Tuesday, April 17, 2007

O Ye of Little Faith

[Warning: this is a long and rather self-indulgent one. You may prefer to go read something funny instead.]

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.


Moominmama said...

i agree that faith is not necessarily negated or reinforced by evidence. but that's exactly my question! many people prefer a faith-based view to an evidence-based view, or along side one. why???

your bike-riding example is interesting. is having faith the same as being stubborn?

i think you're spot on about the desperate need/desire to believe. but alas, we both know that wishing something to be true isn't the same as it being true. I've met a LOT of people who are unable to make this distinction.

I hope you find what you're looking for. I hope we all do.

Warrior Two said...

Are there no other veterinary clinics in your vicinity? Pet grooming places? (It could be a leg up.) Even animal shops, oh the horror? My good woman, I just interviewed for a reception position at a pet hospital that gave me the distinct impression they would happily train a willing candidate to be vet tech. I have a hard time believing there isn't one pet hospital in all of NYC that wouldn't welcome you.

FirstNations said...

things can happen even if you don't understand them.
remember my halloween story? i don't believe in that stuff. it still happened, though.
go ahead and give the hotel thing a test run. talk to the people, anyway. nothing to lose, and you won't have to wonder what might have happened. remember, you have backup. mrs. danator is a great lady.

Anonymous said...

Da Nator,

We share the same struggle with faith. I , too, came up with my own sense of religion by combining several spiritual philosophies. I don't tolerate the absolutism preached by organized religion, and conversely, I don't think Science is infallable either. Their is a spiritual realm that defies definition, irregardless of faith or science. You were fortunate enough to tap into it. Why the guilt in acceptance? Why the worry of being viewed as a Charlatan? You know yourself and your own set of truths. Perhaps your faith needs to be placed there.

I have seen ghosts of deceased relatives, I have witnessed paranormal activity. I don't care if people think I'm off my rocker or not. I know what I have experienced, even if I have no rational explanation. I haven't honed any skill, my experiences have always been passive and fearful. I envy your abilities, and would love it if you were local. I would hire you in an instant to consult with my pets. Your gift isn't something to fret over, it's something to embrace and make use of. You are capable of learning the role of vet tech as well. Why not incorporate both into your role as healer? Most people are assholes anyway, why care what they think about you? Simple constructs and stereotypes are not something that should determine your career path or self acceptance. Fuck em all and be yourself. Your wonderful, talented, self.

Corn Dog said...

Da Nator,
You're on the wrong coast. We hired Sam Louie, Pet Psychic, when we had problems with our big dog we couldn't resolved. She literally chewed up a bed mattress and a sofa. He fixed her (and us) right up. I just checked on google. I think they call him a pet communicator now too. Anyhoo, we did ask a few questions to him to ask the big dog. The answers were incredible, only the big dog could have answered in that manner.

I think you will do the vet tech if you can get a job that appeals. If you can't, the pet communicator will do wonderfully. But if are a tech with communicator skill -YOWZER! What a fabulous combo. Animals know when you can communicate with them. They can feel that thought ball bounce off people that are non-communicators. They don't feel ill of those type of humans. They know we aren't a very smart species. What you have is a great skill. You will always be able to use it with our furry friends.

Perhaps you are in a period of self doubt because your path is not concrete but your skills certainly are. I sound like some assinine fortune cookie.

claire said...

hey - i haven't been here in awhile because i've been having trouble seeing your page at work again..the white background disappeared there AGAIN.

I hear you with this. And i have no good answers. I've been in the same boat with my religious / 'pagan knick-knackery' life for about 3 years now and i'm not sure if its worth it, either. maybe that's not quite what you're getting at, but i can somewhat relate.
i won't tell you my life story here, but i know what you're going through and i've often wondered about charging for services that i don't necessarily have faith in anymore either. but there's always the 'maybe' tugging at my sleeve that makes me want to throw my hands up in the air and ask why i'm not more sure. it sucks. and i'm sorry you're going through it too.

btw - i would love to know why LittleDog is so freaking neurotic. just thought i'd add that.

Dope On The Slope said...

"Belief" is clinging to a rock when the waters are rising. It requires active denial of contradictory evidence.

"Faith," on the other hand, is learning to swim. It is dynamic and has no relation to evidence. In that respect it's kind of like "truth" or "love."

I have faith because Jesus and George Michael said a little went a long way. So far they've both been right.

As for belief, that's not for me. Too static.

This struggle reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers - "My karma ran over your dogma."

Keep the faith da.