Devotion by Dani Shapiro

“The whole world is a lesson in what’s true. The whole world is a lesson—and the lesson keeps changing.”

I’ve had Devotion on my Kindle for several years and only just read it. But, as usual, the universe made sure the timing was perfect.

This is Shapiro’s memoir on finding and understanding her faith. She grew up Jewish with a devout father and an ambivalent mother. She shrugged off her Judaism as she went out to discover the world on her own. But when she faced a significant crisis with her infant son and was close enough to the towers to feel the earth shake on 9/11, she began to feel unshakable worries and stresses.

With trepidation, she began to search for the truth in her late-thirties. Already a practiced yogi, she dug deeper into that practice and began exploring Buddhist principles. She found a Jewish community with people who also questioned the Torah and continued to learn more about the sacred rituals of her ancestors. She opened herself to wherever her studies might take her.

There were so many passages that resonated with me.

“They had certainty. I would always have doubt. They had one set of rules and rituals; one rabbi after the next referred to Torah-based Judaism. They lived—literally—by the book. I lived by an eclectic array of rituals, by many different books. They had continued on the path set by my grandparents, digging deeper as they went. And I—Michael was right—I had chosen life on the outside. I was an outsider.”

This makes me think of the community where I grew up. My family and nearly everyone I know is a Christian and seems to have unwavering faith. In college, like Shapiro, I shrugged off that old life and became quite rigid about being a nonbeliever. That became my identity – an outsider.

It irked me that at times, people believed that the Bible should be taken literally. And then those same people believed that other parts were to be interpreted figuratively. I wanted to know who the hell chose how the different parts were supposed to be perceived.

I was irritated by how some people would sit idly by and let opportunities pass them because they believed it would happen if God wanted it to. I saw this as people taking no personal responsibility for their own wishes, dreams, and desires. It was the easy road out and I took a lot of pride in knowing that I’d never taken the easy road. Narcissism, anyone?

I had a ton of reasons that were so important to me then and I can’t even remember them all now. But a few months ago, I was thinking about the challenges with my middle child as I was cleaning and I froze on the stairs. If I still identified as a Christian, would this be easier? Would I be able to tell myself that my child is a gift from God and I would never be given more than I can handle? Would I say that God is teaching me how to work through my worst tendencies by giving me this sacred gift?

Yes, I think that’s what I would be telling myself.

Would it help get me through some of the most difficult moments? Yes. I think it would.

Yet, I find it so difficult to believe in the Christian God that I was taught to believe in. I don’t even think it’s possible. Believing in a God or some sort of higher power would make so many things more bearable; I know that from experience. I’ve been looking for ways to explore this more – both through books and through writing. But how do you avoid being one giant trope? Doing something that has been done a million and three times with no real result? I’m in my mid-thirties – shouldn’t I have already figured this out? And how do you make something like this matter and ensure that it’s not endless navel-gazing juvenile babble?

I think Dani Shapiro has done just that in Devotion. It felt earnest, heartfelt, and true. She made this seem like a natural part of life, which I appreciated. And it made me realize that more of us are experiencing these sorts of doubts throughout all stages of our lives. Maybe some more than others, but at some point — most people have to reckon with how they’ve lived their lives. I want mine to be a search for meaning, for understanding, and for peace.

In the book, Shapiro describes something called metta meditation, which is about directing well-wishes to ourselves and others. The words are simple yet strong: May we be safe. May we be happy. May we have strength. And may we live with ease. This seems like a good place to start.

“Buddhist teachers often use the word cultivation. They speak of cultivating awareness. Of cultivating a practice. The minutes add up, then the days, weeks, months, years. Something takes root, and invisibly flowers.”


5 thoughts on “Devotion by Dani Shapiro

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    1. It was such a good book!! I really loved the quote about cultivation too. It made it seem like all of the baby steps will add up to something one day!


  1. It’s been about 9 years since I read this but you’re making me want to reread it. I remember feeling blown away by it, like someone had finally given words to so many of the rambling thoughts in my head. I wish you all good things on your spiritual journey! In my experience there have never been any easy answers and about a zillion questions.

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