Kids can wear you down. You quickly find out that your previous understanding of “patience” was insufficient, and the strain of long days and longer nights just keep coming. Then, just when you think you’ve adapted to your new lifestyle as a parent, your child wills another new and uniquely challenging situation upon you. It’s tough living with and caring for (and trying to keep alive…) another human being with their own mind. Kids can bring you to your knees.
The aforementioned challenges are not easy, to be sure, but then there is the weight and true test of parenthood: raising your child to live a happy life in a turbulent and potentially philosophically crushing world. Okay, okay, so I know I’m a grad student in a psych field, and some of these things might weigh on me more than they ever will on my kids, but seriously. Have you ever had your deepest beliefs strongly challenged? Have you had a test of your faith that bruised your soul? Have you had to scrape out a logical path through the absurdity of surrounding evidence to find peace of mind again? That’s the kind of stuff I worry about my kids going through.
To be honest, the real purpose of this post is not to talk directly about the challenges of raising children, but to share a few realizations and experiences that I have had since having children, some of which have come as a result of thinking hard about (and living through) the challenges of our time and how my children will need to cope with them. I’m humbly grateful to say that I have found peace despite challenges to my faith and holes in my understanding of the universe. I’d like to provide a story that might explain “the hope that is in [me]” (1 Peter 3: 15).
You know, I was often told in my youth that I would be tested. That I would have “trials” in my life that would push me to my limits. Turns out a few serious ones were closer than I anticipated. I don’t mean to go on about all the “hard times” I’ve been having, but I hope that by sharing two specific experiences I can set the stage for discussing how to find peace after struggles find you.
In today’s modern world of information sharing it is understandable that lots of information about the LDS Church’s history would come forth. Some of the information is the kind of boring material that puts you to sleep in Sunday School (probably most of it), some of it is remarkable and enlightening, and some of it might be surprising and even disturbing.
When I was younger and ran into “anti” material, I was never really impressed by what was claimed. I don’t know if that is because I unconsciously ignored the best arguments, if I didn’t understand, or if they just really weren’t good arguments. Either way, I eventually came up against serious arguments attacking the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s character, and other basic principles of LDS doctrine and history. Sometimes they would keep me up at night, thinking and trying to make sense of what information I could find.
Early 2012 my father was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer, and he fought it for two years before passing away Spring 2014. It was a terrible ordeal and definitely still weighs on our tight-knit family. The ups and downs of cancer and the daily prospect of losing a husband or father are not to be wished on anyone. I am at least grateful that my family was able to gather and share in our grief.
However, what sorrow we had was multiplied a few months later when my sister, Michelle, passed away due to a returned and worsened brain cancer. My family gathered again, this time for the funeral of a sibling who had appeared healthy and strong only a short time ago at our father’s funeral. Suddenly, we all realized how lucky we were to have time to prepare (emotionally, financially, etc) for our father’s passing. Still shaky from one loss, our legs were swiftly knocked out from under us.
I could not go through these losses without seriously considering my faith. In order to make peace with their deaths, I instinctively started to try and answer the why behind their suffering and deaths. Why is a dangerous question when facing trials, and previous experience had taught me not to place too much value in my quest to understand. Still, questions remain on my figurative shelf.
Going back to my youth, when I was warned of life’s coming trials I was usually encouraged to turn to God for strength. I was promised that as I prayed, read the scriptures, and followed the counsel of God’s prophets and ministers that I would receive the peace I needed. Obviously, other actions should sometimes be taken (counseling, medication, etc), but these things became the first answers to many of life’s problems as I grew up. In my case, they have so far been sufficient in combination with knowledge gained through other experiences. A few of these experiences might be worth sharing.
Islam and the Middle East
As a student of Arabic, Islam, and the Middle East in general, I was constantly bombarded with information about these subjects, much of it value-laden and difficult to verify on my own. I learned two things of interest here: first, I learned to look critically at information, whatever perspective it seemed to support, and second, I learned to act on the best information available without giving it full credence. In the words of one language professor whom I greatly admire, I learned to “float on a sea of uncertainty,” moving forward cautiously but confidently. He was referring to the act of reading and communicating in Arabic, but I think this skill applies well to the intellectual exercise of seeking for truth.
For example, while studying Islam I learned to give value to both critics and supporters of the religion. Yes, Islam is a religion about peace, but yes, there are also important questions to be answered about the role of Islam in terrorism. No, Muslims are not all bent on converting the world, but neither would they be sad if we did. No, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists, but yes, some Arab Muslims who are not terrorists were sympathetic to Bin Laden’s anti-American rhetoric.
It turns out that seas of uncertainty abound. The “facts” we hear each day on the news, the perspectives we read on Facebook, the books and articles we read, and the opinions of our outspoken relatives can be undercurrents that determine our course if we are not floating lightly on the surface. Such has been my case from time to time as I have encountered information that leans heavily against my religious beliefs or political leanings. I can remember one night in particular when I felt vulnerable. The cognitive dissonance between what I had learned and what I had known before caused me no small anxiety. However, remembering some of the dissonance I had seen in Islam, I sensed that I did not know enough to fully understand what I had learned. With time I learned that it was a matter of no real concern.
I could have reacted with frustration towards the church I loved and started to distance myself emotionally from it, or I could have reacted in anger or apathy towards the source of the damning new knowledge. Either of these paths would have been mistakes. I am grateful now that I chose to be okay with the cognitive dissonance and not react in my weakness.
Examples of Faith
Humans are social creatures, they say. I have to agree that I definitely am. A critical source of strength for me in times of doubt and grief has been seeing the examples of other people whom I love and respect. This is especially true when they are moving against the intellectual or emotional current. There are smiling faces that comfort others even when they also suffer, and there are voices of faith in the midst of a secular academy. These people give me strength.
In particular, I am encouraged to see believing men and women who are far more intelligent than I am, who have seen and experienced more, and who have been exposed to more trials than I have. Whenever I feel stuck on a question I can’t answer, I remember these people and think: “do I know better than they do?” I remember to be humble in my quest for understanding, because many people who are greater than me (in so many ways) are faithful still without knowing the answer that I seek.
Learning to be okay with uncertainty and the confusion of today’s world has enabled me to sometimes catch glimpses of light and understanding in the lives of others. Remembering the humble faith of successful, intelligent adults from my childhood reminds me that “[God’s] thoughts are not [my] thoughts, neither are [my] ways [His] ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Talking with faithful professionals and scholars in my field increases my hope because I see that there are powerful arguments to be made for faith in a world that tends to value secular knowledge above all else. One source of intelligent arguments for faith that has been helpful to me is the Wheatley Institutition.
Choosing to Believe
Some of us may not be social creatures, but I think I can say that all of us ask questions quite often. We ask questions of other people and we ask questions of ourselves. We wonder why the world works the way it does, and we wonder what we’re going to eat for dinner. We wonder why the economy isn’t doing so well, and we wonder whether God really exists and cares about us. In regards to asking questions, I would like to refer to the philosophical work of one Martin Heidegger, who once wrote (translated from German):
“Every question is a seeking, and every seeking is guided beforehand by what is sought.”
His point in writing this was to demonstrate that humans are subjective. When we have a question that needs answered, we cannot completely remove ourselves from the world and look at things objectively. Rather, there is always a context in which we ask and answer questions. Intellectually, we have assumptions about truth that influence the process of answering questions and, therefore, the result.
Science, as it has been popularly understood in modern times, has assumptions about truth that are worth examining. (1) Modernist science assumes that only those things that are readily observable actually exist. (2) It also assumes that truth is universal, meaning that if a theory can be shown to not be true in any given setting, it is not truth at all. (3) Lastly, science assumes that all phenomena can be broken down into more basic parts, such as from molecules to atoms, and behavior into biological processes. How do these assumptions affect a search for truth and our understanding of the world? I believe that those who approach the question of whether there is life after death with these assumptions will inevitably conclude that there is no evidence for it. Also, no evidence for God. Also, no evidence of human free will. Also, no evidence that human life is meaningful beyond the chemical illusion of meaning coursing through our bodies during our average 80-year lifespan.
Science is a powerful tool that can be used to understand the universe and create new and amazing things. However, considering that its assumptions about the universe inevitably lead to a meaningless existence in the cosmic sense, I would say that it’s a poor tool for answering certain kinds of questions, including the most important ones.
What if we make some different assumptions about truth? Let’s flip the usual assumptions on their head. (1) As opposed to only letting empirical data exist, all human experiences (including emotions, thoughts, and spiritual phenomena) are candidates for being real. (2) All human experience is contextual and is worth considering in context to see experiential patterns, as opposed to discovering universal laws. (3) Rather than all complex life and culture depending on smaller more basic parts, the whole of experience is required to make sense of any given part of experience.
I’ll be the first to admit that it can be hard to identify our assumptions and wrap our minds around how they affect our search for answers, but we can probably see already how asking questions about the purpose of life will lead to different answers if we take on these assumptions as opposed to those of modern science.
I could write a great deal more about this, but for now I will share just one insight from my education that has given me considerable confidence as I’ve faced trials of faith: we will find what we are looking for. If you look for fault, you will find it. If you look for good, you will find it. The way in which you ask the question might be more important than the question itself. And as Heidegger points out, neither philosophical perspective has a real scientific advantage, as the answers to our questions are affected by totally arbitrary assumptions about the nature of existence. For me, the question we must ask ourselves is: do we want a meaningful, agentic existence, or a meaningless, determined one? 2 Nephi 2:27 says the rest:
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
Having recently lost my father and younger sister, I can’t help but feel sad for the man or woman who cannot answer the universe’s biggest questions through faith’s eyes. Rather than sinking in despair, I have come to feel, as told to me years ago in a priesthood blessing, that life has become “dear and meaningful” to me. For me, choosing faith is not just a moral choice, but a logical one too.
my reasons for hope
Having grown accustomed to living with uncertainty, having seen the examples of more talented individuals than myself who continue to live by faith, and having learned that ultimately it is how I seek the truth that determines what I find, I have so far endured the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual pitfalls of my life. And I’m confident that I will continue to do so.
My experience gives me hope for my children. While they are free to choose for themselves, I am confident that the more powerful argument is on faith’s side. I believe that human life is inherently meaningful and that they will find that meaning where I have found it. These are some of the reasons why I continue to believe, and I hope that they may be a source of strength and encouragement to others, and especially to my children as they start to ask questions of the world around them.