Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Faith is What Remains

Feeling a bit pensive with this week's column in The Villager. It's a good time of the year to be reflective and appreciate what is.

Many years ago during a moment of ennui and melancholy, I voiced a concern that perhaps I had lost my faith. It was a time in my life that I was experiencing a fading sense of belief and trust in many things, including myself. Feeling a bit unmoored and listless, I occasionally found myself apathetic and disinterested in many things I once found meaningful. It wasn’t a particularly dark or depressed feeling, just a dull sense of emptiness.

At that time in a rather brief but enlightening conversation, a wise and spiritual young man told me that, on the contrary, faith is not something you can lose. “Faith,” he said casually but with a calm confidence, “faith is what remains when all else seems hopeless. Faith is not something you lose -- it’s what you turn to when you are feeling lost.” Few conversations have stayed with me as long and as vividly as that one. And I have recalled it often, especially in the past couple years. Faith is what reminds us that every day there are many opportunities to smile, laugh, and love.

I have heard and read that the pandemic has increased feelings of anxiety and despair in many people as they fret about the state of the world and their place in it. As the pandemic approaches two years, many of us are simply exhausted by the news and the uncertainty of our daily lives. However, amidst those uneasy feelings, a recent poll indicated that a majority of people feel their mental health is better than it’s ever been and a key reason is because the last few years have given them the opportunity to think about it. Rather than losing hope in the world, people are finding faith in themselves.

Part of that change can be attributed to a simple focus on mental health, and some have discovered clarity through the art of mindfulness. For the past few years, I’ve added mindfulness practice into my life and my classroom. It started with a simple app called 10% Happier, which had several free guided meditations with a man named Joseph Goldstein who simply encourages listeners to “Sit and know you are sitting. Breathe and know you are breathing.” That sort of calm, reflective guidance allows people to step outside of the external factors that stress them and just be still for a moment.

An old old Peanuts cartoon I remember from my youth indicated “happiness is a warm puppy.” And that’s true for many people, except for me. I’m allergic. But I appreciate the idea of finding happiness in life’s simple pleasures. A happy man never really ever asks if he is. Thus, asking “Am I happy?” probably indicates the answer. Doing something about it is the challenge. Steve Jobs once said, “For the past 33 years, I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

One thing people can change is their mindset, and practices such as mindfulness can improve mental well being. Another change is a practice that becomes common every November, the act of being thankful. Gratitude and being actively aware of positives in our lives has been shown to improve mental health. And one simple practice that has a beneficial effect is gratitude journaling. Studies have shown that simply taking time each day for twenty one days to write down three things in our lives for which we are grateful has a positive mental health benefit. And one of those things that I have tried to remember each day is what I learned many years ago about faith.

Of course, faith is not limited to a religion or belief system. While faith can be spiritual, it can also be metaphysical, and there’s a relationship between faith and hope. According to some, faith is trust in the past, whereas hope is trust in the future. As Andy Defrane writes to his friend Red at the end of Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Just like faith. Because faith isn’t something you ever lose. Faith is what remains.

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