doubt

Worry, Maslow's pyramid and resting in Christ | Reflections from Fellow Sam Kesting, '18

As I continue to move through life, I have found that there are quite a few areas which lack consistency.  Relationships, academic performance, athletic skill, and even housing situations all seem to be in flux, for better or for worse.  With all of these facets of life on a roller coaster, often times the only thing that seems to be constant is worry and ironically, it is the uncertainties of life that feed the ever-present nagging in the back of one’s mind.

Just like a love of sunsets or a fear of deep, dark water, worry is one of those things that is uniquely human and just comes naturally to us.  It is impossible to fully escape its clutches and can even be incapacitating at times.  I often think about worry as it corresponds to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: a pyramid of what are considered to be necessities to an enriched and fulfilling human life.  While the pyramid is by no means a perfect illustration of needs for all cultures and societies, it is helpful when conceptualizing and compartmentalizing worry.

Principally, our existence is predicated on being able to anticipate answers to questions of survival such as when we will have our next meal, where we be able to find water, and how we will stay warm, dry and out of harms way.  From these physiological needs, the tiers of the pyramid ascend up through needs of safety, love and belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization at the top.  While I certainly cannot speak for everyone, I would posit that most of the individuals reading this post do not live with daily worry regarding food and shelter, especially those of us reading this on the screen of an electronic device.  Many of us are blessed to be well-fed and sheltered regularly.  However, the upper four tiers on Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid are where things begin to fall apart.  Worry quickly descends into our minds and begins to grow dark, cold roots around our hearts.

First, we struggle with needs of safety.  Financial woes, abuse, and poor health (both mental and physical) plague our society.  Everyone is touched by these ills on a daily basis in some way and they can cripple the mind and soul with fear and worry.  Next, we are confronted by a yearning to belong.  Anywhere.  Spousal relationships, church groups, sports teams, book clubs, yoga class, or even a night out with a group of friends are all manifestations of attempts to meet this need.  On many occasions throughout life, it can feel like we are each one of the least wanted in our respective communities.  We also wrestle with problems of esteem.  We fail at work, in school, or in a relationship.  Our capacity for “success” as the world would define it crumbles and we see ourselves as worthless and with nothing to show for the years of life behind us.  Finally, we face challenges to self-actualization.  Work is often not fulfilling, our potential seems stifled, and we still do not have the slightest clue what we want to be when we grow up.  It is clear to see these upper four needs going unmet in those around us and even clearer still within our own persons.  Universities are environments replete with worry regarding these necessities and having been at one for the last four years, I can tell you it is ubiquitous.

The obvious question that follows these unmet needs asks how we fix them.  Do we not have seminars and counselors?  Medicines and therapies?  Clubs, dating websites, and self-help books?  Why do all of them fail us?  What are we missing?  Why do we continue to worry?

I have been blessed to have grown up in a family of faith and many wise voices have poured into my life over the last 22 years.  From them, I have identified two methods for combating debilitating worry: resting in Christ and practicing thankfulness to learn to give generously.

Being a young kid dealing with worry and fear, I memorized 1 Peter 3:5 and Matthew 11:28.  These verses speak of casting anxiety and burdens on Christ and receiving rest and care in return.  As a child, this brought some comfort but in growing older these words become far easier said than done.  It can be difficult to see the Lord’s plan come to fruition in a tangible way, especially on His timeline.  Ultimately for me, resting in Christ has meant prayerfully laying plans, expectations, and worry at his feet and trusting that He knows what he is doing with them.  There have been many occasions in which I was filled with strife about the future and Christ has revealed His better way for my life.  Although there is and will be plenty of uncertainty, I can be free from trying to have it all figured out.

Thankfulness is like a muscle: left alone, it decays into nothing but when exercised, it flourishes.  It is far easier to dwell on what we do not have than what we do, especially in a state of constant comparison with those around us.  We will always be able to see the bigger, better, and more successful and our circumstances are rarely exactly to our liking.  I once had a director at a camp I worked at tell me that he was thankful for rainy days.  When I first heard this, I was a bit taken aback.  As a counselor, rainy days were usually the toughest.  It was always colder, kids got wet and frustrated, and activities were cancelled.  The director went on to explain how the rain watered the earth, reminded you that you were alive through discomfort, and led to more time indoors where important conversations could be had with the campers.  This taught me to find opportunity to be thankful in all things.  Much like thankfulness, generosity does not come easy.  We are selfish creatures and any extra time, money, or other resources that we have tend to immediately be used on our favorite person (ourselves).  However, in thankfulness, the seeds of generosity are sown.  Being thankful for our circumstances surely leads to the realization of the abundance that has already been given to us.  From this abundance, we are called to be open-handed and freely distribute what we have to others.

The worry that corresponds to the tiers of Maslow’s pyramid is countered through Christ and His church.  Safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization are found through prayer, study of scripture, and community with likeminded Christians.  Resting in Christ provides safety and belonging, thankfulness builds esteem, and generosity provides purpose.  Although a perfect and complete picture of needs being met will never occur on this fallen earth, glimpses can be realized through a relationship with Christ and interactions with those who love Him.  I have been blessed to be able to see these glimpses through others and in my own life at school and will hopefully continue to see them as I move on from this place.  While worry will never fully be dispelled, this perspective has helped to keep it in its place.

 

 

Mystery & Doubt. Reflections by Horizons Fellow Ben Noble '18

“No one gets a 100 on the quiz. No one.”

I sank back into a chair in my advisor’s office on a Thursday afternoon during my Third Year. “No one gets a 100 on the quiz.” My advisor’s words echoed in my mind and hit like a truck. Still, I knew that they were true. He and I had been discussing religion, death, the afterlife—light conversation for a late-August day.

Over the past year, I had been trying to make sense of a faith that no longer felt feasible to me. The months leading up to that conversation with my advisor had been characterized by struggle and skepticism. I had quit going to church. I had stopped praying. I had put Henri Nouwen on the bookshelf and picked up Christopher Hitchens instead.

Retrospectively, a lot of my doubt was born out of emotional resentment. At the time, I felt like I had been hurt by Christians. In response, I nurtured animosity towards the Church, and, over time, towards God. However, unresolved bitterness and anger eventually turned into intellectual doubt. I transitioned from being angry with God to questioning whether God was even real.

How could I know, with assurance, that the Bible and all the stuff it said about God and humanity and history and morality were undeniably true? Moreover, was it worth following even if it was true?

Having sat on these thoughts for some time, there was a brief period during the summer before my Third Year when I considered myself an atheist. I thought that giving up on belief would make me feel free—free from resentment, free from ignorance, free from God. However, rather than feeling free, I felt an internal emptiness instead. Life felt grey and dull. I felt alone, too—more alone than I had ever felt.

Fast-forward a few months.

Time passed and I eventually came around to being open to faith again—though not without some low points and a substantial amount of existential anxiety. Still, even though I was open to belief, I couldn’t shake my feelings of uncertainty and I didn’t have a strong sense of confidence about any particular belief. Despite my doubt, I wanted desperately to trust in something again.

I walked into my advisor’s office on that day hoping that he would speak some magical words that would inspire me and give me a sense of hope once more. I walked out feeling neither a greater sense of clarity nor a renewed hope.

So what’s happened since the day that I left that office?

Although I would like to say that a couple weeks passed by and then, out of no where, God arrived on a white horse and I had a profound moment of conversion where my doubt was put to rest and my faith restored, I can’t say with any honesty that that was the case. Nearly a year and a half has elapsed since that meeting with my advisor and I still have yet to experience that “Eureka!” moment where everything is reinstated as it once was.

A lot has changed for me since then. The time in between has brought new hopes, more doubts, fresh experiences, moments of deep sadness, and moments of unparalleled beauty. Still, God has yet to ride in on a white horse and answer every single one of my questions. Maybe He will, some day, but I’m not so sure that it’s a safe bet.

God didn’t show up in the way that I was hoping, but despite this, I have found God in ways that are deeper and richer than I could ever have imagined on that day in August 2016. The ways in which I experience God are nuanced and unique and everywhere. I see God in a poem or song, from time to time. I see God in a Sunday drive through the Blue Ridge. I experience God when I have a really rich, deep conversation with a friend over a cigarette (Sorry Mom!) Most of all, however, I experience the reality of God through others. The moments when I see and experience the way that people truly love and care for each other and for me are the moments when I’m convinced, beyond of shadow of doubt, that God is real and alive and present.

This may sound a bit esoteric. I won’t disagree with that. My times of doubt have created an uncertainty about God in ways that can be frustrating, but the same uncertainty that causes me distress has also made space for me to experience the mystery of God. In many ways, the reality of uncertainty has shown me that my advisor was correct when he said, “No one gets a 100 on a quiz.” At the same time, this uncertainty has made God indefinable and illimitable and has animated life with mystery and excitement in ways that I didn’t think were possible.

In an essay entitled, “Circles,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” I used to desire certainty about life. I wanted to have all the answers. I wanted to understand God and, in a way, I wanted to control God. Now, I think about things differently. I’m more at ease with the fact that I won’t ever know and understand everything. Now, I’m invigorated by the fact that God is far beyond my understanding. Rather than seeking to be the master of knowledge and truth, I tend to think of a life lived well as, like Emerson writes, “an apprenticeship to the truth.”

Each day brings with it the possibility of seeing the world and experiencing God in myriad ways that are new and fresh and exhilarating. Of course, this brings the possibility that yesterday’s way of understanding may require reconsideration and perhaps abandonment. In my experience, the “apprenticeship to truth” often entails a constant expansion and reconsideration of what I considered true one year ago or last week or even yesterday. I’m not going to suggest that this pursuit of truth doesn’t pose the possibility of anxiety and doubt and despair—that’s an inherent risk. Uncertainty is scary and there often isn’t an easy solution to dealing with it. However, despite the uncertainty and fear that the journey towards truth may bring, I am convinced whole-heartedly that the journey is vitally and comprehensively worthwhile. At the end of the day, what I think makes this way of navigating life invaluable is that it creates an opportunity for growth—personal growth, intellectual growth, and spiritual growth.

To me, for the time being, this is far better than getting a 100 on the quiz.