Barbara Ehrenreich was an unusual teenager. While most of us at age 13 were barely figuring out how to live our lives, she set out to answer the question “Why?” That is, “Why is reality the way it is?” And this wasn’t even the ’60s, when the emerging counterculture might have offered a smorgasbord of answers. Her search was complicated by her family background: “I was born to atheism and raised in it … from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms.” There were no easy spiritual answers available to her.
Her first answer was typically adolescent. She concluded that there was no way to know that anything was real outside her own mind. “It would have helped if I’d known something about philosophy beyond its existence and the names of a few notable practitioners.”
This conclusion allowed her to withdraw from teenage angst. She was an isolated young woman with few friends. She had moments of dissociation, when “something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words.” In the middle of a vacation in the desert, she had a different experience: “The world flamed into life. … 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.” It was a vision of reality unfiltered by mind, which shocked her and caused her to put the whole quest aside.
Fast forward 50 years and Barbara Ehrenreich, a Ph.D. in physics, successful author and socialist-feminist activist, finally decided to deal with the challenge that her teenage self had abandoned. The result is “Living with a Wild God.”
The book, however, is more fascinating as memoir than spiritual exploration.
Her parents’ radicalism had been forged in the mines of Butte, Mont., but both parents suffered from alcoholism and mental illness.
As an atheist, Ehrenreich was often isolated at school and recalls one Idaho town where all the kids went to Bible study on Wednesday afternoons while she was left alone at school with a resentful teacher.
Although “Wild God” is marketed as the story of her spiritual revelation, the spiritual experience she has as a teenager would not be convincing to anyone who didn’t already believe in spiritual experiences — perhaps, as she herself felt at the time, it wasn’t anything that could really be described in words.
It would be easy to dismiss her experience as some kind of cognitive dysfunction or mental illness, an interpretation Ehrenreich argues against, pointing out the differences between what happened to her and the various possible psychological diagnoses. However, Ehrenreich herself half-believed the experience to be some sort of mental aberration until much later in her life.
Having in a sense “found” the answer to her philosophical quest, however unwelcome and incomprehensible that answer was, Ehrenreich came close to an emotional breakdown. She had repeat episodes of her experience, though not as intensely; oddly, they seemed brought on by sunlight. She was “saved,” as she says, by college — being in an institutional situation — and, even more, by going to school in Portland, Ore., where the sunny days were less frequent than in California. Her family was disintegrating, her parents divorced, and she went from the self-absorption of an adolescent to the self-absorption of a low-level scientist.
Some readers may find more spiritual inspiration in her account of her transition from being a cynical young adult in the early 1960s to a political activist with an infinite amount of empathy for the plight of the victims of the American empire, starting with her early opposition to the Vietnam War. Many spiritual traditions would consider the development of empathy, rather than the simple recognition of an underlying reality, as the most important spiritual development a seeker can achieve.
Ehrenreich, however, approaches this as a scientist. She sees the “ethical” side of religion and spirituality as definitely human-generated: There is no reason, she says, that a universal spirit would conform to the ethical ideas of a group of primates on one planet. She notes that any nonhuman consciousness would likely have its own agenda, which might or might not be beneficial to humans. But as a scientist, she says, it doesn’t make sense to ignore, as science has, the possibility of nonhuman consciousness.
A lot of resources have been put into looking for extraterrestrial signals from space; why not open an inquiry into the possibility of nonhuman consciousness? “No one is saying that the universe, as an entity, is alive, and certainly not that it has motives or desires. But the closer and more carefully we probe, the more it seethes with what looks like life – runaway processes … emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps … acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.”
Ehrenreich still doesn’t have any answers; she only offers possibilities. The rest is up to the reader.