Alone, Alone, All, All Alone, Alone on a Wild Wild Sea

Barbara Ehrenreich searches for transcendence.

Illustration by Rem Broo

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book about God arrives in devilish packaging. First the title, Living With a Wild God, intimating secular Cheryl Strayed-style reckless abandon tamed by spiritual fervor. Then the cover art: a blaze of neon yellow spikes on a black background, a lifetime of darkness illuminated by a sudden, blinding flash. One might imagine being in the presence of a certain kind of aspirational bestseller, one like Proof of Heaven, about a cocky neurosurgeon (read: slave to rationality) who wakes up from a coma certain that heaven and God exist. Only this about-face would be even more sensational. Could Barbara Ehrenreich, fourth-generation atheist, proud socialist, and mocker of brightness and smiles, have found religion?

Dream on, Billy Graham. Even in America you can’t go from hating pink ribbons to loving Jesus in the span of five years.  Yes, this book recounts a spiritual journey with all the touchstones of the saints—a shattering mystical moment in the desert, a dark night of the soul, a painful personal reckoning. Yes, it’s disorienting to read Ehrenreich write phrases such as “savaged by a flock of invisible angels.” But her testimony unfolds in jagged order and lands in an unresolved place. By the end, when she still insists, “I believe nothing,” you might feel cheated of the cheesier but more emotionally satisfying version of events.

Barbara Ehrenreich as a teenager, and today.

Photo courtesy the author, courtesy Peter Abzug.

Ehrenreich’s journey begins with a secret. For 48 years she has been holding on to a thick reddish folder, tied by string, full of musings by her teenage self. She hasn’t given the contents much thought, but she is dimly aware that they contain a description of several incidents in her young life—one, in particular “so strange, so cataclysmic” that she never spoke or wrote about it at all. The big one took place when she was asleep in a car with her brother and a friend in the cinematically named desert town of Lone Pine. In the wee hours, she wandered out onto the empty street alone, and—well, as Ehrenreich writes, “Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but the vague gurgles of surrender expressed in words like ‘ineffable’ and ‘transcendent’ ”:

The world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with the ‘All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.   

Ehrenreich tried to bring it up with intimates a couple of times, once blurting out, “I saw God,” but that felt untrue and caused people to get awkward and change the subject. She was afraid people would think she was schizophrenic or otherwise crazy, and ultimately her rational self decided these experiences had nothing to do with adult life; they belonged instead to the make-believe “realm of gods and fairies.” Until at 59, her children grown, the last of her male companions dismissed, and fresh from a deep depression, Ehrenreich decided to transcribe the whole journal, and came upon this insistent question posed by her 13-year-old self to her future, aging one: “What have you learned since you wrote this?”  

One of the great pleasures of reading Living With a Wild God is seeing older, cranky Barbara encounter younger Barbara, sometimes with pride and patience and sometimes with disdain. She is aghast, for example, that young Barbara found an Agatha Christie book to be “very exciting with an excellent plot,” but she obviously admires 16-year-old Barbara’s list of things that fascinate her, including “bees, straight lines, the ocean,” and “Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Borodin, Ravel, Debussy,” and “the line ‘alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea.’ ” Although Ehrenreich stoically resists any self-pity, the source of her unsunny temperament is clear: an alcoholic and sometimes emotionally abusive father and an abandoned and manipulative mother who committed suicide after several tries. Morose curiosity animates her youthful journals: “I have lately been considering,” teen Barbara writes, “the utter futility of the lives of almost every living thing.”

Embracing her secret allows Ehrenreich to make some wise late-life course corrections. She is as disdainful of organized religion as ever, writing that when people run up against the inexplicable they call it “ ‘God,’ as if that were some sort of explanation.” And she insists that “the idea of a cosmic loving-kindness perfusing the universe is a serious, even potentially dangerous error.” But she also seems to back away from her atheism, portraying it as just another arrogant belief system she inherited from her father, a man she sums up as the “great man-god and Shiva-like genius of self destruction” and a “habitual liar.”

In fact, what she seems to be backing away from is certainty of all kinds in the face of genuine mystery. A former chemistry student, Ehrenreich is particularly harsh on the brand of “scientific reductionism” that reduces mystical experiences to the misfiring of neurons, a completely internal event. Because half of all Americans claim to have had one, Ehrenreich scolds the scientific establishment to consider that maybe these are genuine encounters with an external consciousness, with “some mystically potent being or beings.”  Experience “requires me to keep an open mind,”  she writes, and then ends the book on a decidedly ufological note: “I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.”

Who knows, maybe It is? But before we fund the NIH panel, I’d like to propose an alternative arrangement for the events of Ehrenreich’s life. Mystical experiences are indeed common and widely accepted. You can read about them in any book on the life of the saints; William James included a chapter on them in The Varieties of Religious Experience. But a mature mystic understands that they are a spiritual error, even a potentially dangerous one. There is a famous story of a Buddhist monk who encounters one of his acolytes looking dazed, drained, and also ecstatic. The acolyte tells him he’s just been consumed by a flame. (There is almost always a flame in such stories!) The senior monk looks sad and replies, “I’m sorry.” His worry is that the acolyte will now spend his life agonizing over that moment of ecstasy and find the daily life of a monk unbearably dull by comparison—that he will become, in other words, the monk’s version of a drug addict, constantly looking for his next high. It’s critical to have gone to the mountaintop, and to have seen the Promised Land. But a true saint knows that the hard part is coming back down to the here and now, to the “few years in the second half of the 20th century,” as Martin Luther King put it.

Ehrenreich believes that she foolishly abandoned her teenage quest to enter the world of other people, but I would argue that she never abandoned it at all. Her illuminating experience wasn’t really a secret; it was the animating force of her life, even if she never spoke about it. Where else would Ehrenreich have gotten the sense that she had a special mission, that her assigned task was to “hold the world together”?  To her credit, Ehrenreich did not spend her life chasing and wondering about the flame. She spent it in the mundane tasks of socialist committee meetings, union rallies, and feminist marches, in the less intoxicating but more fruitful project of nickel-and-diming the world into social justice. Thank God.

Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich. Twelve.

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