On Faith

Faith [noun]: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

That’s one of the definitions you get when you google the word “faith”.  I’ve long considered myself a person of little faith, but as I’ve gotten older, I’m interested in how it can help us in life.  As I explore the topic of faith, I do so with humility; I’m no expert on the subject.    

It all started with a chance meeting: I met a professor at El Museo de Prado, in Madrid, Spain.  

It was late August, 1998.  I was 17 years old, on my first trip to Europe with my older sister Bonnie.  We had a marvelous time in Paris and Provence, where she had friends we stayed with; we had enjoyed Lisbon, its gothic, sooty architecture guarding the city like lions.  Our last stop was Madrid, where the sweltering Summer heat was in full effect.

We went to the world-famous El Prado Museum.  Hours were spent meandering contentedly around museum halls, where we were joined by Bonnie’s friend, and her little sister too, who were also on a European getaway.  I came across a guitar vendor in a plaza out front of the museum.  A gorgeous, seemingly custom guitar gleamed at me, costing “only” $400, about the amount of money I had left for the rest of the trip, which was wrapping up in about a week.  Knowing that, my wiser, older sister interjected: “I don’t think you should get the guitar, Katie.  You’ll blow the rest of your money, and it’d be good to have something left over to come home to instead of being broke”.  

She made a good point, but I was stubborn and wanted that guitar.  I got upset and angry at her, and we separated for some cooling off time; she returned to the museum, and I went into the center outdoor courtyard for some air.  

A row of mature trees and park benches lined multiple walkways.  I found a perfect, shady spot to sit down and take a deep breath.  I sat down, exhaled deeply, and closed my eyes for a moment.  Why won’t she let me get it?  I irksomely pondered to myself.  At the age of seventeen, most people are ignorantly stubborn, but I was probably being especially so at the time.  I realize now, of course, it was the right thing to do not to get that guitar.  

But it’s not the guitar that was the important part.  It was what happened afterward in that courtyard that made such an impression on me that it’s become a theme throughout my life ever since.  One professor changed my life in the course of about a half hour.  

He is responsible for illuminating one word for me: faith.

Faith.  La fé.

Soon after I sat down on that bench, a man approached me:

“You look like you could use a break”, he said.  “May I join you for my lunch break?”

He spoke in Spanish, in which I am proficient, and replied back, “Yes, for sure”.  For ease of translation purposes, I will quote our conversation in English.  Our conversation was carried out in Spanish, however.

He began eating his lunch, and started up small talk.  He asked if I was traveling; was I going to college in the fall?  Yes, at UC Santa Cruz.  He told me that he was a professor of philosophy at the university.  Qué interesante.  He was quite handsome, and I’ll admit that made me pay closer attention.  He was married, quite happily it seemed as he spoke of his wife.  

“Why did you seem so stressed out when you first sat down? he asked.

I explained what happened with my sister; how I wanted the guitar, and felt like she was being too protective of me.  He offered a more mature perspective: I was in Europe for my first time, as a child really, and when I got home I’d need that money for college.  Coming from him, it seemed easier to understand.  

He asked what I was going to study at UCSC; what I cared about.  I really care about the environment and animals; I would love to do something to help the environment, I said.  He nodded with interest as I continued on about my concerns about the planet, and where did I fit in with all of it; that sometimes I felt like you just have to live your life in ignorance just to avoid depression.   Humans seemed like a plague on the planet.

I shared with him about my parents’ recent divorce, which I presented as if I was totally okay with, though it had brought so much into question.  As he ate his sandwich with the hurried focus of a seasoned educator on a tight schedule, I felt like I was talking to a therapist or something.  He was so easy to talk to, and I certainly liked the interest he showed in me.  It wasn’t a romantic interest, but a genuine, humanistic interest; for whatever reason, he might have thought we would have a connection.  

After talking for some time, he paused and offered some advice, which resounded like a bell with me, loud and clear.  He said much more, but this is basically the gist:
You will be successful in life.  You understand things very well, and your intelligence will help you create the life you want to live.

But you lack faith.  That’s the area of your life that you need to work on.  You need to find your faith to get you through your hard times, whatever that faith may be, God or otherwise.  I can see it so clearly: you need faith.

Smack upside the head, those words reverberated with me like my own heartbeat.  Tears flowing silently from my eyes, like I’d just heard a mirror reflection of myself be verbalized poetically in Spanish, I felt like I’d just been truly seen.  In less than thirty minutes, he had cut through all of my facades to my most raw, vulnerable self.

Have you ever felt so alive and in the moment you felt you were buzzing?  So full of energy that your whole being is quite actually buzzing?  Like you’re so vibrant and aware, you are simultaneously connecting with the entire universe all at once?  I think it was one of the first times in my life someone had so accurately and piercingly seen right through me, to my very vulnerable core.  And I’d just met him.  

“I must be getting back now,” he said, reality-checking me.  Our lunchtime serendipitous meeting on that bench came to an end; it was time for office hours.  He gave me an assuring smile, and said he knew I’d find my faith.  I felt a calm sense of serenity, like he was right.  

La fé, were his final two words, as if to challenge me.  As he walked down that courtyard, I sat on that bench both crying and laughing, overcome with emotions.   I couldn’t believe how right he was.  I totally lacked faith and he could see it clear as day.  Though our interaction was brief, I’ll never forget how much of an impact it had on me; he made me think about my own relationship with faith, and what it means to me.  He was the catalyst for self-reflection on faith that continues today.  

I collected myself and met up with Bonnie inside the museum, where I agreed it was best not to get the guitar.  More importantly, I had the coolest story to tell her!  We quickly reconciled, I never bought that guitar, and onward we went about our vacation, happily so.

I remember telling my freshman year of college roommmate, Suzanne, about this experience one evening as we lie awake in our dormbeds across the room from each other.  Each detail vividly brought the encounter back to life for me, inspiring me again.  Having had a couple of months since our meeting, I’d had time to reflect upon what faith meant to me.  

I’d come to realize there were two words I felt were particularly challenging to faith: hope and fear.  They were the antithesis of faith, which is trusting.  Hope and fear were words of predication and stipulation; of ifs and whens; of variables often beyond your control.  They seemed to have great power over my friends and family, myself included, during times of transition and challenge.  But I didn’t think it was productive to hope for things.  It was productive to work toward those things, to take action, but hope in and of itself wasn’t helpful.  Hope is an empty promise, and often an excuse for inaction.  Hope puts the onus on something other than you.  

Fear is equally disempowering.  Fear paralyzes us from taking action; it gives way too much power to that which we cannot control.  Fear makes us act irrationally.  When we’re afraid, this is where Fear’s partner Hope steps in: Hope is the antidote to our fears.  We hope that everything will be alright; we hope everything will get better; we hope so-and-so will do x-y-and-z for us.  And when our hopes don’t go according to plan, we fear again. It’s a cycle.

This is where Faith comes in for me.  Faith is the antithesis of Hope and Fear.  Faith is the trust that everything will be okay; the muscle-memory, in-your-gut knowing that in the end, it’s all good.  Faith is love and acceptance.  The world may be falling apart, but Faith allows you to sit with that, authentically, without shying away from what is.  Faith is what I’d love to feel when I’m in my darkest moments, grasping at straws for any sign of light.  I still have a lot of work to do on Faith, but it’s an evolution, not a destination to reach and be done with.  

Faith means many different things to many different people.  Why do we need it at all? Comfort.  Faith comforts us in our anxious moments, in times of the unknown; faith comforts us when we’re going through a hard time.  Faith can also explain: for many, faith is part of a religion which comes with its own explanation of how the world was created, why humans are here, and what happens to us after we die.  It provides a framework to live within, trusting in its purposeful and holy design.  For years, religion has given mankind a structure in which to live with faith.  I’m no expert on religions, but I have great respect for their foundations and the people who practice them.  They just don’t work for me.  

Even from a young age, I didn’t have strong faith.  My mom took us to an Episcopalian Christian church on holidays and the occasional Sunday, but we didn’t go all the time.  I remember sitting in church one day as we were reading passages from the Bible.  I saw a room full of people reading those words with conviction, faith, and love.  I felt like I didn’t belong; like I just didn’t believe in it.  I couldn’t get past the story; that there was an omnipotent God somewhere out there, possibly watching and judging us.  Heaven or Hell?  That’s what happens when we died?  I had so many questions.  

Questions are excellent conduits for learning, and by my high-school years, I realized how much value I placed on knowledge, facts, and data; basically, Science.  The Latin root word of Science is scientia, meaning “knowledge”.  Science means knowledge.  Science is the practice of observing without letting yourself get in the way; it’s evidence-focused, quantitatively measured, with reproducible results.  In Science, there were Laws and Theories to explain almost every single thing in the world.  And it made sense to me; I could see it.  There was proof.  I had faith in Science.

I could especially see Science when I was outside in Nature.  The more time I spent in Nature, the more I saw Science within it: the birds nesting outside my window; the patterns of stars in the night sky; the deciduous trees shedding their leaves in Autumn.  Everywhere I looked I could see Science in action.  That’s when I realized that although I wasn’t religious, being outside in Nature was kind of like my “church” or “religion”.  I trusted its framework, design, and felt inspired spending time in it.  

But I still didn’t have a lot of faith – in other people, in the world, in myself.  My nihilistic tendencies were firmly set and growing stronger.  Nothing really mattered, especially not in the big scheme of things, and there was no grand design to Humanity or the world. We were simply animals with a high brain to body size ratio.  We were crafty.  But still only animals, prone to the same cycles as they.  And we seemed to be a scourge on the Earth and its creatures.

As I continued on through college at UC Santa Cruz, I had the perfect opportunity to delve into these philosophical questions in various classes, groups, and ad hoc dorm discussions in hallways at questionable hours of the night.  I’ve read a plethora of philosophy books, but have a couple of favorites: Basil Johnston’s  The Manitous: The Supernatural World of the Ojibway , and Lao Tzu’s  Tao Te Ching.  Both influenced how I feel about faith and life.  The former was a book my father gave to me for my fifteenth birthday, sophomore year of high school.  I read it with passion, its tales from the Ojibway people beautifully described with some key takeaways: respect Nature, tread lightly, and be good to the Earth and its creatures.  I have re-read that book many times, and still have it today.  

I read the Tao te Ching as a senior in high school, again in a college Philosophy class, and again after graduating college, at which point it really resonated with me.  I was feeling quite faithless, having finished UCSC with my fancy degree, and no fancy job to go with it.  I was waiting tables and waiting for my life to really get started.  In that time, I had the opportunity to go to Bali for a month with my friend Joelene.  That trip slowed me down enough to realize it was okay that I didn’t have a fancy job yet; it was okay that I was feeling faithless and hopeless about the future.  I should still appreciate what I have right now.  Upon re-reading the Tao, I realized my nihilistic ways offered an opportunity for filling the void; the empty space invited filling.  By letting go of expectations, I allowed what was to take hold.  A blank slate became a springboard for imagination and creation.  If nothing really matters, then have at it and go after what matters most to you.  And when there is the desire for something more, let go of it and return to serene emptiness.  It’s all about striking balance.  

In 2006, during a transitional time in my life, I was reading the Tao at the San Diego airport waiting for a flight home from visiting my sister.  I was feeling down, and struggling to find balance in my life again.  My faith-tank was on empty.  Clearly, I was lacking faith in the words I was reading, once familiar passages now menacing in their stoic simplicity.  Screw the Tao; life is way more complicated, I must have thought.  I wrote the following poem on the back page of my Tao while waiting at the airport:

Sitting, waiting…

Wondering how to live the Way.

What does it mean to suffer, to die?

What does it mean to feel ecstasy, to live?

Simplicity always sounds so easy,

Yet in action, all its meaning is lost.

Pain feels relentless, cruel, and vindictive

While pleasure is all of life’s meaning in a single breath

Relativity creates degrees of separation, stratifying oneness

Creating rifts among the masses.

Black and white create shadows, light, and space

Color glows uniquely until another hue drowns it out

Yet all color comes from the same source.

Selfish intentions satisfy the moment,

While selfless actions satisfy for a lifetime.

In giving, we become lighter, free of possession

In taking, we become heavier, weighed down by the burden of ownership.

In physical unity we feel at home

But in solitude, we merely yearn to go back home.

Within disability comes creativity and conviction

Or else we die before our bodies perish.

With opulence comes the desire for the intangible

In destitution, we embrace the intangible only long enough

To fight for the tangible, the material.

Walk together or walk alone, we all long for more time

No guarantees, just today

***********

I’m not sure what all I was getting at in that poem, but surely some of it speaks to how reading the Tao te Ching has influenced me.  I still read the Tao from time to time, often reading a random passage for thought.  Its raw beauty soothes me.  I’ve read other books that have influenced me as well, and enjoy reading others’ writings on the topic of faith.  Hearing what “faith” means to other people is endlessly intriguing, sparking new ideas and viewpoints.

What does faith mean to me today?  Faith is a muscle-memory reflex that takes over when you’re in doubt.  It is the comforting warmth when you’re unsure about something.  Faith is trusting in the nature of things as they are, without trying to control them, since no one can control anything anyway.  Faith is confidence.

I don’t rely on faith for something in the future.  When I want something to happen, I don’t have faith it will happen; I work to manifest it.  I don’t have faith in a higher power, omnipresent force, or God, but I have faith in life itself, and in myself.  Faith is confidence, built from layers of experience and wisdom.  Some say that faith is belief without evidence, but I also think evidence provides faith; experiences give you more faith in yourself.  When you can point to evidence, it puts any doubt to rest.  I’ve had so many experiences where challenges were overcome, building confidence.  With experience and confidence comes faith.  

I wouldn’t say that having faith alone is responsible for getting us through challenges, or achieving our dreams.  Hard work, resolute action, and circumstance combine to see us through.  Having faith can make things a little bit easier sometimes, though.  When Ron and I had to spend the night in the Sierra Nevadas without food, water, or shelter?  I had faith we would make it through that long night; faith in our fitness and circumstances.  Sure it was inconvenient, but I trusted we weren’t in great peril.  Faith helped me make it through a difficult situation.  Knowing I’d spent the night in the wilderness many times before gave me the faith that we would be alright, even making me feel at home.  Again, with experience comes confidence, and with confidence, comes faith.  When I wanted so badly just to go home, as in to own a home of my own in Santa Cruz County, the overpriced, out-of-reach for working class teachers like myself, dream bubble?  I had faith it would happen, and over two years ago, I made it happen.  I spent many days longing for a house I could call my own, living in some challenging situations, and to finally be here makes it feel all the better.  Faith didn’t get me this house, but it made the time waiting for it a little easier.  

Another benefit of having faith is letting go of what you can’t control, a common philosophy.  If you truly trust that all is going to end up well, you can let go of trying to control every little detail of life.  Life is unpredictable, chaotic, beautiful, and complex.  There is very little that we are actually in control of.  We are powerless in many regards, so letting go of that which we have no power over frees us of that pressure.  

Having faith provides calming comfort to the uncertainty of life.  People need to feel secure and grounded, and for many people I know, having faith anchors them.  I completely understand why so many people practice religion; most of them are structured support systems with a strong positive social network, that provide guidelines for living life with integrity, love, and of course, faith.  

I have a lot of faith in Nature and its cycles.  I’ve often thought of Nature as both my religion and my church.  I am happiest outside, among natural habitats, recreating freely about the landscape.  From a young age, outdoor adventures and sports have dominated my life, with pleasure.  Observing animals in their wild habitats, large and small, makes me smile from ear to ear; I especially love birdwatching.  We are animals, of course, and the more time I spend outside, the more I know we belong there.  I know that we need money to live in our current modern society, but I don’t know that human beings were meant to work endless hours inside office buildings, day in day out.  In the transition from agrarianism to modern day, something has been lost in our connection to the Earth and its cycles, seasons, and phenomena.  I don’t want to regress to the olden days, but I’d love to see people staring at beautiful landscapes instead of inanimate screens.   So I spend as much time as I can outside, whether it’s running through the forest, gardening in the yard, or simply sitting somewhere gorgeous and inspiring, soaking up the phytoncides from the trees.  Nature is healing, and I feel most alive, most happy, when I’m interacting with it.  

I have faith in myself and life most of the time, but I have work to do, especially around mortality and loss.  The thought and reality of loved ones dying rattles my foundation like breaking ice – splintering, fracturing, a domino effect of painful scars.  The loneliness of losing a loved one sucks the warmth out of me like a vacuum, and threatens any last sliver of faith I’m clinging to.  I know all of us feel this way about death, but I wonder if those who have a strong religious footing feel less anxious about it?  Perhaps they find comfort in whatever their religion teaches about death (and what happens afterward)?  I think no matter your religion, losing a loved one has to be the hardest thing we’ll ever experience in life.  Just the threat of losing our pets can be just as wrenching.  My cat went missing for 24 hours recently, and I just about worried myself sick with anxiety, crying and blubbering for him to come (luckily, he did come home).  During that time he was gone, when I was freaking out and going over all the possible scenarios, is when I could have used some faith.  The thought of losing him leveled me. I have work to do on faith, especially around loss.  When I think about the world’s problems, I don’t have a lot of faith in them getting any better until I see evidence that it is improving.  Environmental issues and climate change are monumental problems that need to be addressed, and I get down a lot about them.  I could use some more faith in our future, but that’s only going to come with proof that things are improving.  

My own death?  It doesn’t scare me so long as I imagine it happening instantly, like in some crazy specific meteorite strike over my room at the old-folks home at 113 years old.  What terrifies me is knowing I am in the process of dying, even though I technically already am in that process of “dying” as I age day in day out.  That’s where I feel I don’t have much faith; where I feel like none of it matters at all.  It is weird to think how in a hundred years, and beyond, I won’t matter, and none of what I cared about while I was here will have mattered.  But that’s also when I go back to the impetus: if nothing really matters, then go after what matters most to you.  Time is ticking.  

What does Faith mean to you?  How much do you rely on it in your daily life?  Do you feel comfortable speaking about your faith with other people, including those who feel differently than you?  Faith is a universal concept, but open to interpretation.  To some degree, I think all humans will need to have some sort of faith at some point in their lives. “Faith” doesn’t have any rules or exceptions, so it can be anything to anyone, religious or not. Whatever your faith, if you have it, hold onto it tightly and cherish it.  It doesn’t matter what it is, or if it’s different from someone else’s version.  More importantly, share it with others when you can.  We all have the power to be someone else’s candlelight in the dark cave of fear and loneliness.  

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