My failed mission to find God — and what I found instead | Anjali Kumar

A few years ago, I set out on a mission to find God. Now, I’m going to tell you
right up front that I failed, which, as a lawyer, is a really hard thing for me to admit. But on that failed journey, a lot of what I found was enlightening. And one thing in particular
gave me a lot of hope. It has to do with the magnitude
and significance of our differences. So, I was raised in America
by Indian parents — culturally Hindu, but practicing a strict and relatively
unknown religion outside of India called Jainism. To give you an idea
of just how minority that makes me: people from India represent
roughly one percent of the US population; Hindus, about 0.7 percent; Jains, at most .00046 percent. To put that in context: more people visit the Vermont
Teddy Bear Factory each year than are followers
of the Jain religion in America. To add to my minority mix,
my parents then decided, “What a great idea!
Let’s send her to Catholic school” — (Laughter) where my sister and I
were the only non-white, non-Catholic students
in the entire school. At the Infant Jesus of Prague School
in Flossmoor, Illinois — yes, that’s really what it was called — we were taught to believe
that there is a single Supreme Being who is responsible for everything, the whole shebang, from the creation of the Universe
to moral shepherding to eternal life. But at home, I was being taught something
entirely different. Followers of the Jain religion don’t believe in a single Supreme Being or even a team of Supreme Beings. Instead, we’re taught that God manifests as the perfection of each of us
as individuals, and that we’re actually
spending our entire lives striving to remove the bad karmas that stand in the way of us
becoming our own godlike, perfect selves. On top of that, one of the core
principles of Jainism is something called “non-absolutism.” Non-absolutists believe
that no single person can hold ownership or knowledge
of absolute truth, even when it comes to religious beliefs. Good luck testing that concept out on the priests and nuns
in your Catholic school. (Laughter) No wonder I was confused and hyperaware of how different
I was from my peers. Cut to 20-something years later, and I found myself to be
a highly spiritual person, but I was floundering. I was spiritually homeless. I came to learn that I was a “None,” which isn’t an acronym
or a clever play on words, nor is it one of these. It’s simply the painfully uninspired name given to everyone
who checks off the box “none” when Pew Research asks them
about their religious affiliation. (Laughter) Now, a couple of interesting
things about Nones are: there are a lot of us, and we skew young. In 2014, there were over 56 million
religiously unaffiliated Nones in the United States. And Nones account
for over one-third of adults between the ages of 18 to 33. But the most interesting thing
to me about Nones is that we’re often spiritual. In fact, 68 percent of us believe,
with some degree of certainty, that there is a God. We’re just not sure who it is. (Laughter) So the first takeaway for me when I realized I was a None
and had found that information out was that I wasn’t alone. I was finally part of a group in America that had a lot of members, which felt really reassuring. But then the second,
not-so-reassuring takeaway was that, oh, man, there are a lot of us. That can’t be good, because if a lot of highly spiritual
people are currently godless, maybe finding God is not going to be
as easy as I had originally hoped. So that is when I decided
that on my spiritual journey, I was going to avoid the obvious places and skip the big-box religions altogether and instead venture out
into the spiritual fringe of mediums and faith healers and godmen. But remember, I’m a non-absolutist, which means I was pretty inclined
to keep a fairly open mind, which turned out to be a good thing, because I went to a witch’s potluck dinner at the LGBT Center in New York City, where I befriended two witches; drank a five-gallon jerrican
full of volcanic water with a shaman in Peru; got a hug from a saint
in the convention center — she smelled really nice — (Laughter) chanted for hours in a smoke-filled,
heat-infused sweat lodge on the beaches of Mexico; worked with a tequila-drinking medium
to convene with the dead, who oddly included both
my deceased mother-in-law and the deceased manager
of the hip-hop group The Roots. (Laughter) Yeah, my mother-in-law told me
she was really happy her son had chosen me for his wife. Duh! But — (Laughter) Yeah. But the manager of The Roots said that maybe I should cut back
on all the pasta I was eating. I think we can all agree that it was lucky for my husband
that it wasn’t his dead mother who suggested I lay off carbs. (Laughter) I also joined a laughing yoga group
out of South Africa; witnessed a woman have
a 45-minute orgasm — I am not making this up — as she tapped into
the energy of the universe — I think I’m going to go back there — (Laughter) called God from a phone booth
in the Nevada desert at Burning Man, wearing a unitard and ski goggles; and I had an old Indian guy
lie on top of me, and no, he wasn’t my husband. This was a perfect stranger named Paramji, and he was chanting into my chakras as he tapped into the energy forces
of the Universe to heal my “yoni,” which is a Sanskrit word for “vagina.” (Laughter) I was going to have a slide here, but a few people suggested that a slide of my yoni
at TED — even TEDWomen — not the best idea. (Laughter) Very early in my quest, I also went to see the Brazilian
faith healer John of God at his compound down in Brazil. Now, John of God is considered
a full-trance medium, which basically means
he can talk to dead people. But in his case, he claims
to channel a very specific group of dead saints and doctors in order to heal
whatever’s wrong with you. And although John of God does
not have a medical degree or even a high school diploma, he actually performs surgery — the real kind, with a scalpel, but no anesthesia. Yeah, I don’t know. He also offers invisible surgery,
where there is no cutting, and surrogate surgery, where he supposedly can treat somebody
who is thousands of miles away by performing a procedure on a loved one. Now, when you go to visit John of God, there are all kinds
of rules and regulations. It’s a whole complicated thing, but the bottom line is that
you can visit John of God and present him with three things
that you would like fixed, and he will set the dead saints
and doctors to work on your behalf to get the job done. (Laughter) Now, before you snicker, consider that, at least according to his website, over eight million people — including Oprah, the Goddess of Daytime TV — have gone to see John of God, and I was pre-wired to keep an open mind. But to be honest, the whole thing for me
was kind of weird and inconclusive, and in the end, I flew home, even more confused
than I already started out. But that doesn’t mean
I came home empty-handed. In the weeks leading up
to my trip to Brazil, I mentioned my upcoming plans
to some friends and to a couple of colleagues at Google, where I was a lawyer at the time. And I might have mentioned it
to a couple more people because I’m chatty, including my neighbor, the guy who works at the local
coffee shop I go to each morning, the checkout lady at Whole Foods and a stranger who sat
next to me on the subway. I told each of them where I was going and why, and I offered to carry three wishes
of theirs down to Brazil, explaining that anyone going
to see John of God could act as a proxy for others and save them the trip. And to my surprise, my in-box overflowed. Friends told friends who told friends, and those friends
apparently told more friends, other strangers
and the guys at their coffee shops, until it seemed that days
before I left for Brazil that there was no one who did not
have my email address. And at the time, all I could conclude
was that I had offered too much to too many. But when I actually reread
those messages a few years later, I noticed something completely different. Those emails actually shared
three commonalities, the first of which was rather curious. Almost everyone sent me meticulous details
about how they could be reached. I had told them,
or their friends had told them, that along with the list
of the three things they wanted fixed, I needed their photo, their name
and their date of birth. But they gave me full addresses, with,
like, apartment numbers and zip codes, as if John of God was going
to stop by their house and see them in person
or send along a package. It was as if, in the highly unlikely event
that their wishes were granted by John of God, they just wanted to make sure
that they weren’t delivered to the wrong person or the wrong address. Even if they didn’t believe, they were hedging their bets. The second commonality
was just as curious, but far more humbling. Virtually everyone — the stranger on the subway, the guy at the coffee shop, the lawyer down the hall, the Jew, the atheist,
the Muslim, the devout Catholic — all asked for essentially
the same three things. OK, there were a couple of outliers,
and yes, a few people asked for cash. But when I eliminated what were
ultimately a handful of anomalies, the similarities were staggering. Almost every single person first asked for good health
for themselves and their families. Almost universally, they next asked for happiness and then love, in that order: health, happiness, love. Sometimes they asked for a specific
health issue to be fixed, but more often than not, they just
asked for good health in general. When it came to happiness, they each phrased it slightly differently, but they all asked for the same
specific subtype of happiness, too — the kind of happiness that sinks in and sets down roots in your soul; the kind of happiness
that could sustain us, even if we were to lose
absolutely everything else. And for love, they all asked for the kind
of romantic love, the soul mate that we read about
in epic romantic novels, the kind of love that will stay with us
till the end of our days. Sorry, that’s my husband. Crap! Now I forgot my place. (Laughter) (Applause) So by and large, all of these friends and strangers, regardless of their background,
race or religion, all asked for the same things, and they were the same things
that I really wanted, the simplified version
of the basic human needs identified by social scientists
like Abraham Maslow and Manfred Max-Neef. No one asked for answers
to the big existential questions or for proof of God or the meaning of life
like I had set out to find. They didn’t even ask for an end
to war or global hunger. Even when they could have asked
for absolutely anything, they all asked for health,
happiness and love. So now those emails had
a third commonality as well. Each of them ended in the exact same way. Instead of thanking me for carting
their wishes all the way to Brazil, everyone said, “Please don’t tell anyone.” So I decided to tell everyone — (Laughter) right here on this stage, not because I’m untrustworthy, but because the fact
that we have so much in common feels especially important for us
all to hear, especially now, when so many of the world’s problems seem to be because we keep focusing
on the things that make us different, not on what binds us together. And look — I am the first to admit
that I am not a statistician, and that the data I presented to you
that I just accumulated in my in-box is more anecdotal than scientific,
more qualitative than quantitative. It is, as anyone who works
with data would tell you, hardly a statistically significant
or demographically balanced sample. But nonetheless, I find myself
thinking about those emails every time I reflect back
on the bias and prejudice that I’ve faced in my life, or when there’s another hate crime
or a senseless tragedy that underscores the disheartening sense that our differences
might be insurmountable. I then remind myself that I have evidence that the humbling, unifying commonality of our humanity is that, even when presented
with the opportunity to ask for anything at all, most of us want the same things, and that this is true
no matter who we are, what name we call our god, or which religion, if any, we call home. I then also note that apparently some of us
want these things so badly that we would email a None, a spiritually confused None like me — some might say otherwise
confused as well — and that we would seek out this stranger
and email her our deepest wishes, just in case there is
the remote possibility that they might be granted
by someone who is not a god, much less our god, someone who is not even
a member of our chosen religion, someone who, when you
look at him on paper, seems like an unlikely
candidate to deliver. And so now, when I reflect back on my spiritual quest, even though I did not find God, I found a home in this: even today, in a world
fractured by religious, ethnic, political, philosophical,
and racial divides, even with all of our obvious differences, at the end of the day, and the most fundamental level, we are all the same. Thank you. (Applause)


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