A Nonbeliever Tries To Make Sense Of The Visions She Had As A Teen

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Barbara Ehrenreich is known for her books and essays about politics, social welfare, class, women's health and other women's issues. Her best-seller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, explored the difficulties faced by low-wage workers. So fans of Ehrenreich's writing may be surprised at the subject of her new memoir — the mystical visions she had as a teenager.

To make her new book an even more unlikely subject, Ehrenreich describes herself as a rationalist, a scientist by training, and an atheist who is the daughter of atheists. Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything draws on her journals from 1956-'66, and on the extensive reading she's done in the past decade about the history of religion. She never discussed these mystical experiences before writing the book — and she suspects she's not the only one keeping such things to herself.

"People have these unaccountable mystic experiences," Ehrenreich tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Generally they say nothing or they label it as 'God' and get on with their lives. I'm saying, 'Hey, no, let's figure out what's going on here.' "

Interview Highlights

On the first time she had a mystical experience as a teenager

I was just staring at the woods ... [when] something happened. It's like a layer peeled off the world, the layer that contains all the meanings, the words, the language, the associations we have. Yeah, I was looking at trees, but I no longer could say I knew exactly what a tree was, with all the knowledge and experience that goes into our notion of a tree.

I didn't find it scary ... I guess it is for some people, because I have since, many years since, read about people who suffer from something called dissociation disorder and have this happen to them occasionally, and they seem to hate it. I just thought, well, this is pretty interesting. ...

What if there is a world underneath what we perceive? We're usually in a world of shared "reality." You and I agree on what we see if we're together, we have similar explanations for it, and so on. To leave that behind and just see things without any of those human attributions, well, that's very, very strange, but I wanted to know more. ... I couldn't tell anybody. I had enough sense to think that this would be seen as crazy.

On the second vision she had in Lone Pine, Calif.

The only words I can put to it after all these years is ... that the world flamed into life. Everything was alive. There was a feeling of an encounter with something living, not something God-like, not something loving, not something benevolent, but something beyond any of those kinds of categories, beyond any human categories. I don't know how many minutes this lasted in its full intensity.

On why she's writing about it now

The book contains things I never said to anyone, never talked to anyone about. ... I have been a journalist and a writer for most of my life now. ... I think I have a responsibility to report things, even if they're anomalous. Even if they don't fit whatever theory I had in my mind or most people have or anything. It's in that spirit that I take this risk.

On researching many different religions to make sense of her experience

It helped that in the intervening years, here, I spent a great deal of time learning about religion, and learning, for example, about the varieties of religion that preceded, and many survived, well into the age of monotheism. There's almost no creature that hasn't been a deity for some sort of people somewhere on Earth at some time. ... There was apparently a lot of experiencing the world as alive in a way that we do not see it now. If you think of animism ... it's considered the most "primitive" religion, but what it is is people seeing the world as a living presence, every part of it, and that rings true with my experience. So I think I was ready after learning a whole lot to come back to this subject with a much more fertile imagination.

On the difference between belief and knowledge

Why believe when you can know? I don't believe in extraterrestrials; I am really curious. I want to find out. I'll say I don't believe in evolution; I'm more or less convinced by the evidence. I would like to put the whole idea of faith and belief away. Let's try to find out things. ...

The religions that fascinate me and could possibly tempt me are not the ones that involve faith or belief. They're the ones that offer you the opportunity to know the spirit or deity. ... I think most readily of West-African-derived religions which involve ecstatic rituals where people actually apprehend the spirit or the God or whatever that they are invoking and that they are trying to contact — I have respect for that. But don't ask me to believe anything.

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Source: NPR


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Comments [4]

Bill Sweet from Chicago area

I was involved in unique research: testing people while they prayed. Since this work (see was off-the-wall to begin with, I have met people who have claimed to have experienced all kinds of wild phenomena.

I appreciate that Barbara Ehrenreich tells of having strange experiences and ends up calling them "anomalous." Anomalous is better than saying these experiences never happened.

A believer will come right out convinced of what he or she experienced. A doubter or scientific skeptic that says "It was an anomaly that I experienced," is also valid. It's something brave to admit to anything of a mystical nature. Speaking for myself, I have lost friends over sharing my rare experiences.

In private, I have had atheists tell me of their spiritual and paranormal moments. They feel they could tell me, a stranger, with an interest over telling their friends and family, as a rule. I have heard two, not exactly atheists anymore, report about their Near Death Experiences. After they experienced extraordinary moments while not alive, they now know it's time to reevaluate how they believe their longheld atheist beliefs.

Apr. 09 2014 11:56 AM
David Heyl/bwinwnbwi from Mt. Pleasant, Michigan

Thank you very much for having Ms Ehrenreich on. I empathize with her struggle. I've been there, done that. Here's what I have concluded after a life-time of struggle:

The meaning of life, i.e., the strength and resolve necessary to create a better world is not totally found in analysis and calculation, but rather in the empowering emotion that calls us to love, beauty and truth. The immediately grasped, emotionally moving ground out of which all things arise–the aesthetic component of our experience–beckons us to seek the impossible, express the unspeakable, and imagine the inconceivable. However, whether we like it or not knowledge expands, but when we ask questions, we accelerate that expansion by detaching ourselves from being in our capacity as non-being in order to more fully appropriate/appreciate the world around us. Our passive experience of time does not produce a great deal of knowledge, but because we bring the logical relationships implicit in events we become free to create judgments concerning the significance and probable cause of said event. Judgments, concerning the nature of events, are determined valid across a continuum that ranges from sensation divorced from theory, at one end, to sensation reinforced by the most advanced and respected scientific theory available. bwinwnbwimusic

Apr. 08 2014 05:15 PM
Andrew Campbell from Putnam County, NY

Thank you very much for having Ms Ehrenreich on. (I enjoy the program pretty much everyday and find it so, in any case!) It's taken me this long (as long as Ms Erenreich) to get to what sounds like essentially the same place but that's about all I have done. That is, I had the essence of it from the teenage years but without anything comparable to her accomplishment in the mean time. I do have much more of an understanding--on my personal level-- the longer it goes on. There has never been any confusion though: we live in a very special, very interesting, meaningful place. It's a privilege to be here (or it's a very elaborate joke on us!)--you just have to look around, apart from your own prejudices, paranoias, etc. as much as you can.

Apr. 08 2014 03:07 PM
philior from brooklyn

Dear Terry,
at the end of this section (about 2:48 time mark) you've said to Ms. Ehrenreich "'re writing about you know the unknowable." My question would be whether she writes about "you know the unknowable" or, perhaps, "you know" is an inalienable part of your new language.

Your clarification will be greatly appreciated.

Apr. 08 2014 03:00 PM

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About Fresh Air

"If you want to understand a political conflict, it helps to understand the culture in which that conflict is taking place," says host Terry Gross. Fresh Air is one of the most popular programs on public radio, breaking the "talk show" mold, and Gross is known for her fearless and insightful interviews with prominent figures in American arts, politics, and popular culture. "When there is a crisis in a foreign country, we sometimes call up that country's leading novelist or filmmaker to get the cultural perspective." Fresh Air features daily reports and reviews from critics and commentators on music, books, movies, and other cultural phenomena that invade the national psyche.


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