I am awed and I am touched by belief – what it does for people, and what they are willing to do for it. While I struggle with the manifestations or decrees of faith, I am nevertheless aware that belief is as common a thing as are toes; it has been with us as long as we’ve been human, and our own individual expressions of life are as rapt with superstition and belief and dogma as are any minor saint’s. Even if you are atheist. Even if you forget. And while I rebel against the politicization of faith, the injustice and violence and indifference that crops up alongside it, I can’t deny that I have been attracted and called to the stuff as strongly as I have been repulsed. I find something beautiful in the Sisters of Quito, the unbounded love evidenced between human folk, and the dawning of morning.
Still, my relationship to ‘higher power’ is primarily defined by the word ‘doubt’.
I have a tendency to get all wrapped up in my own mind and feelings, forgetting the world outside. There may be nothing inherently wrong in this; the way the human mind perceives, the individual lifestory unfolds, is through the context of an “I”. I cannot help but interpret and understand through my own lens. For this reason alone, getting out into the world is good for me. I have been laid up in my house for the last three days, along with four other family members, one a toddler, with a brand of stomach flu that makes everything I see waver in a dance of nausea. My bones hurt and the marrow of my bones hurts. I finally went to a meeting this morning with a close group of women; one shared that her eight year old son tried to kill himself last night, around 7 pm.
To learn of a grief so sudden, so terrifying, so incomplete happening in the minute by minute rundown of a friend’s life instantly chastised me for the self-pity I’ve been feeling for a bit of bile and clammy skin.
I don’t know when I began to doubt god. It was so long ago it’s woven into the fabric of learning, and language, and identity. I’m sure it had something to do with people, and recognizing that religion is made by people. Being made by people, it’s as prone to error, judgment, time, and corruption as people are. At some point, though, even beyond churches, god seemed to become pathetic; I can see natural laws, and the greatness and ineffibility of the cosmos, but I see no reason, other than human reason, to impute things like justice and benevolence and meaning into the void. The void is barren, indifferent, and I am meaningless in it. We are the ones who need god, not god us.
And there is a fine, silvery line there, that can either be faith, or doubt. Life, or suicide.
A number of the women in my group spoke of their own adolescent children, or friends of friends, who had dealt with suicide attempts. First of all, suicide attempts and depression among teens (granted, this boy is eight) are not all that uncommon. Secondly, we’re a group of drunks: suicide attempts probably rank higher in alcoholic families. I could not relate that kind of story, the story of the mother. But I could, and did, relate my story of being a suicidal child.
There are different kinds of doubt. Two. The first is doubt of the other. Of god, or the religion, or the partner, or the cause. The second is doubt of the self. They are distinct. But doubt is cloudy. Once it sets in, it has a tendency to cloud, like breath on glass, everything else. Doubt yourself, and you begin to doubt god. Doubt god, and you will eventually lose every reason to believe in your self.
As a child, I came to doubt myself. I didn’t doubt in the goodness of life. I believed in love. And laughter. A history. And meaningful, purposeful lives. I believed in god, and justice, and right and wrong. I simply didn’t believe those things would ever have room for me, that I somehow stained them. I believed those things were, but that I would never feel them, not without faking. I even believed that suicide, loosely speaking, was wrong. But in the sum of things, it seemed less wrong than the alternative.
My doubt has not left me. It is still the predominant fact of my relationship to ‘faith’, and a big hunk of my self-esteem. But in sobriety, my doubt has changed. I’ve learned to hang on to it. I’ve learned to value it and listen to it. And I’ve learned that it may be the most trustworthy thing that I have. I don’t have Jesus, or a feeling of karma, or a personal god who cares. But I do have a frightful depth of doubt.
Throw your wishes down a wishing well. If you don’t hear back, no echo, no splash, no resonance, that doesn’t do a damn thing to take away from the strength of the wish.
We don’t believe because we know, I mean; we know because we believe.
The sisters painting the rapture in Quito and the prayers I hear rising out of church basements strike me with the same chord. It isn’t a chord of faith, but of doubt, of knowing we don’t know and being willing to show up and learn. Those souls shouting bright and visible, the palpable yearning expressed as prayer or song, that isn’t about knowing, but of wanting.
I stopped being suicidal when I sobered up. I stopped because I realized that I didn’t know who I was. I’d thought I knew. But I didn’t know what I was capable of. I didn’t – don’t – know how much good or evil I can do. I didn’t – don’t – know what I’m capable of feeling until I open myself up to feeling.
My friend, this mother, sat bravely. She sat very still, and seemed smaller than she normally does. I was impressed at her ability to even show up. Impressed at her candor. Impressed that she talked her way through shame, fear, worry. She spoke of knowing, knowing how prone she was to look back at all the things she could have done or should have done, looking for ‘reasons’ or what she’s done wrong; of knowing how easily she slips into worry and terror, afraid that every moment of her future will be consumed with fear for her son’s life; knowing that that kind of fear and anxiety will ultimately cloud her vision, and make her unable to see who her son really is; she spoke of letting go, repeatedly, of setting her intention to be present; to be as open, and aware, and available to her son’s experience, his life, as she possibly can be.
Most of what she said, though, was “I don’t know”.
Ultimately, ‘religion’ is a story. I believe in story. Stories shape how we think about the world, ourselves, and our place in it. That can be as simple as ‘everything happens for a reason’ or as sharp as ‘how come nothing ever works out for me?’. Stories can be constructive or destructive. Stories need to change. The stories we have, our traditions, have been passed down over millenia. They have changed, even if we don’t admit it. And they must be open to change to be relevant, a thing fundamentalism can rigidify and topple for us, putting carts before horses and all of that. To believe the story is fact and unchangeable – as I believed myself a good suicide as a kid – is to cripple the experience of life and damn us all to hell. The argument for fundamentalism says that the rules and stories are sacred, they are infallible, they are changeless and must not be changed. The argument against this is that it is change and infinity that makes them sacred; it is the creation, embodiment, and personal attachment that makes a thing a sacrifice, that makes the mundane sacred; it is in acknowledging and sitting with doubt, with the possibility out there in the darkness, that is the only way to find connection to the lives we call our own.
The stories may form comfort or raise the hair on the back of our neck. They verify the heart. They tell us and tell on us. Stories are insight. Into the foggy glass. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the insight, we may be afraid. We may doubt. But if we’re willing to accept that self-knowledge isn’t always comfortable, to keep going, our stories become stronger and more self-assured.
At its core, belief concerns the relationship of the individual self to God, beyond the standard rituals of a religious institution. It’s an attempt to achieve a direct personal connection with the divine. Ultimately, the saints I see in cloisters and detox centers are saints not because of their affiliation, but because something in their darkness makes them bold and singular, strange and beautiful. And ultimately, I am approximately as strange, conventional, fearful, susceptible, and pathetic as the next person. I don’t know who I am. My girlfriend doesn’t know who she is, either. Mother of a living son? A resurrected son? A suicide? Who will she be, and who is she right now? But we both know we are deeper, stronger, more than we used to believe. We both know there are depths in us unexplored, things good and bad. And we both know doubt is no escape from reverence, but sometimes the very place reverence has to start.