Faith presents the ultimate irony of human behavior. The same tragedy that fortifies one person’s belief can destroy another’s. A few weeks ago, I posted a Facebook question asking for tactics for resilience. Faith appeared most often and often the top of many lists.
Although many used the same word, individuals viewed faith differently. Some cited Jesus, others Allah, some mentioned God. Through the varied lenses of religion, each of these people found great solace in knowing that there was a positive rhythm and pattern in the universe, guided by a Supreme Being who cares for us. A glance at this definition of faith might cause some to believe that only the religious can have faith. I’d like to suggest a broader interpretation of faith that can support resilience for anyone.
Faith in some ways is synonymous with hope; both clearly see a future beyond the present. Faith is more rooted in accepting the present as a path to the future, however, while hope tends to focus on escaping the bad parts of the present to get to the better times ahead. As Susan Salzburg so eloquently says in her book Faith: “Faith is the capacity of the heart that allows us to draw close to the present and find there the underlying thread connecting the moment’s experience to the fabric of all of life. It opens us to a bigger sense of who we are and what we are capable of doing.”
Unfortunately, in the midst of an awful situation, it’s far easier to feel victimized than find the thread of interconnection. Many of us can’t see the interconnection of how a bad situation helped us grow or broadened our insight until years later, with the benefit of hindsight. For impatient people like me, faith requires a large lump of discipline. I have to pause (usually through meditation), step away from the immediate challenge and try to find that thread.
When I don’t see it, which is often the case, I have to trust that eventually, I will. For me that gray period of unknowing is the most critical and most difficult part of faith.
Why is faith important in managing mental health and deterring depression? Faith allows us to detach ourselves from the slow sludge of victimization, worry and negative ruminating thoughts. Faith acts as a catalyst for perspective. For me, ruminating on pain only makes pain larger. Oftentimes, that pause for reflection allows me to transfer focus from my wounds to how those wounds might cause some greater growth or insight. Many psychotherapists believe one must dig deep into pain to release it, but my personal experience has been that digging deeper sometimes leads to only a bigger hole. Stepping back from a problem, acknowledging it, and attempting to understand its interconnection to the world outside allows me to chart a new course of action. As I have heard many of my veteran friends say, “You have to keep moving.” Dwelling on pain without an action plan rarely leads to relief.
About a month ago, I participated in a program entitled “Lost in Translation,” through Oral Fixation (An Obsession with True Life Tales) . I talked about my story and the translation of my book Struck by Living into Spanish (entitled Decidí Vivir to be published this September). The other presenters, all immigrants from a wide span of countries, talked about their journeys to US citizenship. These people faced unimaginable challenges, the slaughter of friends and family members in Rwanda, loss of livelihood, limbs and those they loved. And yet, despite everything they faced, most of them seemed grateful, even joyous about their lives. An article about this event and the videos of the individual speakers (including me) can be seen on this link.
One of the speakers, Belma Islamovic, lost both her arms when a bomb fell on her home in Bosnia. Belma is quiet, but charismatic, with an undeniable steadiness of spirit. She commented in the Green Room prior to the show that she had lived half her life with arms, and half without. When I asked her about her strategy for resilience she offered in her second-language English: “GOD say if you remember Me, I will remember you. That is my best medicine and it is help me every time.”
Not all of us can have a faith as unshakeable as Belma’s. I felt humbled in her presence. However, even a little bit of faith can have an impact on a person’s ability to cope. Faith can offer that intangible boost to medicine and psychotherapy to lead to mental wellness. Too often I see members of the spiritual community diminish the importance of psychotherapy, medicine or brain stimulation on mental health and members of the scientific community disregard the benefits of faith. Why does healing have to be a question of science OR faith?
For me, faith and medicine are necessary threads in the fabric of my wellness. Although I don’t espouse my method as a one-size-fits-all solution, I encourage exploration that defies the boundaries often set by people steeped in their own methodology. Medical and spiritual expertise is helpful, but in the area of mental health, far from exact. Mental health requires a balanced approach of self-investment, management and awareness. Trace your own threads. Figure out what works for you.