commentary and current events

How to Exist on Faith Alone

Like the cake, the post title is a lie. I have no idea how to do this, even though I’m currently doing it.

Last night, I Facebook’d the following:

In Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ, p. 147: “In so doing, Jesus demonstrated that Reality is not meaningless and absurd, even if it isn’t always perfectly logical or consistent.”

One of the hardest, and yet most urgent, things I have tried to explain throughout this process is that I find myself, more than at any other time in my life, existing on faith alone. Specifically, faith that if I just keep going I will get someplace where I can make meaning again. Or as Allie Brosh put it, “Sometimes all you can really do is keep going and hope you end up somewhere that makes sense.”

It’s not the maudlin sunset-and-curly-script faith of sympathy cards or the cheery lip service faith of people who think waiting 25 minutes for restaurant service is a violation of their Constitutional rights. The faith required to exist inside this grief is not uplifting. It’s harrowing. My instinct is to warn people not to find it inspiring. I don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking this is a nice place to be.

I have no reason or evidence to suggest that “someplace that makes sense” on the other side of grief even exists. I only know that whatever has made getting there my imperative is itself inexorable. I call it faith because I don’t know what else to call it. If this is faith, it’s the first one I’ve ever had.

Allow me to expand.

(Image: Blog post title and URL with a road stretching into the distance.)

For most of my life, I’ve told people I don’t have a “faith.” For most of my life, I didn’t, at least as far as I and those asking understood the term.

As a child, the only time I heard about “faith” was when the word was used as shorthand for a demand that I accept some set of myths and doctrines as factually and literally accurate, regardless of any evidence in support of this stance. In fact, some people exhorting me to “faith” seemed to think that the less evidence supported their premises, the better – insisting some myth or doctrine was “true” without any basis was a virtue.

(In this context, I find the claim that “facts don’t care about your feelings” deeply ironic. The demand for faith as an adherence to alternative facts certainly cares about no one’s feelings, only about emotions as performance. But I digress.)

At some point in my late teens or early 20s, I started telling those who asked that I had no faith, because I had no use for gods I had not personally encountered (in hindsight, it was perhaps more accurate to say that such gods had no use for me). Plenty of people, “of faith” and otherwise, interpreted this stance as atheism, and I let them. It scraped off both the doctrine LARPers and the atheists who defined their lack of faith as rejection of doctrine LARPing.

It wasn’t atheism. But I didn’t know what it was. When the only definition of “faith” I had was “swallow this particular line of nonsense for no reason because doing it for no reason is what makes it virtuous,” what I did not have was a word for the deep and abiding imperative I felt to find meaning. Somewhere. Somehow.

I did a lot of “spiritual seeking” at this point in my life, and the two groups I found that seemed most driven by that deep imperative – that thing I couldn’t call “faith” because that word had been taken – were atheist Jews and Satanists. The former tended to have a close commitment to community and culture, while the latter overtly held that suffering sucks so we should try to help one another out or at the very least not make it worse.

Outside of these two groups, I saw over and over, in all kinds of religious settings, that to be “people of faith” meant to swallow a particular set of premises and then to go on living exactly as one had before, except with a new zeal for one’s personal prejudices and a new, deity-approved vocabulary with which to express them. The more zealous the use of the vocabulary, the “stronger” one’s “faith.”

In hindsight, I’m not surprised I had no faith.

I have always loved myth, metaphor and the language of storytelling, particularly the lyrical. I have never been able to accept any set of myths, metaphors, stories or lyrics as literally true, and certainly not with enough zeal to proclaim them the basis of doctrine. Like millions of people worldwide, I can recite the entire Apostles’ Creed without taking a breath, but it never changed my behavior, let alone my deep self. To this day I wonder how it could. What in any set of doctrinal premises is transformative?

I had no faith for a great deal of my life. That’s not to say I didn’t have a drive toward the spiritual. I did, and do, and it’s relentless. As long as I can remember, something in me has known that the transformative exists and has pursued it.

But while the drive toward the transformative is relentless, my willingness to give it its head has not been. I kept it on a back burner for many years. I’d love to apologize for that in both senses of the term – I had school, I had work, I got sick, etc. – but all those were incidental. Work, school and the rest were excuses and tools to manage deep-rooted fear, anxiety, and unprocessed trauma, both in myself and in others who made their issues my responsibility.

For years, I lived in a headspace where the survival imperative to protect the trauma that protected me competed with an equally strong imperative to find that which would transform my suffering, not end it or give me an escape from it.

I don’t consider it audacious to call that hell.

That I sought the transformative and not a means of escape is crucial here, because going through the suffering rather than running away from it was the opposite of the “faith” I was offered during this time. That faith promised an escape: will yourself into believing these particular premises hard enough, and all your problems will simply…vanish.

Yet even from the outside, I could see that the promise wasn’t only empty; it was a trap. That sort of faith, in which you tell yourself the opposite of what you’re experiencing is true, only “works” as long as you can perform being problem-less. The support of those who sold it to you is only there as long as you can perform being problem-less. When the problems return – and they will, because pretending you don’t have fear or pain or trauma never works for long no matter how you do it – those who sold you the “cure” will blame you for its failure and abandon you.

It happened to me. I saw it happen to several dear friends. There is no room for transformation in that kind of “faith.”

In the weeks and months immediately following the crash, I became even more hesitant than usual to talk about my religious or spiritual work with others, because so many people were there to sell me the quick fix – usually the Bible-flavored version. If I swallowed the premises hard enough – if I chewed on the doctrine and really meant it this time – my grief and its attendant pain would simply vanish. God would fix it. I’d be totally comforted by the idea that my husband is hanging out in some non-corporeal waiting room floating somewhere above the sky (the ISS, maybe?).

Or at least I’d stop being in visible pain where they could see. And for anyone offering a quick fix to deep-rooted pain, that’s the real problem.

I am increasingly disquieted by the ways in which the language of deep transformation that pervades the Gospels (in particular) has been co-opted as the vocabulary of the quick fix. The ability to do things like trust deeply in the divine follows the experience and transformation of suffering, it does not precede it. This, to me, seems like one of the most elementary lessons of Jesus’s death and resurrection, yet it’s largely missing – and those who use the words the loudest often seem to have experienced them the least.

I was not, and am not, interested in anything that simply erases my pain. Both the pain of my early trauma and the pain of losing my husband are rooted in love – in the deepest parts of me, in the source of the best person I know how to be. I haven’t always been that person, certainly, but to deny that pain on the pretense of escaping it is to deny myself. I’m not leaving without me.

My marriage was outwardly the least spiritual period of my life and inwardly the most spiritual. Also in The Universal Christ, Rohr talks about how all human relationships are, at their best, an experience that leads us deeper into an understanding of divine love. None of them are perfect, but all the best ones give us a glimpse of the love on the other side of the transformative.

That was what our marriage did for me. Though we didn’t discuss it in religious terms, we did discuss it: What we shared was a commitment to partnering with one another to sort out our own respective baggage, help one another sort theirs, and nurture the deep love in ourselves and one another. We saw in that deep love the best of who the other person could be, and our purpose toward ourselves and each other was to help that best thrive.

I never took it for granted, but I got used to it. To loving deeply; to transforming suffering; to seeing someone who embraced my ability to see them and whose natural, joyous response was to reciprocate that seeing.

And then I lost him.

None of the grief literature I’ve read or advice I’ve received so far talks about how to deal with that. The cheap “faith” advice is the worst of all, because it expects me to abandon that to lip service about an otherwise largely absent deity making me not feel its impact. But to do that is to abandon precisely that which endures about my husband, precisely that which matters most. I find the word “sin” even more loaded than the word “faith,” but abandoning the best of my marriage now would be a sin.

Of course, since I refuse to walk away from the sorrow, my only alternative is to live with and in it. And that’s hard. Having gotten used to loving someone that deeply, I don’t know how to turn it off – but I’m also at a loss where to put it. That kind of connection, romantic or otherwise, takes years to build.

And the loss of the person I had it with is precisely what prevents me, right now, from trying to build that kind of connection with anyone else. Right now, the grief prevents me from being present with others in the way I’d need to be in order to fully see them, as well as the way they would need in order to fully see me.

There are, of course, people who will happily soak up the incidents of that love – the behaviors and outward manifestations of it. I’ve had more than one buzzing around like a parched mosquito. There’s blood here somewhere, give it to me! But a one-sided, draining relationship was not what my marriage was. I didn’t discover deep joy in draining myself until there was nothing left (in fact it nearly killed me twice before I turned 30). I discovered it in suffering and transforming together with someone, where we were as committed to our own transformation as we were to one another’s – and we saw those as partnered endeavors in themselves, not as competing ones.

Disposing of love is easy. Building relationships that fire love into a transformative force is hard.

The reciprocity and deep love of our marriage gave my life meaning for a decade. Now I’m adrift. Nothing seems to have much meaning at all, and after more than five months I am only starting to be able to see a world in which I am able to make some kind of meaning at all.

What keeps me going, and has kept me going, is that same deep certainty that meaning exists. Somewhere. That if I can get through the pain of the moment rather than away from it, I can get to meaning. I can get “somewhere that makes sense,” as Allie Brosh puts it.

I have no evidence that this is the case. When I ask myself why I think that’s true, I can’t answer. When I wonder why I should do this and not any of the other highly limited options available (like, idk, lying down and dying), I don’t have an answer either.

If faith is a driving need to find a place to put all this love before I forget how, I found it.

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