you will refrain from the gaijin snub. It is kind of a jerk move, and you never know who you might meet on your path.

rude-personIt could be someone who may change your life. It may be someone who becomes a friend. It may be someone who gives you information that you need. It may be just someone who you can be kind to, civil to, and normal towards. You just do not know who you will meet on the road.

In my case, I had a situation where my company was in need of hiring some new teachers. One applicant contacted me and we met at a coffee shop. I recognized him as a guy who had gaijin snubbed me some time before. I am sure he did not recognize me. But I knew who he was. And while he was very kind and thoughtful and pleasant for our interview, I did not hire him. He was a guy who snubbed people who could not obviously benefit him in any perceivable way. I can’t put that kind of guy in front of our students. I didn’t snub him, and I gave him our standard gentle refusal, but we hired someone much better instead.

You never know who you meet.

So while you are on your ohenro route, walking the miles, I hope you will be kind to, and greet every person you meet. Be pleasant. Be of good cheer. It can open some doors you never imagined.4385543669_bb3d0d7315_b