Tending to my children’s spiritual development

In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries traveled to Tibet. There they met the fifth Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the country. Graciously welcomed to the high court in Lhasa, the missionaries worked tirelessly to learn Tibetan so as to translate the Bible.

Once their task was accomplished, they presented the book to the Dalai Lama who took several days to read it. When finished, he called the missionaries to his palace.

“I have read your Bible,” he told them, “and I agree with everything in it.”

“So you’ll convert to Christianity?” asked the hopeful Jesuits.

“Oh, no, no, no,” laughed the Dalai Lama.

I often think of this probably apocryphal story during Sunday services at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Akron. Last year I wrote about the church’s music director, Jim Mismas, retiring after playing the organ and directing the choir there for 23 years. He and his husband are like family to us; our daughter Lyra calls them “the grandpas.”

And so Max, Claude, Jules and I joined the choir for Jim’s last season. Hugo came along, too, whenever he was home from college. It’s a beautiful church with a progressive minister and a vibrant community, and not surprisingly we loved every minute of our time there.

Except that we are not Christian.

The choir season ended on Jim’s final Sunday with tears streaking many faces. But then, even though our dear friend is no longer the music director, when the new choir season started last fall, Max and I found we wanted to return to the church.

I am no stranger to Christianity. While my barmaid mother slept in after her busiest night of the week, I took a bus to a nearby Quaker church for several years. I read a chapter of the Bible every night, including the “who begat whom” ones, until I had read the entire book twice.

But by the time I was in high school, answers to my questions from Christian teachers lacked resonance, ultimately requiring more faith than I could muster. Perhaps because my Christian upbringing was of my own doing, I did not leave Christianity with any resentment. Far from it.

I continued my inquiry into spirituality and organized religion at Ohio State University. The major Eastern religion I studied for my B.A. in religious studies was Buddhism.

One thing I found remarkable about Buddhism is how much it echoes 20th century Western philosophy. I especially remember writing a paper comparing the writings of French philosopher and writer Albert Camus to standard Buddhist teachings. I could find no disagreement between modern existentialism and a 2,500-year-old Asian religion.

Mircea Eliade, an early scholar in the academic study of religion, coined the term “homo religiosus.” He believed all humans are religious and will find secular alternatives for worship, such as organized sports, when sacred expressions are not available.

I took this to heart when I had children. As a mother, I seek to raise healthy bodies that house curious intellects and hearts open to spiritual growth. I chose Buddhism because I believe in the teachings, which appeal to both my mind and spirit.

As with all major religions, there are multiple sub-sects of Buddhism and I picked Shambhala for no other reason than they offer a family camp each summer at a meditation center in Vermont. For while it is far older than Christianity, Buddhism is still young in North America and few groups are set up to accommodate children.

Once a year, our children spend nine days with other Buddhist families. The rest of the time it’s on us to provide their spiritual training, which largely consists of stories and the knowledge that we meditate.

I love meditating with other Buddhist practitioners. But the year in the Presbyterian choir reminded me that I love singing with other people. I also appreciate the established community, which includes children our kids know from other places including school and Boy Scouts.

And I enjoy the Rev. Jon Hauerwas’ sermons, which are always insightful and frequently topical. I met with him in his office last fall to discuss our attendance at the church. I can’t become a full-fledged member because I’d have to vow to believing things that I do not believe. And yet, Pastor Hauerwas emphatically welcomed our Buddhist family to continue attending the Presbyterian church.

Some Sundays we meditate with the Buddhists. On others we find it heavenly spending the morning drinking coffee and reading all three of our newspapers. And at least a couple of times a month we make it to church.

This year I am not singing in the choir. I prefer sitting in the pews with my little ones, where Leif loves to follow along with me in the hymnal. He and Lyra both race to the altar for the children’s talk before leaving the sanctuary with their friends for music rehearsal and play.

Sunday, on Easter, our mixed spiritual experience reminds me of a quote from “Babe,” an unintentionally Buddhist movie: “That’ll do.”

Yes, it certainly does.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 21, 2019.


Approach is important when talking about vaccines

After several recent outbreaks of measles in the United States, the anti-vaccination movement has gotten renewed attention, much of which paints “anti-vaxxers” as either ignorant of basic science or sociologically indulgent, willing to coast on the high vaccination rates of others. I have found neither to be true.

Choosing whether and when to vaccinate my first child, as well as what vaccines to give him, was not simple for me. Reading everything I could find, I learned that (until 1995) the vaccination schedule in Japan, hardly a backward country, began not at birth, but at the age of 2.

With the exception of Haemophilus influenzae Type b, which is most harmful to children under the age of 5, I began vaccinating my son when he turned 1. By then, his immune system had developed and as an exclusively breast-fed baby for nine months, he benefited from my immunity.

It was the mid-’90s and I was hardly alone in seeking accurate information, since there were many legitimate concerns. The vaccine for DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), for instance, was often cited as being mixed in impure solutions. My son’s pediatrician confirmed this for me when we met to begin vaccinating him. She told me that Massachusetts, where we lived, had created its own batch of DPT, available only in that state, to avoid using the “dirty” batches found in the rest of the country.

However, the same pediatrician was incredulous when I insisted upon giving my son the killed polio vaccine because it was possible, albeit a very small risk, to contract polio from the live vaccine.

“You have to give the live vaccine in the first dose because it has to go through the gut, which is how the disease enters the body,” she told me. When I mentioned that diphtheria was also contracted through the gut but its vaccine is a shot in the arm, she had no response. I stuck to my guns and four years later, the United States abandoned the use of live polio vaccines.

In 1998, a vaccine for rotavirus was introduced and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians for all infants. It was pulled the next year when several children required surgery for intestinal blockages directly linked to the vaccine. It was eventually reintroduced in 2006, which means it took seven years of research to resolve the issues with a vaccine that for one year had been recommended for all infants in the United States.

And then there was the thimerosal controversy. A derivative of mercury, which is highly toxic in certain formulations, thimerosal was still abundantly used to preserve vaccines in the ’90s.

At the same time, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a diagnosis that was rare in my childhood, became much more common. So significant was the increase of ASD and Asperger’s (which is now seen as part of the autism spectrum) it seemed implausible to think the increase was simply due to improved methods of diagnosis.

Thus, as someone who bore children in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s not surprising to me that parents were susceptible to claims connecting thimerosal in vaccines to autism. Eventually, in 2011, an article in the British Journal of Medicine thoroughly discredited any connection between the two. But by then my firstborn was 17 years old.

He is now 25, and many issues with vaccines have been resolved. This may be due in part to the fact that a small percentage of the population began opting out, thereby putting governmental light on their concerns, whether confirmed, as with the problems of polio and rotavirus vaccines, or not, as in the suspected connection of thimerosal and autism. Consider the following:

None of today’s vaccines come with the risk of developing the disease for which the vaccine is being given, as was the case with live polio.

Since 2001, thimerosal has been removed or greatly reduced in nearly all vaccines.

With cleaner, safer vaccines, the collective benefit of herd immunity, or the resistance to and eventual demise of diseases due to widespread vaccination, deserves strong advocacy.

Medicine is not the immutable science many believe it to be. In my lifetime, hormone replacement therapy was given to nearly all menopausal women until a study linked it to breast cancer.

Valium and Prozac were hailed as effective in treating depression and mood disorders — until it was determined they were being overprescribed, often with unpleasant side effects, including addiction.

The same is now notoriously known about opioids. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, is embroiled in several lawsuits, accused of telling doctors that opioids were not addictive, when they knew the opposite to be true.

Once upon a time, doctors enjoyed broad deference. Who hasn’t had an elder relative who never questioned what her doctor told her to do or take? Today, however, more people are educated and rightfully apply critical thinking to important matters such as what to put in their bodies.

I hope that pertussis, measles and mumps can go the way of smallpox, which has been eradicated through vaccination. (The same would be true of polio, but extremists in parts of the Middle East have gone so far as to murder health workers in order to prevent the administration of the polio vaccine.)

Doing so requires convincing vaccination hesitaters that today’s vaccines are safe. And according to Sobo, “people are very ready to listen — if they’re heard. If you listen to them, and you allow them to say what they think without feeling judged, without pushing them into a corner, they’re absolutely ready.”

When I insisted upon killed polio for my firstborn, his pediatrician discounted my perspective and knowledge.

Contrast that with our current pediatrician, Stacey Memberg. Dr. Memberg is an M.D. with a Ph.D. in neuroscience who has a 14-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. Suppressed immune systems are common in people with Down syndrome, and I openly discussed my concerns with her.

“Research shows that not only do vaccines given on schedule help prevent the intended illnesses,” Dr. Memberg told me on our first visit, “they also strengthen the immune systems in people with DS.”

Speaking to me like an intelligent person and responding to my concerns with facts, Dr. Memberg easily convinced me to fully vaccinate Lyra on time. As the old saying goes, honey is far more successful in catching bees than vinegar.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 7, 2019.