I wish I knew everything was going to be alright. I mean, of course it is; I no longer honestly think I’m going to end up homeless, broke and alone, as once was my constant fear. I guess six and a half years in a stable relationship with a fantastic woman has dulled that. I do have faith in her, and at least in my desire to make her happy or not disappoint her. Hence my ability to quit smoking cold turkey after years of addiction, not long after she began her campaign to get me to do so. I didn’t necessarily have faith in my own will to remain healthy and living, nor did I cease to enjoy smoking, except in that that enjoyment began to be outweighed by her concern for and disappointment in me (not to mention the increasing financial stress it induced). But I did have faith in her sound judgment and in her being the partner I wanted, so I was able to quit. In that sense, it was as if she was, in terms of my quitting smoking, my “higher power” that the AA people insist on.
Faith is a funny thing. Chaucer's Bitch is conducting a running commentary and discussion of it on her blog at the mo, and it’s got me thinking. If, for example, you look at the idea of faith in a higher power as utilized by 12-step programs like AA, it is used as a tool to help people in emotional and physical crisis get through it. This is why, I’m convinced, AA insists on members naming a higher power, whether it be The Lord God Jehovah or the clanking radiator across the room. The power comes not so much from what you believe in, as your belief in something. It is that belief that promotes hope, and it is hope that gives one something to hold onto when trying to make a difficult change, or even just to survive in the face of everyday challenges, sometimes. So, whereas CB is currently addressing the hypothesis that faith is “choosing to believe something is absolutely true while you acknowledge that you don't actually have any means of knowing if it's true or not ,“ I would wager that this is not the whole story.
I say this because 1.) faith is not necessarily negated by evidence, nor reinforced by it, and 2.) faith promotes itself, sometimes by creating it’s own evidence. Let’s take the example she’s been addressing of learning to ride a bike despite falling off of it. In this instance, you have two observable bits of evidence. The first is that you are repeatedly falling off the bike and hurting yourself, which would indicate that you cannot ride a bike. The second is that for quite some time now, people have been learning how to ride bikes despite falling repeatedly. Although it may seem more scientific to conclude from statistical evidence that it is likely that you will learn how to ride the bike, you cannot be 100% sure of it. In addition, you have to take into your equation of the pursuit of bike riding both quantity and quality. That is, you know you probably can learn to ride, statistically speaking, but at what point is it qualitatively worth it to you? Is it as much worth it if, say, you find you have an inner-ear imbalance, and you break your arm twice trying to learn, as it is if you are easily able to learn in one day with just one minor fall?
Here is where faith comes in. You can’t know which of these scenarios will occur, even if you can make an educated guess based on the evidence of precedent, both regarding other peoples’ riding experiences and your own previous athletic abilities. So, you have to have faith to pick yourself up after that first fall – or even just to start. Some might say that trying anything like this task requires faith, and to not believe in yourself or have hope that things will turn out right indicates a lack of faith. One could probably counter that this “lack of faith” could also be interpreted as just another kind of faith – the faith that things will turn out badly, you are a failure or the world is out to get you. I think it more common for those who have faith in a particular to view others who have conflicting faiths as being faithless, however, so for the moment, we’ll refer to faith in terms of believing you can triumph through persistence and/or assistance, AKA learn to ride the bike.
So, in terms of faith not being negated by evidence, if you have fallen but you persevere in trying to ride, you are exhibiting faith. If, to elevate the drama, everyone in your family has an inner-ear imbalance, and you’ve been told that you’ll never ride a bike because of this, yet you still persist, you most definitely have faith – the kind they write about in sappy human-interest stories everywhere. Then, if you do learn to ride, you see that as evidence that your faith was correct. You might even put this forth as evidence that your faith is what caused you to be able to ride, and thus anyone can learn with the same faith. If you don’t learn to ride, you can use this as evidence that your faith was incorrect, but you can also blame something else – your own perceived lack of adequate faith, a lack of tools or, say, other peoples’ lack of faith in you. Finally, there are some who, after learning to ride, will only temporarily use this as evidence that their faith was correct, but revert to doubting in the face of other challenges.
So, you see, it has much less to do with evidence at all, as it has to do with human perception, emotion, evaluation and belief. This is why, as much as there are more people believing in the scientific evidence of evolution each day, there are also people converting to fundamentalist religions. While I might take carbon-dating analysis of fossils as hard evidence, some might just as easily take the moisture dripping from the eyes of a statue of the virgin Mary as hard evidence of their beliefs. Every one of us makes a thousand tiny choices every day as to what to believe. Scientific experimentation certainly does seem to be the soundest tool we have thus far of determining semi-universal truths of existence. However, not only is truth ever subjective, but science still has a long way to go towards explaining life, death and everything in the universe.
So, here’s where I personally hit a snag. Although my father is a long-time (very liberal) minister and my mother a recently ordained interfaith minister, I would have to say that I was mostly raised to put faith in science. I have a strong aversion, in fact, to most organized religion or spirituality, believing that it tends to consolidate beliefs and power, restrict human behaviour and critical thinking and subjugate and control people and other life. And yet, I long for faith. I wish, fiercely sometimes, that I could somehow know what path I should be on in my life, how I could do good, how I could be happy, feel worthy. I wish that I could qualm my fears of death, pain, abandonment and the unknown. And, as much as I know that I hold the power within me to change my thinking, to take positive action and to work to both improve my situation and my outlook, sometimes it feels like too much of just that: work. It overwhelms me, and I despair for not having some faith in an outside power that would aid and take care of me.
I had some faith, for a while. While practicing animal communication and dabbling in “alternative” spirituality – a sort of noncommittal, middle-class white girl synthesis of Buddhism, Taoism, and various pagan knickknackery – I actually began to feel that the world might be a good place, and I might have both a purpose and a sound, positive present and future. I imagine that it was very much like many Christians feel: sound in their niche, protected and/or guided in a way, reassured that there is some order and they have an important, loved place in it. However, being of scientific mind and pessimistic disposition, this was difficult for me to maintain. I don’t think there would have been any way to do it if it weren’t for the evidence.
How can there be evidence? Small things: a parakeet in India “tells” me that he loves and is excited by the feeling of water on his cere, and his owner tells me that he just had his first bath. A dog tells me his favourite food is “cheesy noodles” – not mac and cheese, and his person excitedly confirms that that’s a special dish she makes just when her son comes home, and that’s just what they call it. A cat who won’t eat for days tells me he wants “the special chicken” and his person reports that she had to go back to her old neighbourhood to a deli that served home-made grilled chicken and guess what? He eats.
And then there are the bigger things, that freak me out enough that I am uneasy that they came through me: An animal missing for days tells me he’s dying and didn’t want to trouble his people. I communicate that they want to be with him before he dies, and he shows up back home that night and dies in his person’s arms. A deceased cat tells me the exact words on her gravestone – words I never would have used. A dead skunk shows me an overhead view of her person’s entire lower floor – even rooms she’d never been in, in life. We zoom in and she describes an obsessive habit one other animal there has that I’ve never heard about, and her person, in amazement, confirms that it is true.
How could I make this all up? Am I just preternaturally good at “reading” people, gleaning facts and probabilities from throwaway comments and vocal tones? Why did it work in person, on the phone and over email? Why was it vague at times and crystal clear at others – a lack of belief from some owners, a difference in my mood or the animal’s personality, psychic or spiritual interference in the ether? Most of all, when and why did I start believing in it, despite all my natural skepticism and reluctance in the beginning, and when and why did I stop?
I’ve been thinking about these things this past week, as I’ve waited for some definitive response from the animal clinic and received none. The idea of working hands-on in medical care for animals excites me, and fills me with a sense of possibility. It would be a way to help concretely, without the ephemeral, unknowable quality of animal communication or psychology. It would be at more of an emotional remove from the animals, but more so from the owners, who cling, boil and crumble in their need. Somehow it’s easier to accept that a metal tool or man-made medicine fails than a spiritual search. Somehow it takes some of the weight of responsibility and the need to help others even at the cost of my own energy a little bit off my shoulders. Of course, I am extremely interested by it in itself, but the fact that it is not animal communication does not escape me. Moreover, if I choose to pursue it, I will more than likely have to downplay or cover up my past as a communicator, much as I’ve been trying to forget it myself, for months.
And yet… there were such moments of joy in doing it. There were times when it didn’t matter to me that what I did was not scientifically provable, and that others might think me crazy because of it. There were times I truly believed I was able to communicate with intelligent individuals who just happened to belong to other species, and delight in their personality quirks. And along with the weight of responsibility and the uneasiness of doing the odd, the unscientific, even of being considered a charlatan, there was a feeling of being so very lucky, connected to the world, and maybe just a little bit special.
My last day of work, a co-worker and long-time AC client told me that if I chose to open my practice again, she knew a number of people who would jump at the chance to hire me. A few days ago, out of the blue, I got a call from a hotel that was looking to hire me for their customers, even though I haven’t worked in over a year. If I was of faith, I might start thinking the universe – or my “higher power” – was trying to tell me something. Yet, my scientific mind tells me that pursuing animal communication is like becoming part of a cult or a religion, and charging money for it is fraud, as it can’t possibly be real. It also tells me that my current nostalgia for it is probably due to my depression from being unemployed, my uncertainty in what lies next. It's just when you are vulnerable when the cult gets you, to the scientific mind. It's just when you are in need that the divine reveals itself to save you, those of faith believe.
I want to believe. I want to know what is right. I want to have faith, and I want to have incontrovertible evidence. I want to make an honest living, contribute something to others, and realize my potential. I also want to win the lottery and never have to work again.
So, to me, the question isn’t whether faith is good for human beings. The question is: which kind, and how much? And, if we can come to a reasonable conclusion on that, how can I get it? Because my lack of faith – or the negative, defeatist faith I do have – is wearing me out.