on faith – a letter from father to daughter

This afternoon, I found an old folder with a bunch of my dad’s letters to me from 1989-1996.

I really loved, and miss greatly, our discussions. Almost all of his letters to me contain come kind of advice, or thoughtful paragraphs. Many contain silliness and thoughts on the idea of “Vinnie” which was his existential, well, the closest I can possibly describe “Vinnie” is kind of a cross between God, Buddha, Jung’s Collective Unconscious, and the local pizza guy.

Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to me in September 1996 in response to a short story about his boots I’d written for a contest (I got second place! and unfortunately, have no copy of that story.)

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I enjoyed your letter. Loved the question at the end, “Do people with faith survive better than those without (in a survival situation)?” Difficult to answer directly. First have to define faith. The meaning can range from what I suppose grandpa means – ‘don’t be afraid, it will turn out okay’ to the very religious for whom faith means an absolute belief in a higher being who directs all the action and will determine the outcome.

Then, of course, we have to define survival situation. Do you mean trapped in a snowstorm at the top of Mount Everest, certainly a survival situation. On the other hand, everyday life can be seen as an ongoing series of survival situations – which we just tend to take for granted.

I have been in many tight spots. Typically I am or was always the one who had it together. So was your mother.

To your specific question I would answer that people who handle crisis or who can meet the challenge of a survival situation are first and foremost people who have faith in themselves.  For whatever reason I have always had the faith that somehow I could handle whatever had to be dealt with. Faith in oneself demands a deep inner conviction to be pro­ active, to be powerful, to not see oneself as a victim. Those who fail in crisis are those who don’t believe they are up to what needs to be done. They quickly give in to fear, are seduced by fear, giving up their innate power, they go belly up and hope for mercy. They allow themselves to feel powerless.  Needless to say, this loss of faith in the self always makes whatever is happening a lot worse.

I remember years ago, I was stuffed in a Volkswagen with a bunch of SDS folks, driving through the night through the Midwest.   It was dangerous country back then. I was sound asleep. Suddenly people were waking me up and I noticed the car was stopped on the highway shoulder. Everybody was in a panic, like an old keystone cops movie. They were so fucked up it took me a few minutes to figure out what the problem was. Turned out we had a flat tire. Without saying anything or for that matter ever fully waking up I changed the tire, got back in the car, went back to sleep. Before shutting my eyes I told the driver to pull into the first gas station he or she came to and wake me up. We got to a station with a couple of redneck looking guys and my colleagues woke me up. I took out the flat tire, rolled it into the garage and said “I need this fixed”.  That was that. My friends thought I was a hero. Now here is how it went.  When they woke me up, I did not know what was going on, but it did not matter because I just by nature assumed whatever it was had to be dealt with – and I could deal with it.

Certainly I have played a similar role in more dramatic situations.

The point is that things happen i.e. crisis situations – the situation has to be dealt with. Some people will bury their head in the sand and hope it will go away, some go into denial – neither of these deals with the situation. You simply deal with it and have faith in your own problem solving abilities or whatever to just take it on. All of us have capacities and strengths far beyond what we assume. Crisis or difficult situations have often been beneficial to me, allowing me to realize I had capacities of which I had been unaware.

An aspect of the practice of Buddhism which is helpful is that of living fully in the moment. That extraordinary state of relaxed alertness tends to allow for the most appropriate response to a situation, as does a non  attachment to any given emotional/mind state.

So faith in yourself.

Now as to the other kind of faith.  It seems to depend. For some faith in a God helps them find the strength to rise to the occasion, for others it gives permission to just go belly up and pray for divine intervention.   So once again it gets down to faith in yourself.

In this sense, faith is that belief that something is always going to happen next, that you will be able to deal with it, or at least do the best that can be done, and then whatever happens – happens.

In this respect I have never noticed any real difference in people with or without or of different religions.

Ultimately faith, like everything else, is about death. There are some who neither believe in God or an afterlife – Jake* for instance.  But Jake is faithful in that death does not provoke fear in him but rather an intense commitment to living in the moment and the expectation that death will be okay.  That is a form of faith. As you know I have been spending time with devout Christians. For them, in dealing with death, faith is the belief in a Supreme God and his son Jesus and in everlasting life. They find strength and resist fear in the belief that one moves on to heaven – personality and all – and they expect to meet all their dead relatives and friends there. To you this may seem foolish. To me it is rather amazing.

The type of faith symbolized by Jake does not require much. It does not demand much struggle over fear or dis-belief.  On the other hand for my Christian friends, faith is very demanding.  Since there is so little, actually no empirical proof that anything they believe is real, they have to struggle that much harder to sustain faith.

Faith for a Buddhist is easy.  It is just the faith that there really is no one there for whom faith is a question.

But you asked about survival.  I have found that religious beliefs don’t mean much one way or the other.  The people to rely on are those who have faith in themselves. The wellspring of this is somewhat experience but I think it is much more a quality of the heart.
The bottom line is faith in yourself and the willingness  to accept and work with any situation.  Such faith inspires  others to find their own courage. I don’t think it has anything to do with what kind of religious belief one has.

You know  my favorite story about my father and the issue of faith, but it bears retelling.

My father is a working class fellow, he grew up in dire poverty, served six years in the infantry and then worked twelve hours a day, six days a week to support a family.  He is not a well read man and he is certainly not a religious man.  Throughout my life he has often ended conversations with me, especially when I was encountering difficult times, by saying “Well  just keep the faith”. He would say it quite casually, almost a throwaway equivalent  of “I’ll be seeing you”. This went on for years. Several years ago while visiting my family in New York, for some reason I turned to my father and asked him about this, “Pop,” I said, “You know how you are always telling me to keep the faith, you really mean that don’t you?” “Oh yeah, yeah, sure I mean it,” he responded .

I asked him if he had always been a faithful man.  He said “Oh yeah, sure” and then his expression changed, his mouth turned down, and a great sadness overcame him, palpable and powerful , tears in his eyes and he said, “No, I haven’t been, not during the war. The war. It was too hard, too terrible, too painful. All of us lost faith, it was just impossible to be faithful.”

I felt his sadness and responded with what seemed to me the obvious question – I asked “My god pop, how did you ever get it back?” His expression changed to a funny grin, one I knew from childhood, one that said, “My good but stupid son” and I asked again,

“My god pop, how did you ever get your faith back?”
“Oh” he said with a quiet smile, “the war ended!”

Self doubt is the anti-thesis of faith.   It is generally a waste  of time.
Don’t argue with it just let it go.
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* name changed

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permanence

After four long, stressful years of struggling with Chase bank and their bureaucratic bullshit, my house sold yesterday! Yay! Time for a “house cooling” party.

It’s a little bittersweet. Kind of like getting out of a relationship. The first three years were pretty good, but the last four were difficult. While you are still in the relationship you hold out some hope that change might happen no matter how remote a possibility. Like, “I know that somehow I can figure out a way to transplant that house in Phoenix!” You know it isn’t actually able to happen, but you hold onto the threads. Once the relationship is over, you have to face the fact that teleportation doesn’t exist and your unrealistic hopes were, well, unrealistic. You remember the good times, but know that it’s for the best because there really were too many obstacles and neither of you were going to change substantially enough (or capable of)  to make it work (I sure as hell wasn’t going to move back to Chicago).

Yes, I am a statistic. I had a house that was waaaaay underwater and I couldn’t keep it. I tried to do the right thing and applied for a modification. This was in 2008. At the time, Washington Mutual had my account. They kept losing my paperwork, requesting new paperwork, disappearing whole departments I’d been working with the day before…. Friends told me to just walk away. It was 2008 and well, we all know where the economy went and what happened with the banks and the housing market. Instead, I got a tenant so that I could keep paying on my mortgage. I was trying to do the ‘responsible’ thing.

JP Morgan / Chase bought (acquired, took over, ingested?) Washington Mutual and I had a whole new corporation to deal with. I continued to try to get a modification and for the next two years continued to get stonewalled. I probably submitted a complete modification packet seven times because they kept losing my paperwork. It was truly maddening.

I received one notice of potential foreclosure about a year and a half ago. There was never a followup to that letter. Please foreclose and put me out of this Brazil-esque nightmare! I’ve submitted your 27b/6 multiple times now!

A friend of mine who went through a divorce got a notice and three months later the bank was moving to foreclose on his house. How did he get so lucky?

Finally, I decided to sell my house in short sale. If you decide to do this, be patient. You will have to open up your financial life in a way you never expected. The bank requires many months of bank statements, a couple of years worth of your taxes filings, your work history and W2’s… it’s frustrating, invasive, crazy-making. And it drags on… so you will have to keep sending up-to-date bank statements and earnings history.

But once it’s done, it’s done. Yay!
And then all you have to worry about is the IRS come next tax season. Fun!

(Obviously I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on tv, but I did consult 6 or 7 lawyers and 3 CPAs and they all told me that what one needs to do is file IRS form 982 . I also recommend doing your next taxes with an accountant.)

So, it’s over. The albatross is no longer hanging on my neck.
I can now look forward instead of having part of my past clawing at me.
Goodbye house that was my home for a while.

choices

I found out this afternoon that a friend of mine died this last Sunday.

He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

In his case, I can’t really blame him. He was diabetic, losing his eyesight, in poor health, in constant pain, and just got news that his leg was going to have to be amputated above the knee.

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It is many hours and a fair amount of sake and whiskey since I started this post. Since I rarely drink, I feel I should disclaim in advance.

There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
~ Albert Camus

Don’t we all have some wound, psychic or physical? At what point is it too much? My friend decided that losing limbs and his senses (sight) was too much.

I couldn’t help but take that news today and fly back in time and think about my dad. Hell, it’s closing in on Father’s Day anyway and I was working on writing something for that day. Might as well start now.

My pop’s death was deemed an “accidental overdose,” but I know, and those of us close to him knew, that it was a suicide. Perhaps an “accidental suicide” but regardless, the man was in pain and had been self-medicating for years as a means to an end.

So, the question is: Why do people kill themselves? Okay, maybe that’s not the question, because that answer is easy: they were in pain. I guess the question is: how much pain is enough? Perhaps that is the question.

In my friend’s position, he was falling apart. Literally. (and yes, I mean that word in the true sense, not in some hipster figurative miscalculation of the word). In my dad’s case… I don’t know. He had a pain in his belly that he’d had since he was in his early 20’s, most likely a result of a botched surgery. He also had considerable “psychic pain”. Would that spiritual or psychic pain have been enough to do the deed if he hadn’t the physical pain as well? Would he have been an alcoholic and drug abuser without the physical pain? I don’t know. I tend to think, yes. But these are questions that will never be answered. Do people who have constant physical pain not have psychic pain as well? I know plenty of people who have psychic or spiritual pain who have no physical maladies. And that pain is plenty on its own.

I will refer now to one of my most-liked websites Post Secret (and if you don’t know the history of this very cool project, check here.) They list the Suicide Prevention Hotline at the bottom of most of their weekly posts.

That said… and please refer to my above disclaimer…  I feel like a Bad Person ™ even asking this, but is suicide sometimes a viable alternative? I mean, why should someone live in pain and have a super poor quality of life? Just for the sake of being able to say that they are alive? Because people who love that person don’t want them to go away? That seems rather ridiculous and selfish to me.

I’m too tired to continue this post, and perhaps I could condense it to a two, or three line Facebook status report and elicit a spirited debate in that medium, but this is my website, so I’ll post here. Feel free to comment, argue, grandstand. I’m not guaranteeing I’ll “approve” all comments (this is not a democracy site, but a totalitarian fun park, after all) but I still would like to hear your thinks.

I hope any of that makes sense because I’m not going to bother editing it.
I’m going to forage in my refrigerator now, because apparently rambling to the interwebz gives me an appetite.