How do you find meaning in life? What is the point of all this? Why am I here? Why is anyone here? What is our purpose? What else is out there?
These are questions that baffled me my entire life, and I often concluded that there was no point, there’s nothing or no one out there, or no one in here anyway, that if there was a God, he, she, or it didn’t care about me, because I wasn’t one of the chosen ones. I wasn’t one of those who had what I thought was an innate quality that you had to have which made you spiritual and faithful. How do you believe in something you can’t see and for which you have no scientific proof? Those other people who had burning bush experiences were either insane, hallucinating, or else they had some special characteristic unavailable to me for whatever reason.
When I was in college, I dated this guy who I adored, who I’ll call Seth. Seth had a belief, faith that life would work out, that he would be taken care of no matter what. He’s the only person I know who could smoke pot all day and still be energized. Maybe he had ADHD, who knows. (But please note that I’m not advocating marijuana use; if it were up to me no one would drink or drug at all, ever, but that’s just my two cents, and if you want to drink or smoke, that’s your prerogative and I try not to judge.) I could not understand how Seth had this faith. His friends all seemed to be the same way, the ones who I liked anyway. And I was jealous. There was a wall between them and me, and I did not know how to tear it down. I’m the one who built it, so of course I wasn’t about to get rid of it, even though I wanted what they had so badly.
Three events stand out in my mind about Seth that just blew my mind at the time, but I will talk about one of them today because this post is already too long.
Just before I moved to London, I broke up with Seth, because I had things to do, a life to live, and that didn’t include being a 22-year-old stepmother for a guy with two toddlers. My plan was to move to London and experience life. But then one night, for some reason, it seemed like a good idea to attempt suicide before experiencing this big adventure that actually seemed pointless because nothing really mattered anyway (I was depressed). Seth saved my life after I’d overdosed on sleeping pills, and when I woke up the next morning, he said, Let’s just get married. I thought, That’s a terrible idea. He was so willing to take care of me, so foolish and naive. I knew it then and I know it now. In my heart I knew it was unhealthy, and not the solution.
When I got to London, the hostel where I was staying cut my visit short by a week (I’d booked two weeks and they thought I’d booked just one), and I didn’t learn this until the end of the week, so I had to find a place to live immediately. I had no home, no job, not much money, and I was there alone. The only person I knew was this gorgeous girl from San Diego who all the English guys fawned over, whereas I was just a boring girl from some unknown town in Georgia. She was a poet, and she got what I imagined was a fulfilling job at an independent bookstore with all the cool people, and moved to Camden Town, where all the artsy-fartsy people lived, and then promptly no longer had time for me. Once I went out with her and her cool girlfriends, who were indifferent to me, so that was it for me. I was on my own.
So after a few weeks of pure hell, I called Seth crying, hoping for a comforting voice, a friend. He’d always comforted me before when I was down, so why not call now, after I’d broken his heart? Hahaha! Right. He was sweet but at the same time he let me know he’d just started dating Rita, this supermodel of a girl from one of my English classes who’d previously dated a co-worker of mine who I’d had a crush on. Seth had wasted no time finding this girl, who seemed a lot more together than I was at the time. Her dad was rich, in my mind, because he was an attorney, and she was from the city, ie, she was worldly, taken care of, confident.
These memories bring me back to how I felt at the time: inferior to everyone else, unable to attain whatever it was they had that I could never put my finger on. They all had money (or so I believed, and which seemed to me the ticket to freedom), confidence, a plan. They all seemed to know what they wanted and they knew how to go after it. Me? I was just bumbling around, hoping for the best, expecting the worst.
One reason I adored Seth so much was because he provided me with emotional support. My drinking career was progressing fast—I’d started drinking at 14, but could only drink on weekends. By the time I was a senior in college, I was drinking at least four nights a week, often while working. I felt deeply depressed and often cried for no reason I could ascertain, and Seth would soothe me with reassuring words about how I was being taken care of, that I had love in my heart. And he talked about God. Not in a churchy way, but in a heart-filled, cut-to-the-core way. All these concepts were so foreign to me, but spoke volumes. How could he know all that stuff? How could he be so sure?
To this day I don’t know what it is, or was, that made him and at least some of his friends so spiritually in touch, but I can take a guess.
Hardship, for one.
Hardship combined with a fighter mentality, not in a violent way, but a positive attitude that I can get through this. Well, he came from a broken home, and had gotten a girl pregnant when he was only 22. That would probably make someone’s life challenging, to say the least, especially a kid who had not gone to college. So he did what he had to do, and he took care of his family.
This post is already getting too long so I will cut to the chase. How is it that now I believe in something I’ve never been able to see, hear, smell, or touch? Although I grew up in the Bible belt, my parents didn’t require that I go to church. My dad was an atheist, and my mom encouraged independence of thought. When my sisters were little, our parents took them to church for social reasons, but then they divorced when I was three, and nothing social or church-like happened after that. One of my neighborhood friends took me to church with her on occasion, which I remember wanting, because I wanted so badly to have faith, to believe in God, to go to heaven when I died. Maybe I wasn’t good enough, and if I didn’t go to church and become a Christian and get saved, I might go to hell for all of eternity. But somehow I could never become a member of the church, or relate to what the preacher talked about, or remember all the stories and history, and why Jesus died for my sins. To this day, one of my favorite lines is the opening of a Patti Smith song (Gloria): “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” It represents to me a defiant spirit who feels that if there is a God, he’s not here for me. That was how I felt.
Whatever my oldest sister believed was what I believed. She’s a poet and an artist, and I related to her. Sherry and I started getting close when I was about 14, when she took a sudden interest in me. She’d had a hard life and didn’t go to college right away, but after she did, she came home and taught us all, Mom included, the things she learned. Not the book stuff, but just the… open-your-mind-to-the-world stuff. It was wonderful.
Once Sherry came home after I’d spent a weekend hallucinating on drugs in Atlanta after having told Mom I was at a friend’s house across the street, and Sherry she told me that she’d found God. I’d just finished hallucinating a police car while driving high as a kite the hour and a half back to where I lived, and was still hallucinating when she told me this, and somehow her very words produced a feeling that God was there, right then.
And if that was the case, well. I was in big trouble.
She described some kind of spiritual experience she’d had that sounded half-baked, and I remember thinking, Don’t be telling me this right now. I’m on drugs right now, and if there’s a God, he knows what I’m doing, and he ain’t happy with me right now. I remember thinking, I thought you were an atheist, and I’d accepted that as the answer. That was what made the most sense, scientifically. Of course there’s no God. We evolved from primates who’d evolved from amoebas eventually somehow and there’s not some bearded old man in the sky who controls my destiny. There was not some entity who knew everything that happened and was going to happen. That was my senior year of high school.
And then I met Seth in college a few years later, and his perspective further opened the doorway into a concept that I previously dismissed. But even then I still wanted so badly to have faith, and I thought you had to have dreadlocks, do yoga, hug trees, be a vegan, smoke a lot of weed, and be a very relaxed, chill person who automatically had this thing called spirituality. I wanted to be that person so badly, but I was so tightly wound and so lost that only a drink could unwind me, temporarily.
Fast-forward to seven and a half years ago, six months after I moved to Maryland. One night I was sitting in bed, only slightly buzzed, watching this Alfred Hitchcock movie about a woman who’d woken up in jail after having killed her husband in a blackout. I remember thinking, My God. That could be me. I had no idea what I’d done in my blackouts. No memory. My first husband liked to remind me, and it was not a pretty picture. I was a completely different person when I was drinking. Then I remember thinking, I wish I could find God.
Then something happened.
I felt like a higher power was there in the room with me. This thought came to me: God is right here, now.
It felt the same as when Sherry told me she’d found God but less scary. Not exactly comforting, but somehow just this knowing feeling. This time another thought came to me: You will never find God as long as you’re sitting here getting drunk every night.
Where did that thought come from? How did I know that? Somehow I just knew it. I had not heard it anywhere. No one told me that in order to get sober I had to believe in God. I had no idea what AA was all about, that it was based on spiritual principles. All I knew was that I was blocked off from the world sitting in my room alone watching creepy psychological thrillers about the very real possibilities of what human beings are capable of. I was not really living life, not participating in any fulfilling or meaningful way. I had no friends. I worked from home. I hated Maryland (which I now love, btw—this is a beautiful state), I hated the snow, I hated the landscape, I hated the people, I hated my apartment. All of those things I now love (except the apartment—that place sucked).
A month later I decided I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, as they say in the rooms. I was sick of the hangovers, that’s all. I was not thinking about God. So I went to an AA meeting.
And they talked about a higher power in there. I had no idea that AA had anything to do with a higher power.
For a lot of people who come to AA, the idea of God is a repellent. So many people grew up with religion being forced on them, and the notion of God as a punishing God is a pervasive cultural belief, ingrained in us from the time we’re born, even if we didn’t go to church growing up. Then there are people from other religions, who come to AA and feel alienated because in most meetings we say the Lord’s prayer. It’s a shame really, that the program is not more inclusive, and equally a shame that many people can’t get past that. Easy for me to say, being neither atheist nor religious. And that includes Christianity. I am not a Christian, but I respect Christians who truly believe in living a positive way of life, just as much as I respect Muslims, Hindus, Jewish people, atheists, and agnostics who exercise their life-views in positive ways. Buddhism makes the most sense to me, as a practical way of life, but I am not a Buddhist either. I believe in a higher power, which I call God, simply because it’s easier to call it God than anything else, and most people know what that means, though we have different interpretations.
How is it that I believe in this thing I can’t see? Well, I’ll tell you. I simply made a choice. I chose to believe in it. You can replace the word God with the word good or love, both of which I can’t see, but can feel, and have access to at any time. When I’m in a negative state of mind, I may behave in negative ways, and there’s no God in that. No good in it, no love. I’m not spreading goodness when that happens, and I feel miserable.
It’s probably terribly unsatisfying news for any skeptics out there, to find out that I never received any kind of proof, other than a feeling, and that feeling began as a glimmer of hope that maybe I would be okay (this came, by the way, two years prior to getting sober, after my sister got sober but that’s a whole nother blog post), and the feeling has evolved into a full-fledged belief that everything will work out, even during hard times, no matter what happens. And the reason it will work out is because in many ways (in all ways?) I create my own reality. I’ve decided to make the best of this life, of this moment, because this moment is the only thing I know for sure. I wish I had a more satisfying answer for those of you who may feel like how I used to be, which was purely skeptical and jaded. What bullshit to have faith just because you chose to have it. Where’s the burning bush? The lightning strike, the neon sign that I am God and I will protect you forever and you’re here for a reason, a deeply profound reason… And you’ll become rich and famous and everyone will love you.
I don’t know, man. I didn’t get that sign. But I know my life ain’t for nothing, as much as I know your life ain’t for nothing either. My mother’s life wasn’t for nothing. She made a profound impact not just on me, but on her community. Just as Pedro did. Just as Michelle did. Each of them in their own ways. Even as much as my friend from high school/college (Sean) who committed suicide seven years ago because he never could figure out what the point of all this was. I just hope that you, my dear readers, do not feel that this world is not your home as much as it is everyone else’s. Maybe there’s a better home after this, but why speed that process up when you have no idea what happens after this? Enjoy this moment, now, here.
This faith I’ve found is something that came after decades of self-pity, bafflement, uncertainty, insecurity, of a feeling so incredibly lost that I had no idea how I would ever. Figure anything out, ever. And it’s not like I figured it all out one day. The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know. But that’s okay. Every time life throws me a curve ball, it’s an opportunity to ask what there is for me to learn from this. So far the lessons have only come through terribly painful circumstances that made no sense to me but seemed to have been required for me to get to this place of… serenity. Word is that you can learn these lessons from joy too, but I’m not aware of how that works.
One of my friends is an atheist, and doesn’t understand how or why some people have such strong faith. She seems happy, so kudos to her. Some AA members are atheists and find a way for it to work for them, so more power to them. Some people get sober without AA, and I salute them. Most people don’t need or want AA but many of us want a spiritual way of life. And a lot more aren’t interested. They don’t have that desire for a meaningful life, and that’s fine for them. You do whatever works for you. It doesn’t matter to me if you believe in God, don’t believe in God, drink, don’t drink, or what you do, as long as you’re not hurting other people. No one else can tell you what to do, how to live your life. I’m simply telling you what has worked for me. And I do want you to be happy, for selfish reasons, to be honest. Because if you are happy, you’re probably going to spread positivity to the world around you, or at least you most likely won’t be killing, stealing, or cheating other people. And also because now that I’ve finally found a positive way of life, I want everyone to have that. I feel like if I can find it, so can you.
One last comment to those of you who think you’re different, that this won’t work for you. When I was in high school a psychiatrist diagnosed me with chronic depression. What I heard was that it’s incurable, therefore nothing can be done to change it. I was doomed, no matter what. Here’s what I have to say to anyone else who gets a similar diagnosis, or interprets it in that way: Don’t believe that bullshit. My therapist now says I have situational depression. Who knows? You create your own reality. That doesn’t mean don’t take medication (or that you do–I am not a doctor and have no idea if you should take your meds or not so please do not take this as encouragement to do one or the other), and it doesn’t mean that you don’t go to a therapist, church, temple, or whatever works for you. It means you do everything you can to help yourself. Give it your all. If one thing doesn’t work, give it a good shot and if that doesn’t work, try something else. But have patience. And don’t beat yourself up when you slip because we all slip. That’s called life.
It brings me back to these questions to ask yourself when in doubt:
- Is this good for me?
- Is this how I want to live my life?
There are other important questions to ask, like Is this good for other people? But that can be a more difficult one to answer until you can look at the bigger picture in the long term, which most of us can’t do when we’re confused about our own existence—at least, I couldn’t, nor did I care to. But if you think about the bad decisions you made in your life, chances are they were hurtful to others, either directly or indirectly, even when you were doing something they wanted you to do.
Here’s a beautiful song that’s been out there for a while but I’ve never paid attention to it until this morning when a friend sent me a link to some of their videos. I’m not sure I know what he means when he says “I struggle to find truth in your lies” but the words that resonate with me are these:
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
Awake my soul, awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker