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.)
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.
* name changed