On Faith

Sometimes it’s 5 a.m., and all you have is faith.

Did you guess that it’s 5 a.m.? Yes, it’s 5 a.m.

Things I do not have at 5 a.m.: The ability to think clearly. Appetite (feeling sick, actually). The ability to concentrate on any task. I have spent the last seven hours going over a manuscript that I somehow, over the last month, got down to 120 pages. Of academic prose.  (Including endnotes.)

In academic prose, you are not allowed to use figurative or poetic language. You have to make sure that anything you say can be supported. You cannot make claims that are too large, but if you make claims that are too small, you don’t have an argument. You can’t say different than: it’s different from. There are all sorts of other rules, but at the moment I’ve forgotten them. That’s what happens at 5 a.m.

At that time, when it’s still dark and you’re sitting there in the darkness, with only a desk lamp on, typing on your computer (as I am now), all you have is faith that what you’re doing is worthwhile, that what you have written is worth something even if, looking at it again for the hundredth time, you think it may have been written in a foreign language. Because you no longer understand it.

We tend not to talk about faith too much. It’s not very popular nowadays. We would rather have ambition, intellect, drive, whatever it is that allows us to get ahead by our own efforts. Faith is for the times that you’re so tired you can barely keep typing. When all those other things seem to have gone away, and your mind feels completely empty. When you can’t even remember the definition of figurative language. (I had to look it up.)

You can have faith in the internal – in your own abilities. Or, and again this is not very popular – you can have faith in the external, in whatever it is that the universe intends for you. (Mother Night, the tapestry woven by spiders, the pattern we don’t see: there you go, symbolism. Figurative language.) And I do believe that we shape our destinies, really I do. But I also believe in a pattern, and that I am a part of it, and that it will come out right in the end. Despite all the places where it doesn’t look like it’s coming out right, because I’m only seeing the part of the pattern I’m in at the moment, not the whole. And anyway, I’m only seeing it from the back.

I do wish the universe would let me get more sleep?

Although here I am writing, because I had these thoughts on faith and the necessity for it. And in particular because a friend I was talking to earlier today mentioned the subject, and I wanted to say: have faith. That’s always a difficult thing to say to another person, because it seems presumptuous, doesn’t it?

But even though it’s dark now, at 5 a.m., it will soon be light, and even though I can see banks of snow from my window, they will soon melt, and Spring will come, and time will pass, and things will change. That’s not even something we need to have faith in: we know it will happen. What we have faith in is that the change will be meaningful, will bring what we want or need into our lives.

I have faith in that too, that things are changing for some purpose. Probably a purpose I won’t understand until whatever it is has happened, and the manuscript I finished tonight is part of that change. Everything I do now, every story I write, is part of it.

The prospect of change always fills me with optimism. Even at 5 a.m., when I’m so tired that my hands are heavy on the keyboard.

Good night, good morning. It’s time to get some sleep . . .

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10 Responses to On Faith

  1. Grey Walker says:

    When you said that we see the tapestry of life from the back, it made me think of Fair Isle knitting — the back side is so different from the front that, if the back were all you could see, you’d have to take the intricate beauty of the front entirely on faith.

  2. Louise says:

    One problem with telling people to have faith, is that they’re too sure what you’re telling them to have faith in: one brand of religion or another. Another problem, of course, is that, in lieu of that kind of faith, it’s not quite clear what it is we’re to have faith in. I like the idea of having faith in that balance you describe, our thread in the larger tapestry and our ability to shape the way that thread is woven.

    Hope you get some sleep!

  3. Grey: I love that image! Exactly. And I think what I’m saying is, I believe in the beauty of the pattern, despite what the front sometimes looks like.

    Louise: Thanks! I did get a couple of hours of sleep, and I’m happy to report that I turned in my ridiculously long manuscript. Hopefully my readers will like it.

    You’re right, of course, that people may take it that way. And I didn’t really describe the sort of faith I actually mean, although you’re right that I mean something like the thread and the way it’s woven, both having faith in the pattern itself and in our ability to participate in the shaping of it.

    I think my own thinking about this comes from an odd combination of Isak Dinesen and Viktor Frankl, something like: Have faith that your life has a meaning and purpose, and that it’s up to you to find and realize that meaning and purpose. The things you encounter in your life, the books you read, the people you meet and spend time with, are there for a reason, and it’s up to you to find out the reason, to figure out how they fit into your life, into what you’re supposed to do and become. I know that to a lot of people this is a strange way of thinking about it, but it’s as though our lives are collaborations with fate. Things happen to us for reasons, but it’s up to us to decide what those reasons are and to respond to those events.

    If that makes any sense? I still haven’t gotten enough sleep . . . 🙂

  4. Louise says:

    “Things happen to us for a reason, but it’s up to us to determine what those reasons are.” But what if our reasons and fate’s don’t coincide? And is that important? Are we more like detectives trying to determine fate’s reasons or free agents who decide what our own reasons are without affecting fate’s larger pattern?

  5. Grey Walker says:

    “It’s as though our lives are collaborations with our fate.”


    I once wrote that, while “Invictus” is a fine poem, I don’t want to be “the master of my fate.” I want to be the friend of my fate.

  6. “Are we more like detectives trying to determine fate’s reasons or free agents who decide what our own reasons are without affecting fate’s larger pattern?”

    I think perhaps the answer is that we don’t know? After all, if fate has reasons, we can’t know them. So it’s as though we go through life trying to intuit them, trying to understand why things happen and how they fit into our lives while at the same time trying to act with agency, to create our own fates. We’re always trying to negotiate the internal and external, to figure out how we and our individual actions fit into the universe, into whatever pattern may be out there.

    Sorry, I know this is convoluted, but I think that may be part of the human condition, to not know whether there is a larger pattern, and if there is, to not know how we fit into it, and to be forever trying to figure it out. And sometimes I think we can see bits and pieces of it, can look back and say “Oh, that part of my life fit together in that way. If X had not happened, I would not have ended up at Y.” Although of course that may just be us seeing a pattern where there are only choice and chance. I believe in a pattern, but that’s an act of faith, based on no empirical evidence whatsoever, only intuition (which may be wrong).

    But it does make sense to me to at least live as though there is a meaning to it all. (At least, it helps me through those dark nights of the soul when I think, “There HAS to be a reason why that happened.”)

    “But what if our reasons and fate’s don’t coincide?”

    Does fate have reasons? Or does it just do stuff, and we decide the reasons and how to respond to our circumstances? I don’t know . . .

    “I want to be the friend of my fate.”

    I like that. 🙂 I hope my fate is friendly . . .

  7. I believe in the beauty of the pattern, despite what the front sometimes looks like.

    I do too. I had forgotten. Thank you for reminding me 🙂

  8. Stephen J. says:

    Courage is the choice to act as if we feel no fear, even when we do.

    Faith is the choice to act as if we feel no doubt, even when we do.

    In both of the above definitions, the most important word is not “feel” but “choice”.

  9. JDsg says:

    …that what you have written is worth something even if, looking at it again for the hundredth time, you think it may have been written in a foreign language. Because you no longer understand it.

    I learned to trust this feeling. I once had it after writing an essay for Freshman English. I wasn’t sure what type of grade the paper would get when I submitted it, but the TA loved it.

  10. Yes, by the time you’re done with a piece of writing, you get to a place where you can no longer judge whether it’s good or not. And you have to learn to trust that place, to know that your confusion is actually a sign that the essay is done . . . 🙂

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