A few days ago, a wise friend told me, “You’ve really lost faith in everything, haven’t you?”
But he had to modify the statement immediately. If faith means “confidence” or “trust,” then I have plenty of it. I have what seems to be an unshakable faith in human possibility: consistently, I see that what seems impossible could actually happen if only people lived into that possibility by—for instance—actually practicing The Golden Rule, by refraining from acting toward others in ways we would not want others to act toward ourselves.
As to whether we will do this or not, I haven’t the faintest idea. I just point my compass toward that possibility, and walk on.
Every time I write or speak—often, these days, about this tremendous faith I have in art’s transformative agency—I check in with myself to see if I am absolutely aligned with what I am saying, or just repeating the familiar, fulfilling an expectation. It’s been a good practice, helping me to refresh my understanding countless times, to slough off what no longer serves and venture into a deeper inquiry that usually shows me something new. It also matches one of my abiding articles of faith, which is that our words have the most power when there is absolute congruence between what we say and what we know, what we say and who we are. And I want my words to have influence. I want them to ring out.
But my friend was right in another way. The faith I have lost is the conviction that the universe takes a personal interest in my fate.
Some of you may read that sentence and say that I have merely lost my attachment to an illusion. Others may say that I have only misplaced whatever formerly enabled me to perceive the truth of our connection to a force beyond description.
I hope that both are right. I reject any attempt to domesticate the mystery of existence by reducing it to the shape of an entity keeping track of who’s naughty and nice. I tend to be more susceptible to magical practice than magical thinking, no doubt the legacy of my remarkably superstitious forbears. So I will probably go on spitting out my automatic charms against the evil eye, even consulting a psychic from time to time. Faith doesn’t really enter into it: I know what I am doing, and it isn’t about belief.
But that doesn’t mean the mystery isn’t real. It seems even more superstitious—even more of a defense against ultimate fear—to pretend that reality consists only in whatever can be weighed, measured, perceived with the five senses. There is more to existence than can be grasped by ordinary thoughts, words, and instruments of materiality. I sense (but don’t know) that there is a direction to spiritual evolution, toward love and growth, away from whatever objectifies and makes callous use of the living. And even though I am deeply doubtful that whatever drives that direction is anything but indifferent to the particulars of my life or any other individual’s, the choice to align myself with that trajectory is an ever-present beacon.
I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about this. November 7th was designated a Global Day of Jewish Learning in honor of a heroic effort. It marked Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s completion of his decades-long 45-volume translation and commentary on the Talmud, the massive compendium of rabbinic discourse, oral law, and commentary on many subjects more or less related to the core writings of Judaism, the Tanakh (the Torah, prophetic writings, and other books that make up the Hebrew Bible). Hundreds of Jewish communities around the world celebrated the day with communal gatherings dedicated to learning and inquiry.
Fifteen years ago, I experienced a spiritual awakening courtesy of Rabbi Steinsaltz. I don’t know if he’d want to accept credit for the turn it’s taken, but I’m offering it anyway. (As must have become evident to every spiritual leader and prophet from time immemorial, you can’t pick your disciples, nor control what they do in your name.)
I was on a vacation, it rained every day, everything seemed fraught, more fighting and crying than peace. I was having trouble locating reasons to care and their absence was “a dull aching pain” (and if you recognize the source of that quotation, be sure to scroll down to the end). Having read all my books, I visited the bookstore. I was drawn, as if by a magnet, to the Judaica section, and once there, to a slim, bright-orange volume on Jewish mysticism by someone named Adin Steinsaltz: The Thirteen-Petalled Rose. I had never heard of him (which is little like saying a Buddhist has never heard of the Dalai Lama). I tried to put the book down, but it wouldn’t stay put. It was the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, and I read the book straight through before it was time to go out and ring in the New Year. As I read, a vivid image kept arising in my mind. I think it was rooted in the expression, “playing the hand you are dealt.” I saw my understanding of the world as a deck of cards. The cards were being shuffled by an unseen hand, and thus took on a radically different meaning.
The insight I was granted that day was a glimpse of possibility, that what I had always perceived as tribulation or punishment, the legacy of an operatically dysfunctional childhood, was actually preparation for the unique role I was to play. I understood then (perhaps without as much force as I understand it now) that our lives have meaning according to the stories we craft about them. I saw that I had no way of verifying the narrative that had carried me to that moment, and since it lacked objective certification, other narratives might be equally—or more—true. It was the matter-of-factness of Steinsaltz’s prose that shattered my attachment to the old story and opened the way for a new one:
[E]ach individual soul…is unique and special, in terms of its essence, its capacity, and what is demanded of it. No two souls coincide in their actions, their functions, and their paths. No one soul can take the place of another, and even the greatest of the great cannot fill the special role, the particular place, of another that may be the smallest of the small….The life of a person is something that has no possible substitute or exchange; nothing and no one can take its place.
On that rainy vacation day when I first read these words, I allowed myself to imagine that all my tribulations, stumbles, and frustrations had been part of the process Steinsaltz suggests, of becoming aligned with the unique tasks demanded of me, of becoming more fully oneself. Psychologically, you could say I stopped resisting, allowed myself to experience an acceptance that was anything but passive. Then, as now, I wanted to understand my mission, to see and feel more of my essence so as to be capable of manifesting it, so I was motivated to keep questing.
For a while, I tried pouring that quest into a container shaped by Jewish teaching and practice, which is what Steinsaltz prescribes. After a few years, I was knocked off that path by the brokenness of some spiritual leaders. I found myself questioning the efficacy of such practices when many of those most immersed in them seemed so reluctant to live what they preached. Those bruises healed, but now, I think the experiences that created them may have been needed to dislodge an attachment that wasn’t me. I see that no matter how many volumes of brilliance can be derived from one story, my path will be shaped by many stories from many traditions. I am a Jew, of that there is no doubt, deeply drawn to a people who hold disputation as a form of worship. The cycles of the liturgical year, the way the holidays align our intentions, the imperative to repair the world—all of these things still hold great meaning for me. But as Rabbi Steinsaltz has written,
[I]n the end, each person has to follow his own winding path to the goal that is his heart’s desire. Some lives have an emotional emphasis; others, an intellectual; for some the way of joy is natural; for others existence is full of effort and struggle; there are people for whom purity of heart is the most difficult thing in the world, while for others it is given as a gift from birth.
This last year and a half has been an incredibly challenging and rich time for me. I left a long marriage that had shaped most of my adult life, and set out across the bridge to a new life. I’m living very much as I did in my twenties, footloose, curious, experimental, and enjoying it quite a bit. With the energies freed up by so much change, many of the ideas that have animated my work have come into new focus, often with a resonance for others I’ve found deeply gratifying. Having chosen to launch myself into the new hollowed-out economy, material circumstances are seriously challenging, sometimes terrifyingly so, but I’m hanging in, wildly eager to learn what’s next.
The other day, I told a fellow writer that I know I’m making progress because I spend days in the flow before tumbling into the fear of the future I inherited from the past, the crushing fear of being cut loose in an indifferent universe. She said that she made that same journey, but multiple times a day: a few hours of ecstatic writing followed by twenty minutes of blind panic. In the Christian scriptures, Hebrews 11:1 contains the famous assertion that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” If faith is knowing that some larger force will ensure each of us a next chapter with a happy ending, I don’t have it.
My wise friend says this feeling of disconnection will dissipate when something big happens: I will fall in love, I will find just the support I need to finish my new book, the book will find its authenticating audience. As a Jew, it’s culturally obligatory: when someone predicts the fulfillment of desires, you must pronounce a charm that ensures protection against the evil eye. So all of the forgoing notwithstanding (to be human is to be filled with contradictions, no?), I’ll just say it: May my friend’s words fly directly from his mouth to God’s ear.
There’s another way of looking at spiritual engagement, which is that it’s about questions rather than answers. Looking back at the last fifteen years, you could say that at this moment in time, I was a person of faith, and at that moment, one without it. But I think it might be truer to say that the entire time, I remained faithful to the process of inquiry, faithful to my quest. I don’t want to tempt the evil eye, so I’ll whisper it: That is the faith I suspect I will never repudiate.
The Rolling Stones’ heart-opening anthem of faith, “Wild Horses:”
I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you’ve decided to show me the same
But no sweeping exits or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away
Wild, wild horses, couldn’t drag me away