Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Seeking The Faith

In the grand scheme of things, having ALS means very little to me. It is simply the mechanism by which my body will most likely die, something which is going to happen sooner or later anyway. To be sure, living with ALS is not insignificant. But relative to my existence, it’s only a detail. What keeps me awake at night is what comes next, what will happen when my body finally surrenders. And I’m terrified the answer might turn out to be: nothing.

I have avoided this topic in my writing, in my life, for too long. It is at the core of what I think about every day. Does God exist? Why am I here? Does my life have meaning? Is there life after death? These questions have plagued me since I was very young. I feel like a paradox. Even though I’m a skeptic about God, I simply cannot wrap my brain around the notion that I could cease to exist when I die. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism for self-preservation. Or perhaps it’s an innate sense of a life after this one, of a soul within me that will go on.

For all my heady pondering, I haven’t actively done much to develop my faith and spirituality in the past several years. Easier to focus on daily tasks and avoid the stress of existential dilemmas. I kept telling myself I had years to figure it all out, that I’d do it when I was sitting around a nursing home with time to spare. I no longer have that luxury.

My faith has oscillated a great deal. I was raised in Baptist and Lutheran churches. No doubt my personality and moral values were shaped by those experiences. I reached the zenith of my faith during my junior year of high school after I attended a retreat called “Teens Encounter Christ." It was a life-changing experience. My belief in God was strong and I thought it would stay that way. But it faded. For my part, I didn’t foster the relationship very well. Yet I always felt as though God didn’t work hard enough either. Maybe I was just blind to the messages.

Envy is considered by many religions to be a sin. If so, I am as guilty as any human being alive. I am enormously jealous of those with faith. I desperately want – I need – the foundation that belief in God can provide. I stress about it every day, to the point of depression. A strong faith would make the weight of my dying virtually disappear. Sure I’d still be sad and frustrated, but I could live in peace knowing that my life had value, meaning, and purpose.

I recognize that questions can be healthy. I’m not an advocate of blind faith. But I value the notion of faith so much that I’m hesitant to discuss my skepticism with anyone. I don’t want to spread any doubt, and frankly, I get scared of what others will think of me. I’m most familiar with Christianity, but suffice it to say that I’m open-minded to aspects of all the major religions. Some might call it sacrilege, but I really don’t care much about the details. Ultimately I want to know the truth of course, but I’d take belief even if doesn’t turn out to be true. Kind of like I’d love to believe that my ALS will stop progressing. Even if it doesn’t, my daily worry would be reduced dramatically.

I am not content being a skeptic. I may have put my search on hold for awhile, but my quest has a renewed sense of passion. And urgency. Ironically, I believe we can’t really know the entire truth – not like we’d prefer to while on earth anyway – and that makes this life wonderful and precious.

So maybe my illness is an opportunity to find some inner peace. A peace I may not have found otherwise. Even if I never make up my mind once and for all, I’m hopeful you and I will meet again in the afterlife, in heaven, and all our earthbound worries will be long forgotten.


Vanessa said...

Dear Scott,

Wow...It's not often that you read such an honest piece of writing...especially concerning religion. I tucked my kids in bed and decided to get back on the computer tonight in order to write to you...to share with you my thoughts...not to preach...but to say that I understand how you are feeling...and maybe my words may help a little.

As you may recall, I have added comments on several occasions, but I wanted to let you know that I was the "anonymous" writer when I chose to tell you of my strange but wonderful vision. I guess I hesitated to say my name because I needed to tell the story exactly and part of it included the fact that I am Moslem, a faith that is often in the headlines today in such negative ways. I know your comment page is designed for comments, and not long essays, and I'll try to keep mine brief in the future, but if I may explain a little about my experience, perhaps it may help.

I was born in the Bible belt of Texas...all of my dear grandparents were staunch Baptists. Mt parents, both teachers, joined the Presbyterian church and we had a very active, happy connection with the church all through my childhood. In high school, I took pride in my faith and the fact that we seemed a little more tolerant than some churches in town...holding discussions with youth from the Jewish tabernacle down the street, etc. I remember though one night during a family trip, I woke up and realized that since I was nearing adulthood, I should question if my faith was my own...did I really believe in God. It was a night that I felt panic and cried, realizing for the first time that having a strong faith wasn't easy. I questioned the existence of God and it terrified me to think that there was nothing I could believe in. I went to bed exhausted, telling myself to try to trust that there must be, since my parents believed.

My first year in college I visited various denominations and faiths, but felt the most comfortable in the Presbyterian church. When I met my husband, an African student from Gambia, we dated for several years. I knew he was Moslem, but I knew very little about Islam. There was no mosque and he found it difficult to practice his faith...It was in our senior year when I saw him pray for the first time, in Arabic, on his special rug. It all looked so strange, but when he finished he turned to me and said, "Don't worry...my God is your God."

When he finished his master's in economics, he decided to return to Gambia. He proposed and since I was still in school, we waited 9 months before I joined him. Arriving in Gambia was a truly eye-opening experience for me. I saw extreme poverty, and yet the people were rich with a quiet confidence and reserve that I respected so much. People would stop and do their 5 prayers...so devout in their faith, but not fanatical as in some parts of the Islamic world. About 20% of Gambians are Christian and both faiths would celebrate the religious holidays together...such tolerance rarely seen these days. I could have joined a church but I decided that if we were to start a family that it might be more unifying if I joined my husband's faith since I also believed it originated from the same God.

Being a mixed couple,(this was back in the 70s) I was also impressed with the fact that Gambians treated us with such warmth and acceptance...so different than the atmosphere in Texas. When we returned to Texas every couple of years to visit my family, I often heard comments from neighbors and relatives, that salvation only occurs through Christ. These people never met my sweet elderly mother-in-law, who couldn't speak English, but would massage your arm when you greet her...or my husband's dear uncle, who fought in Burma in WWII, speaks perfect English, and attends the mosque even if he feels a little sick. I couldn't fathom a God who would condemn all of those gentle Gambians, much less all the millions in the world who are not Christian, to hell because they will not call Jesus "God".

Scott, I am not a devout Moslem...I have always found it hard to pray the way it is expected, especially here in busy America...There are aspects of Islam that I question, especially concerning the treatment of women, although I never felt mistreated in any way...but I have found comfort in the faith that I try to practice. In the Koran it talks about the miraculous birth and life of the great teacher and prophet, Jesus. It reveres Moses and Abraham and I was always impressed with the fact that the prophet Mohamed did not want his followers to ever think he was divine. Some may say that I am simply mixed up. I still have a love and respect for the Christian faith...we've always put up a Christmas tree, even during our 20 years in Gambia, and I visit my mother's church occasionally. But I believe that God or Allah is like a big tree over Earth. When He senses the need for intervention He sends down a "branch" to touch troubled areas. I personally believe that probably all faiths have God's blessing somehow...Buddism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, New Age etc....but people get in the way sometimes and create misconceptions and narrowminded views.

But all of this may not help the very personal struggle you are having...to believe or not.

I once told a very dear friend, who also had similar doubts about the existence of God, to try to believe in this way: look at the power of an ocean wave....look at the beauty and symmetry when you slice an orange in half...look at the birth of a baby....I believe there HAS to be some wisdom behind those things...a loving, beautiful power beyond our imaginations.

And finally, when I pray, I sometimes feel the need to ask God to let me feel his presence...to help me believe. So I remain still and quiet....and when I do, I can usually sense a very real, but fleeting feeling pass over me from behind...It's hard to describe...and some may say that it is all in my imagination...but I know it is not me...I believe that it is God somehow...never speaking...just a fleeting but powerful sensation of goodness and love. I always feel emotional when it happens and understand why it probably needs to be fleeting.

Once, both of our daughters had high fevers and I found it hard to go to bed, not wanting to leave their room, worried that they might have malaria. My husband told me that they would not be alone, that God would be there to watch over them. It is a belief in Gambia that Allah floats over the Earth at all times, but that at 3 am He will float closer to that part of Earth than at other times. Many Gambians will get up at that time to do solitary prayers. I've always liked that image...of God passing closely over us each night.

Well Scott, it's hard to know what to say. I wish I could say, "Do this and do that" but I know believing is such a personal thing. I've known several good, intelligent people who were agnostic, but I've also known many wise people who believed. I recently read that Thomas Jefferson was a religious man and attended church services, but he did not believe in the divinity of Christ. I hesitate to say that Christ was not divine. I believe that we are all children of God somehow and I believe Jesus was a sincere man who loved God, a wonderful teacher and prophet. So I have questions about Jesus...but in my heart I can sense that God exists and that keeps me going.

As I once wrote, I keep having ALS symptoms but my doctors are yet to diagnose it. They gave me a prescription for Rilutek but still hestitate to diagnose...pretty crazy huh! They call it polyneuropathy right now. I'll not take the Rilutek until I get a more definitive diagnosis. If it is ALS, which I suspect, my progress is slow and that confuses them I think. Right now, I am just trying to do what I can and enjoy my family. My next appointment is this Wed. I'll keep you posted.

In closing, try to be patient with yourself, Scott. Maybe you are trying too hard. Look around you and give yourself time....many things ARE real...the love of your wife....the way you feel about your wife and child...In the Bible and the Koran it talks about Love being God's greatest gift. The love you have for your family, I believe, will endure. My father died in September, and whenever I see a sunrise or sunset I think of him, talk to him...in other words my love for him endures and I believe that somehow his love for me continues too. He donated his body to Texas Tech medical school because he firmly believed that his spirit would have moved on, but that his old body could help doctors learn.

Try not to feel jealous. Many, many people have doubts...real doubts, especially during troubled times. What is important is for you to allow yourself to step back....you still have time. Concentrate on helping others as much as you can...even if only in small ways... even with only your smile....and you may find God in their smiles....

Take care....Vanessa

Anonymous said...

Scott you just have to believe that there is a higher being than us here on earth. As tough as it may be, I believe you are living the life you weren't meant to live. You are teaching us all slow down, appreciate life, take a look at the ones you love and appreciate what they have to offer. Without people like you strategically placed here one earth, we would be much worse off. You have to much to offer all the people you come in contact with, your wise words, your thoughts, hopes, wishes...its a higher being at work letting you tell us all and letting us absorb what you have to teach and the messages you have to offer. I doubth there is anyone who has read your blog that hasn't been touched in some way.