I don’t come from a deeply religious family, though I think the vast majority of my relatives have a relationship with spirituality, ranging from regular church attendance to “Whoa Buddhism, dude.” We tend culturally Christian, though by marriage, heritage, and inclination, we contain multitudes. Even the most stalwart pew-sitter has learned to tolerate heterodoxy, heresy, and plenty of irreverent backtalk from the family blasphemer (right down here in front with a “Happy Holidays! Hail Satan!”).
The most pious among us, quite probably the best of us, was my late grandfather. He was kindness, love, generosity incarnate. His notion of divinity—on paper, conventional and fundamentalist—was nonetheless suffused with joy, life, acceptance, ingenuity, and endless optimism that the world a could be a better, more just place for everyone and all we had to do was make it so. If he were around right now, he would invariably be figuring out to help people, probably at some personal peril, possibly in direct contradiction of official advice. He had a notion that God’s Law did not always square with Man’s Law, and the former was often a more important directive. And if that sounds to you like the kind of a thing a martyr might say, well, you’re not wrong. He certainly didn’t shy away from self-sacrifice. I don’t think he let his fear get in the way of what he viewed as his moral duty, probably because his moral duty was not just a mission, but the man he was, on an almost cellular level.
My mother, his daughter, has spent most of my life chiding me for my lack of belief. She finds it troubling and terribly sad. I generally brush it off, call myself a skeptic, and tell her to mind her beeswax. But she’s not wrong, and sometimes I feel guilty about it because I am my grandfather’s granddaughter. It’s not simply my failure to align with a particular higher power (they’re all deeply problematic eg: too many rules, too sexist, too boring, too ridiculous, too rigid, too woo woo, too improbable, too sadistic, too responsible–for a couple straight millennia–of murdering people, too capricious, to creepy, too nosy, too complicated, not complicated enough, too many saints, not enough aliens, leprechauns, and unicorns,), but that I have a hard time taking comfort in the idea that the sun will rise tomorrow and that spring will come again. My brain insists that it might not and therefore I must anticipate the cold and the dark, so they don’t sneak up and surprise me. I must make my peace with things being shitty forever. Because you don’t know they won’t be and neither do I.
“It’s exhausting your lack of faith. Sometimes it’s the most difficult thing about you” she told me on the phone the other day, as she tried to cheer me up. The last thing I want to be is difficult or exhausting. But it is both of those things for me too.
In this new economy, faith—not in God or (god forbid) Government or even in the Medical Community (who are risking their lives and doing their dead-level best), but in the idea that this will, someday, somehow, end and maybe, hopefully, at least some of us will survive it—feels like the only thing keeping normal people from making like a lemming off the nearest precipice.
As noted, I’m not confident that I have that. In the best of circumstances, I struggle mightily to believe that things will work out. Even as a person, for whom, many things—almost all of the big ones—have worked out, I’ve spent 40+ years hunkered down in the shadow of catastrophe, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That’s just not going to work now. Not if I want to survive this thing, not if I want the people I love to survive this thing. “Anticipate the worst, hope for the best” may be sensible advice, but I’m starting to appreciate that the latter involves just as much cultivation as the former. That perhaps faith is not just some mystical energy drink peddled to the credulous, but a critical psychological tool for human survival, because if we don’t believe we can go on, or that we could go on or that there is even a going on to be going on to, why continue (apologies to Beckett) to go on at all?
All of which to say, I’m considering strategies. I’m thinking about what it means to believe in a thing. I’m not likely to find God (I genuinely believe I’m not wired for it), but I have to try and visualize a horizon line. Even if there’s no light. Even if we’re just now at the beginning of a very long night. Even if that light, when it comes, isn’t pristine dawn, but some foggy, gray halfway place, still so dim it barely passes for morning. Even that, just that, will be something worth fighting for.
So apologies, friends, as I fumble through the dark, trying to orient. I hope I don’t get too close. I’ll try not to step on your toes, but I might need a hand. Brave new world out there and all. I have no idea where we’re going, but I’m trying–I really am trying–to have faith that we can get there together.
Amen/Happy Holidays/Hail Satan/Whatever
Picture today is of Xu Bing’s Phoenix at St John the Divine in NYC taken on my actual birthday way back in 2014.
As of this writing, 148,900 people have recovered from COVID-19