For as long as I can remember I've identified myself as Agnostic. I thought that faith was the refuge of people not strong enough to confront and accept their own ignorance. I genuinely believe in questioning everything. I believe that the act of asking a question is often more important than the answer, especially for those deep, existential, philosophical sorts of questions (to which we won’t find verifiable answers anyways).
When I was 32 I began attending a Theravada Buddhist temple. I found the Dhamma attractive because, unlike the Christianity I grew up with, one does not need faith to practice it. So I continued down my path of doubt, skepticism, questioning, and faithlessness.
But then I met Stephanie. And then I fell in love with Stephanie. She is my polar opposite. She is emotion, while I am logic. She is spirit, while I am flesh. She is faith, while I am doubt. Our deeply divergent views were our greatest weakness as a couple. But in a way, they were also our greatest strength.
Shortly before I met her, at age 23, Stephanie nearly died of an acute chronic illness. Coming so close to death and surviving was a spiritual experience for her, as it is with many people who go through such events.
Faith became central to her being. She doesn't identify as Christian, or Buddhist, or any other particular religion. But she is a follower of God, or the Great Spirit, or the Source, or whatever name you can give to something beyond your comprehension. She has no book, no commandments, no dogma. But she is a true believer.
I can’t tell you how many conversations we had and just talked right past each other. But I kept trying to see things from her perspective. I kept trying to make sense of her words, within my worldview. And there were times when I questioned myself. Is it possible for me to understand this woman and what she’s telling me? Even if it is possible, what’s to be gained? But I was in love. And I could see something, some mystery in her that I wanted to understand.
I witnessed a lot of little things that some might call small miracles and others might call luck. Stephanie calls them synchronicities. Events in her life just seemed to ‘line up.’ Things never just lined up for me. I had to work to make things happen, and even then I fail as often as I succeed. But I saw her just rely on synchronicity. And when problems or obstacles arose, Stephanie’s lack of anxiety really intrigued me. When she would face uncertainty, I was amazed - and a bit jealous, of how she was confident things would work out.
“How do you know things will work out?” I’d ask. “I have faith,” she would reply. But what kind of answer is that? It sounded like a guess. But she had confidence her guess was right. This made no sense to me and just seemed naive. I won’t go into a philosophical argument here, but at the very least I’ll say that things don’t just ‘work out of the best’ for everyone. So what makes her special?
I continued struggling with this until after we broke up. She left me to go on a sort of spiritual journey of learning and self-discovery. Left alone with my thoughts and my grief, I finally got it. I found a way for faith to make sense to me.
So what is the secret? Pragmatism. Faith is practical.
Psychology has told us that basically, the source of anxiety is uncertainty. We feel stress when we face a choice, and we don’t know what to decide. We become anxious when we feel we are losing control in our lives. We seek certainty, and we seek to control our environment. It is psychologically difficult and painful for us to face chaos manifesting in our lives.
In addition to this, psychology can teach us that being anxious and stressed out can have a negative impact on our lives, beyond the unpleasantness of the emotions themselves. The internal negativity of stress and anxiety can and does manifest externally. When facing a difficult choice, anxiety can cloud our judgment, and cause us to make a bad decision. Thus we involuntarily make bad situations even worse. Then we get even more anxious and stressed out. In this fashion, anxiety can create a negative feedback loop from a single unfortunate event.
Faith is the logical antidote to this feedback loop. Faith is the pragmatic solution to the problem of our psychological response to chaos and uncertainty. With faith we can approach difficult and painful situations with calmness and clarity. The act of faith, by itself (even completely unfounded faith) can have a positive impact on our ability to maneuver and even influence psychologically difficult situations.
After gaining this understanding, I've begun to incorporate faith into my life. I watch for and acknowledge synchronicities. I repeat a mantra that I have faith in my path. And I will continue repeating it, silently and aloud, until I have fully internalized it. I know that this faith will benefit me. And I did not have to abandon my sense of skepticism and doubt.
I often think about Stephanie, and I sometimes wonder if things would have been different if I had found this faith six months earlier. I don’t know the answer to that. But I believe that what I’ve learned from her and from my experiences will serve me as I walk towards a better future.
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