Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | November 23, 2010

A Thanksgiving recipe for peace of mind

Ah, Thanksgiving: My favorite holiday is nearly here. I love Thanksgiving because it lacks the commercial and political trappings that diminish and entangle Christmas celebrations. I love Thanksgiving because it’s an inclusive holiday — you can be a member of any religion or no religion to count your blessings.

I’m abundantly, ridiculously and undeservedly blessed; Thanksgiving is a welcome opportunity to remember that. This year, the item that tops my gratitude list is not a possession. It’s not even tangible. This Thanksgiving, I’m most thankful for peace of mind. Ancient Greek philosophers called this state ataraxia and described it as freedom from worry.

Calm Ocean from the Flickr photostream of abefetterman

Now, I don’t claim to have achieved perfect peace of mind — far from it. I doubt that anyone can. This world is filled with dangers that can harm us and those we love, dangers that are beyond our control that we naturally worry about. However, I credit whatever peace of mind I’ve achieved to two events that will seem counterintuitive to many people.

The event that most dramatically improved my peace of mind was my loss of faith. I can almost hear the gasps among believers of all stripes. I can sense the email messages being composed in readers’ heads telling me that they credit their peace of mind to their beliefs, that they would be lost without their faith. If that’s your experience, I’m happy for you. It most assuredly wasn’t mine.

For me, religious faith was a source of fear, resentment, frustration and confusion. It created a constant state of worry-fueled turmoil. I was simultaneously frightened by and resentful of the threats of eternal damnation that religious leaders used to manipulate me.

I was frustrated by the many contradictions in the holy text I was supposed to accept as literal, infallible truth and the hypocrisies practiced by those who claimed that they followed that text. I was frustrated by my fellow believers’ assertions that their faith brought them peace of mind because faith gave me the opposite.

I was confused because scientific evidence disproved claims made in the holy text that I was told to unquestioningly accept, claims that were echoed by its adherents whom I was told to respect and obey. I was confused by and resentful of commands to pray to a supposedly all-knowing, all-powerful, always-present deity for relief from problems that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being should have already known about and could have prevented from happening at all.

I was worried because mutually exclusive religious systems made similar threats about eternal damnation that could only be avoided by accepting their particular beliefs.

When I finally let go of religious faith, that worry-fueled turmoil dissipated. Threats of eternal damnation no longer had any power over me. I didn’t worry about pleasing one deity while simultaneously displeasing another. Contradictions and inaccuracies within holy texts and religious people’s hypocrisies no longer vexed me. My path to serenity was through realizing that the only being listening when I silently recited the serenity prayer was me.

The second event that improved my peace of mind was my toddler daughter’s bout with leukemia. For many people, such a crisis would increase their reliance on their childhood faith; for me, it cemented my years-earlier decision to relinquish it. But more than that, her two-and-half-year treatment provided this world-class worrier with a yardstick to measure items that were worth worrying about. If something didn’t rise to the level of a life-threatening illness, it wasn’t worth sacrificing my peace of mind.

As I said, I haven’t perfected ataraxia; I’m simply working towards achieving it. What’s more, life would be pretty boring if it only featured smooth sailing. But I have eliminated a major source of internal conflict and learned that most other sources of worry are simply wastes of time and energy. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.” Change “angry” to “worried” and you have my recipe for ataraxia.

This Thanksgiving, I’m especially grateful for peace of mind. I’m recommitting myself to protecting and improving it. I wish you and yours a Thanksgiving filled with serenity.

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