The following is my response to the 787’s prompt to contemplate death and faith in 2020. It is divided into four sections, each accompanied by a piece of music. If for whatever reason you can’t read all this, I recommend you simply listen to the music. It does a much finer job of expressing what I have tried to say here.
If my father’s obsession with classical music exists in a gene, he did not pass it on to me. But he used to play this piece around this time of year, and I always loved it. It’s meaning was lost on me: it was just a cool, spooky bit of music; a grown-up’s version of “This is Halloween”; a fun tune to rediscover each October. That was enough.
So naturally, when the 787 Collective proposed this project, I thought of this piece. I swept the cobwebs off its memory, which had sat undisturbed for a decade or longer. I listened to it again.
How joyful it is to find something you once loved and to learn that its magic still lives. It feels like a connection to a time of my life that I can now barely remember: to car rides in the dark when I was still too young to sit in the front; the comfort of my father’s presence felt in the back of his head and the motion of the car and the sound of the violin. That young man and that young boy no longer exist, but to rediscover this piece is a pleasant reminder that a part of them survives.
Around that age, I discovered death. I don’t remember how. Likely it was just an idea, borne of T.V. and the movie theater, that sat still until the season was right and then sprouted, one day to the next.
I asked my father about it one night: me in bed, him sitting next to me. Whether he was saying goodnight or I had called him in, I don’t remember. I just remember that death scared me, as it does today. And that my father sat there, shrouded in the dark, and spoke to me in a quiet voice.
He said that nobody knows what happens after death. That some people believe we’ll go to heaven. Others think we’ll be born again. He said he didn’t believe in either of those things. He believed that after death there was only stillness and peace: nothing more. He said death was nothing to fear, but that it was alright if I was afraid. And that though he couldn’t stay there all night with me while I wondered on it, I would see him in the morning.
I think that’s one of the wisest things a father could tell his son, and I have never forgotten it.
Hands on the Wheel
At a time when the world seems to be spinnin’
Hopelessly out of control
There’s deceivers and believers and ol’ in-betweeners
Who seem to have no place to go
How to reconcile God with this world?
Speaking to me that night, my father didn’t believe in God. Today, neither do I. I wish I did. For a long time, I tried to force myself to believe, as if there were a switch somewhere, and if I heaved at it hard enough I could flip it into the right position. But it never budged. It just stays right where it is: stuck in the damn middle, useless.
This world seems a convincing argument against God’s existence. It feels like this year in particular has peeled back the veneer and revealed a true part of its nature: everyday horrors, lonely fear, death and hunger. That I am confronted with this only now is because I am undeservedly fortunate.
God, all this pain and all this death. Where are you?
How do people maintain their faith despite the world? What is it about this place, this God, that speaks to them? Where do you find the strength to look out on the world and say, “This is right?” Sometimes it seems like there is an arrogance to faith. An assuredness that this world does not deserve.
All I know is that I can’t find the answers to these questions in my heart. So that switch stays where it is.
Though, I guess to say it like that isn’t quite correct. Because it doesn’t stay still: it often wiggles a bit, as if it were loose and with the right leverage could go firmly either way.
On a good day, when I feel closest to this God that I’m not sure exists, it feels like it might just be ready to shift. In those moments, I could go out and shout this knowledge into the sky: that God exists and God is good.
But the world returns, always. And to consider this world is to cry, “Where are you, God?”, and to hear your voice echo across the void.
At least, that’s what it seems like to me these days.
Cradled in Arms
So try not to worry
Consider the stars
So here I am, in a world I don’t really believe is good, heaving at a switch I don’t really believe I can move.
I wonder if part of the reason I heave so hard is because I think that if that switch does move, it will take my fear of death with it. Probably it is. And probably that fear will never go away, no matter how hard I heave.
It’s more than a bit difficult to write about where I find good in the world, or about how I find God where others may not. What I will clarify is that none of what I’m writing here is aimed at anybody; this is not a, “Hey, I know things suck, but have you tried this?” sort of essay. This is just my reflection on my own sliver of the world.
And recently, I’ve realized that I feel best when I pray regularly. Prayer for me is just the practice of being. It is intentional silence. It is an attempt to wash away my ego and all the petty bullshit that piles up and weighs me down. It is a communion – or an attempt at that.
I guess really what I realized is that when I stop praying, I feel a little worse. It gets harder to wake up in the morning. Harder to sleep at night. Harder to find the motivation to do the things I want to be doing. Easier to drink alcohol and kill the time. An unhappily large amount of my past few years have been spent like this.
Living those times feels like traversing a long, arcing spiral. There’s no rush to it, no frenzy: just a slow and steady journey downward. And I’ve realized that the further I go, the more I forget just how much prayer used to help me. It becomes easier to scoff at the idea of prayer. Easier to forget it. And in this way, things get worse for a while to varying degrees. Until, eventually, I remember to pray again.
I don’t think I fully understood any of this until I began to write this piece.
So, if I believe in the power of prayer, maybe a part of me does believe in God.
I’ve been stuck here now for days, coming back to this same point, trying to put into words what God might mean to me. Doing so is like trying to relive a dream. Like reaching out in the dark in a place you know, trying to remember how the pieces fit together.
I know little to nothing about any of this, and if you ask me tomorrow I might have changed my mind. But today, as I write this, I know that I have felt loved in the moments when I needed it. When I have been intentional with myself, when I have been able to quiet this world and simply be, I have found love.
My truth, the one that I remember when I pray and that I start to forget when I don’t, is that in those moments I forget the nature of this world. And in its place what I have found has made me feel so right and so utterly at peace: as if I were just a little boy again, cradled in his father’s arms.
I guess that’s what God means to me, on a good day.
This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me
The world didn’t give it, the world can’t take it away
I don’t believe God has much say about what goes on around here. And if he did, I would not be inclined to know him. How could I? How could I look at the injustices of this world and believe that some gracious God has willed it all? At best that would be blindness. At worst, vanity. At least, that’s what I believe. And this belief leads me to some conclusions that are difficult to balance.
On the one hand, I can’t blame God for what happens here, for this year, for us. I can’t blame him for the suffering of the world anymore than I can blame him for when I stub my toe. I think God is just as the world is, and though they may intersect they are not the same.
But then, to what can I attribute that love that I have known? That peace? The short answer, the unfulfilling conclusion to all this, is that I don’t know.
But an image keeps coming to my mind. It’s of a young child on his bicycle, being pushed by his father and then released, propelled alone into the world for the first time. His father’s eyes unseen but upon him: in love, hoping that he might not fall.
This world is a terrible, beautiful place. That I have experienced so much of its beauty and so little of its sadness is inexplicable, without purpose. I suspect there may be no purpose to any of this at all.
I can’t explain my life, but I think it’s my responsibility to accept it. I try to remind myself every day to be grateful for what I have and who I am. I try to live with as much joy as I can: not because I deserve it, nor because I feel this world has given it to me. Just because I can.
In a pleasant way, to remind myself of all this feels like another connection to my past. As if it is another way to make alive that little boy who was comforted by his father that night, those decades ago. To accept that fear and uncertainty will be within me always. To understand that there are some things that I will never grasp. And to know that I am loved.