I remember being weirdly religious when I was a child, but not specifically religious. I knew for an utter certainty that there was a God and we should pray to Him, but this rock solid conviction that I believed as a child was born of nothing in particular. My family life wasn’t religious. My mother was some kind of eclectic hybrid of ‘spiritualities’; my father fell asleep during mass and would wake on cue to stand, mumble the recitations, and then fall back to sleep. When my parents separated, I remember there being a very beautiful picture of St Francis of Assisi in my mother’s cupboard that belonged to my father… but my father didn’t seem to want it, and mum never seemed bothered to just throw it out. I know now that it was St Francis; at the time, I had no idea. It was just a very beautiful piece of religious art that stirred within me all those things that good art should stir: awe, marvel, and interest.
When I was very young, my mother would encourage me and my younger brothers to pray each night before bed. I would later wonder why she would do this; I was an extremely difficult child and wouldn’t explain why I was angry and frustrated. The ritual of prayer was hijacked to get me to sit down and list all the things I was anxious about.
Even though I am very assuredly an atheist, I remain a little bit envious — if that’s the correct word — of those who had first rate religious upbringings. Their parents thoroughly understood the religion, and so the religious environment was enriched and constructive. It is probably a fluke of anecdote, but the kids I knew who grew up to be religious fanatics had the same kind of religious upbringing as me, while the kids I know with the religious parents ended up being extremely chill about the whole thing. The kids with religious parents inherited a sense of identity as a birthright; the kids who became fanatics had to scratch out their own identity and then worry about authenticity.
As an adult, I think about the link between morality and religion a lot. Virtue ethics leaves a lot of room for religious input. It is far easier to describe what sort of people we should aspire to be when your religion comes with ready-made moral exemplars. For the rest of us, we have a less clear-cut path. I argue that fictional characters serve really well as moral exemplars because they don’t have historical baggage like actual people; but fictional characters will never suffer the same problems that we suffer in life. I’m constantly wondering if I’m the right kind of Mark Fletcher. Is there a Mark Fletcher that I would prefer to be?
And that sort of rhetoric catches up with me at times like now when I’m struggling a lot with things that just seem so overwhelming. If I were a religious Mark Fletcher, would I have some sort of bigger sense of what It Is All About that could power me through to the next adventure? If I were a smarter Mark Fletcher, would I have already set up my life so that these challenges wouldn’t hit as hard? If I were a more sociable Mark Fletcher, would I find respite in social activities to recharge my batteries?
Things are going really, really well for me. I’m probably the luckiest person on Earth; I certainly feel undeserving of all my good fortune. And yet I’m really struggling with how miserable I am. I feel like I’m about twenty seconds away from crying most of the time. I can’t make any headway on any of my projects because I’m paralysed by guilt about work for other people I feel like I should have completed. Even the ten minutes that I’ve taken writing up this, I feel like I should have spent that doing something else.
Virtue ethics is about self-reflexion and self-criticism. But when you don’t have any time to yourself, there’s no time for anything but responding to the latest disaster.
Anyway, that’s why I’m a bit quiet on this thing at the moment. I don’t feel like I’m the right Mark Fletcher.