NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Faith” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Faith: Paying it forward
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
A mentor once told me that he thought I started out as a person of great faith who had lost it. At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant. Now, I think he was on to something.
Faith in a divinity has always been problematic for me. The closest I come to it, an understanding I arrived at before age 10, is that there are characteristics of the universe that seem impossible to attribute to cosmic evolution alone. But despite a near-death experience and pursuing several spiritual paths since then, what was a mystery to me 50 years ago remains mysterious, and I remain agnostic. On the human scale, however, faith is something I have grown back into with time.
The most difficult faith for me to achieve has been faith in myself. I’ve had a lifelong struggle with a persistent inner critic who attempts to convince me that I have little worth. At times that critic is mercifully silent, at others merely an annoyance, like a mosquito buzzing in my ear, but when I am about to undertake something significant – a creative project, a difficult technical task, a new important relationship or business venture – the inner critic uses everything in its arsenal to try to stop me. And I have to use everything in mine to proceed.
What the critic is trying to do is keep me small. I grew up in an environment that felt traumatizing, and the unconscious strategy I developed to avoid further hurt or humiliation was invisibility: To become so tiny and innocuous I would hardly be noticed, and hence be less of a target. I became quiet, withdrawn, even physically small – today, I might have been diagnosed with anorexia and depression.
My inner critic’s attempts to keep me small today feel harsh, but I recognize its good intentions. To go forward in spite of its outdated, protective harangue requires faith in myself and in the value of what I do. These days, inner faith is usually sufficient. But it was not always so.
To feel faith in ourselves, most of us need to experience the faith that others – at least one other – have in us.
I first understood this some years ago, at a reading in Gloucester from The Perfect Storm. In his introductory remarks, its author, Sebastian Junger, thanked his father for having faith in him, cheering him on, encouraging him to stay with projects when he was discouraged or uncertain. I realized that I had provided many of my writing students with a similar kind of faith. Former students had even tracked me down to thank me for being, as one put it, “my hidden writing teacher.” But at that time my own hidden writing teacher was silent while the inner critic raged.
It was a dedicated and thoughtful therapist whose faith in me taught me to have faith in myself. Recognizing that many people lack the kind of faith in themselves that Sebastian Junger demonstrated, and that I had the capacity to provide it, I decided to become that kind of therapist.
Early in my therapist training, I meditated on the relationship I wanted to have with my future clients. The phrase that came to me was “true companion,” someone who is willing to stand by his clients and accompany them wherever their lives took them, never losing sight of who they were and always striving to reflect back to them the light of their essential selves. I have dedicated my practice to becoming that person.
As a therapist, I have since had many clients look to me, in their darkness, for a little light, and I have let them know that my faith in them has not wavered and assured them that others, too, will come to see their light as long as they keep letting it shine. When I am at a temporary loss for how else to help someone, I remember that faith alone is often enough to carry them through, as I myself was carried through.
Having experienced, myself, the instillation of faith, now I can pay it forward, perhaps to be paid forward again and again as the people I encourage go forth as fuller versions of themselves, with their faith, like mine, restored, and their inner critics vanquished.