Review of Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich.
For most of my life I accepted a reality that has been defined by consensus.
The majority of people rely on the laws of physics for everything, including the determination of someone’s sanity. This means things like agreeing that the daytime sky will always be blue (unless there is some kind of obvious natural phenomenon creating temporary colors), acknowledging that there are physical limits to our bodies, and believing that we control every decision we make.
Most people also recognize that some people experience altered states of reality and those include:
1) issues related to being mentally ill,
2) potential issues related to the use of drugs and alcohol, and
3) experiencing events that are usually described as mystical.
Just about everyone believes they are among those who have a firm grasp of reality. This includes knowing that people make the decision, that it is under their control (at least initially), to decide to alter it with drugs or alcohol. It includes knowing that things people experience when they are mentally ill, which can include things like hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations, aren’t. When someone starts talking about mystical events that involve similar things, it’s no surprise that their sanity is questioned.
So it makes perfect sense that anyone who believes they have experienced a mystical event would feel extremely uncomfortable about sharing it. Imagine having the additional challenge of living in a family of atheists.
Barbara Ehrenreich faced this in her mid-teens when she experienced a series of events that she describes as “so strange, so cataclysmic, that (she) never…wrote or spoke about it” until 2001 when she slowly began to transcribe the contents of a remarkable journal that had survived move after move and even a devastating flood.
Her journal reflects the mind of an incredibly intelligent young woman who, around the age of thirteen, begins to grapple with a monumental problem she describes as “the situation.” She was trying to understand the nature of the universe and herself, especially her feelings about the futility of life, through the exploration of poetry, science fiction, philosophy, science, and religion.
But as Ehrenreich began to process the entries for her memoir, she knew when she began writing in her journal, she’d made a conscious decision to leave a few things out.
She made only a few vague references, decipherable only to her, to events that started happening about a year before that she describes as “peel(ing) off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, associations, labels, and words.” Ehrenreich dismissed it initially, thinking it was an aberration, but they kept happening, so she began to make a few notes about it.
As a young woman, Ehrenreich considered the possibility that she could be crazy, her notes include using the word “madness,” but she also recognizes as she develops the memoir, that she had very little information to go on at the time about what constituted insanity and most of her entries demonstrate the complete opposite, “that she was bearing up pretty well.”  At one point she comes to the conclusion that perhaps her mind had just “stopped doing the work of perception…(but she) wasn’t ready to abandon the idea that she had gained a privileged glimpse into some alternative realm or dimension.”
The nature of Ehrenreich’s early life experiences, the new global view of science after Sputnik launched in 1957, and her belief that she didn’t need to study history or literature since she was reading about them anyway, contributed to her decision to pursue a degree in chemistry. This made her feel like she was finally able to do something useful with her life as she began to accept that her “youthful quest for ‘the truth’…looked like a remote and improbable adventure.”
A shift occurred however, when she realized that the only future in chemistry was as a lab technician and it wasn’t going to enable her “to get to the bottom of things, to the hidden level where matter was interchangeable with energy and energy could, if so inclined, resolve itself into particles.” So she managed to get the chemistry and physics departments to allow her to pursue a hybrid degree in “chemical physics.”
Then through an amazing set of circumstances her senior thesis project enabled her to observe an anomaly in a chemical reaction with silicone that resulted in oscillations, but she had to accept the belief that her experiments were flawed and only found out as she worked years later on her memoir that a similar phenomenon had been observed by a Soviet chemist in 1951. Ehrenreich describes it as a phenomena in which “dead matter seemed to organize itself into unexpected patterns.” Again, she was presented with a reality that challenged the one she had been led to believe was fact.
As Ehrenreich’s life moved forward through the Vietnam war, various political activities, marriage, having children, and having to manage the emotional toll of various issues in her parent’s lives, Ehrenreich continued to experience episodes of disassociation (the term she now uses to describe her experiences). She also started to have feelings of failure about her goals in life, and finally realized she was experiencing a profound state of depression which actually drew her back to “her ancient, childish quest.”
While she could not say that this “new phase of research cured (her) depression, she learned she could keep it at bay by clinging to the mystery she was trying to solve.” Ehrenreich found a wide range of concepts to explore, and opened up to the idea of amoral or polytheistic gods, and animism.
Ehrenreich concludes Living With a Wild God with an analysis of the perspectives of a number of contemporary scientists, mystics, authors, theologians, and philosophers and presents a conclusion that is similar to the one I’ve reached.
I believe it is incredibly important to hear about the kinds of questions Ehrenreich asked when she was a young woman and to follow the amazing life journey that enabled her to analyze the events she’d experienced with so much depth.
For years I have been trying to accept a reality I never imagined could exist. Like Ehrenreich, I spent years feeling like I couldn’t tell people everything and I’ve only just begun to connect with people who are open-minded and understand the importance of all of this.
Ehrenreich’s story was the first one I found that had any resemblance to mine, and after I stumbled onto her book in 2014 in the month it was published (see Lone Pine: Two Feminists’ Take On Spiritual Experiences), I have found more books that are testaments to a concept about God that is fundamentally different than the ones so many people believe that are dividing our world.
I have so much more to share. I hope you will continue to join me in my ongoing journey of discovery about life, God, and a new view of reality–one that isn’t always “passively obedient to the ‘laws,’” but is actually full of incredible surprises.
1) Ehrenreich, Barbara. Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2014. Print. XII.
2) Ibid; 1.
3) Ibid; 47.
4) Ibid; 62, 135.
5) Ibid; 57-58.
6) Ibid; 145.
7) Ibid; 154.
9) Ibid; 162.
10) Ibid; 202-203.
11) Ibid; 207.
12) Ibid; 233.
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