In 1987 Christopher Reeve was riding the crest of his fame as star of the Superman movies. But his personal life was in a downward spiral. He had just returned to New York after separating from his partner, British actress Gae Exton, and their two young children, who remained in London. Reeve had periodically sought some form of spirituality, including an encounter with Scientology that ended negatively twenty years earlier. In this memoir, Reeve traces other steps on his spiritual journey, including the one that helped him cope with his paralysis.
Flipping through my mail, I came across a brochure for "Loving Relationships Training" [LRT]. I gathered from the material that their mission was to help people find happiness by learning to love anyone and everyone we meet on life's path. Weekend seminars, open to newcomers and graduates alike, were held several times a year in cities around the world. The next one in New York was only two weeks away. I decided that was more than a coincidence; maybe I was meant to find out about this source of spiritual healing at one of the lowest points of my life.
At the registrar's desk I filled out forms and handed over a check for $1500. Then I found myself in one of the ballrooms of the hotel, seated among three hundred others waiting patiently for the seminar to begin. I looked around and saw apparently normal people of all ages and descriptions. At least no one seemed tense or semirobotic, a marked contrast to many of the Scientologists in 1975.
Soon a side door opened and the leaders joined us-a man and a woman in their early forties, both fit and attractive in a well-tailored suit and a colorful designer dress. There were no workbooks, no videos, no E-Meters or personality tests. They simply began talking, taking turns as they addressed us. Although they must have delivered the same message many times before, they didn't sound rehearsed and I didn't feel that I was attending a lecture.
They began by going into more detail about LRT as a basis for living, and then explained how we would spend much of the weekend in practical application. The premise was simple: All human beings are equal and equally worthy of loving or being loved. All our relationships must be informed by love, whether inside the family, among friends, or even in the fleeting moments as we pass others on the street.
The first step, which we were asked to take on Saturday morning, was to declare a statute of limitations on damage done to us by our parents. Now we used notebooks, putting it in writing that the statute had expired. From this day forward we agreed individually and collectively to forgive any grievances still held against them. Next we made a list of all the people who immediately came to mind as enemies, detractors, rivals, and anyone we had ever envied or knowingly deceived. We were given only ten minutes to think of names and write them down, which was probably a good idea because most of us could have gone on for hours.
We listened intently as the man who was one of the two leaders of the seminar described the mind-blowing spiritual experience of Harmonic Convergence, which, according to Mayan prophecies, marked the beginning of a new age of universal peace. Then he moved on to the next step for LRT graduates who were serious about going further: rebirthing in a hot tub.
Sadly, at that point they lost me. Rebirthing was conducted by two certified rebirthers working with one LRT graduate in someone's home-presumably a rebirther who could afford a New York apartment with a hot tub. The theory was that when most of us were born it was a highly traumatic experience: we emerged from the dark comfort of the womb to be greeted by harsh lights, frightening creatures in masks, and a sudden, violent slap on the back. Apparently this first impression of the world is so overwhelming that we spend our lifetime crippled by fear and anger. The sheer effort of coping with those feelings or struggling to deny them prevents us from becoming the free, loving, and fulfilled people that we deserve to be. Rebirthing sessions in the hot tub are meant first to re-create our actual experience of being born in this lifetime. Then the student and the rebirthers work together to replace that horrific scenario with its exact opposite. Curled up in the fetal position in the moments before birth, we emerge to find ourselves immersed in soothing warm water and cradled by loving arms. The first sounds we hear are gentle music and soft voices welcoming us into the world.
Needless to say, the three rebirthings I had were extremely pleasant, almost to the point of sensory overload. The problem was that it seemed obvious what was expected of me. I tried my hardest to place myself once again inside my mother's womb, but in spite of a long career as an actor with a vivid imagination, I couldn't do it. The rebirthers gave me more love and support than any baby could ever hope for and were quite emotional about my "breakthrough." I knew it would be downright cruel to tell them I was faking it. They urged me to be rebirthed at least twice a month (at $200 a pop) to reaffirm my innocence and to prevent negativity from working its way back into my life. I assured them I would give it serious thought, but after the third session in the hot tub I never contacted them again.
|"I had broken my neck and become paralyzed, possibly forever, but still hadn't found God."
The reason I disengaged from LRT was much the same as the reason I disavowed Scientology: I don't believe in instant fixes. I don't believe we can write an affirmation to forgive our parents or others who have wronged us and consider it done. I don't believe we can write a new script for our lives by simulating a pleasant birth.
I think that if we want to be true to ourselves, finding answers to the most important questions of life is a process. The time it takes to make genuine discoveries and find true beliefs varies with every individual.
For most of my life faith was a very difficult concept. My first act of faith was not a religious one; it happened when Dana and I were married. I had always been afraid of marriage, perhaps because there had been a long history of failures for many generations in my family. But on a spring day in 1992, next to a picture window overlooking the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts, I repeated the vows because somehow I absolutely believed that they were true. I couldn't know or define our future ahead of time; I acted on faith. It was an enormous step forward.
Three years later I lost the use of my entire body. My identity and self-esteem had always been based in the physical world. I cherished health, athletics, travel, and adventure. At first I couldn't imagine living without those things. In an instant, paralysis created an indescribable void. Family, friends, and well-wishers from around the world assured me that prayers and my faith in God would comfort me. I tried to pray but I didn't feel any better, nor did I make any kind of connection with God. I wondered what was wrong with me: I had broken my neck and become paralyzed, possibly forever, but still hadn't found God.
Finally I decided to stop beating myself up. I wasn't in school anymore and I didn't have to get good grades in religious studies. When reporters continued to ask me about the importance of religion in my life I began to answer by saying that I'm not sure if there is a God, but I try to behave as if He is watching.
Gradually I have come to believe that spirituality is found in the way we live our daily lives. It means spending time thinking about others. It's not so hard to imagine that there is some kind of higher power. We don't have to know what form it takes or exactly where it exists; just to honor it and try to live by it is enough. Because we are human we will often fail, but at least we know that we do not deserve to be punished. That knowledge makes us safe and willing to try again.
As these thoughts unfolded in the process of learning to live my new life, I had no idea I was become a Unitarian.
Dana and I were talking after church not too long ago, reflecting on the service and religion in general. I told her that what I liked about Unitarian Universalism is that you are not presumed guilty when you walk in the door. God isn't a warrior or a terrifying father figure who will embrace you in his arms but take you out to the woodshed in an instant if you misbehave. This God understands that many of us don't know where He lives or even how to spell his name. He knows that it isn't easy for us to love ourselves, our families, or even our neighbors, let alone the rest of humanity. Instead He asks us just to do our best, trusting our innate ability to discern the truth. As Abraham Lincoln said, "When I do good I feel good. When I do bad I feel bad. And that's my religion."