All posts by Austin Ellsworth

A Slower Kind of Busy

Be busy, but don’t rush. The difference seems to be small and pedantic, but in practice the two are very different. It is one thing to have a very full schedule. According to Dictionary.com, to be busy is to be, “actively and attentively engaged in work or a pastime.” Whereas to rush is, “to move, act, or progress with speed, impetuosity, or violence.” Being busy is about how much we are doing; rushing is one way we can do it.

When I was in high school I was heavily involved with student council. During an especially busy couple of weeks I was trying to balance school, social life, sleep, and planning/directing school events. It was a very busy time. I was also rushing through my day from one task to another. I ate too quickly, nearly ran from place to place, and moved throughout my day with an impending sense of deadlines and unfinished tasks. My mind raced constantly and I had the physical effects to go along with all of this. I broke out with pimples, had constant heartburn, and felt like I was in a blur.

We have all done this from time to time. Unfortunately, we usually call this “being busy” and simply hold on with all of our strength until the busy time passes and we can finally relax. But what if we could learn to relax in the middle of of our hectic schedules? What if we could move with grace and a clear mind from task to task? We might find that we are actually present to ourselves, others, and the moment. This is a much better way to live when our lives become demanding.

We need to change a few things in order to become calm while staying busy. We need to learn our own limits better so that we can know when and how to say “no.” We need to pay better attention to ourselves, knowing how we are feeling and how we are handling stress. Stress is not bad, but it can cause some pretty bad things. We also need to develop practices which can help us refocus ourselves when we start rushing. Things like silence can be incredibly helpful, but friends and family, hobbies, a good meal, watching tv, or many other practices can help us to unplug and reset. Perhaps most important is the realization that the fate of the world does not rest solely on our shoulders. Yes, our work and responsibilities are incredibly important, but we are not alone in our endeavors. We are surrounded by other people who struggle with the same things as us – we need to find a way to reach out to them for support, advice, encouragement, comfort, and more. We also need to lend a hand to others.

I hope that you are busy in your life most of the time. A busy life is often one filled with opportunities, meaning-filled interactions, and satisfying work – if we are able to slow down and appreciate these things while we are surrounded by them. May you “stop and smell the flowers” and move deliberately throughout this day.

How Do You Fill Your Days?

I hate being asked, “Where do you work?” when meeting someone. Whether I have a job, am a student, or am not working the question seems to imply that a job is the most important part of a person’s life. In some ways our jobs are central to who we are. For many people, jobs are a means to an end. We are not always passionate about our work and it does not always reflect who we are. “What do you do?” is a better question, but even that implies that it is somehow necessary for a person to “do something” which is beneficial to others. Doing important work is worthwhile and has its place; I wonder if we might be able to ask a different question instead.

When I meet someone I like to ask them something like, “How do you fill your days?” Asking in this way about what the person does takes the focus off of work and allows them to explain what their priorities are in life. I’m sure there is a better way to ask the question, but the answers I get are usually more interesting than asking where someone works. In some ways it is more important for us to be concerned with how we fill our entire day than what we do while we are “on the clock.” Do we define our lives by our family relationships, by our social groups, by our hobbies, by our passions, or by the work that we are paid to do? There is not a correct answer here; it is important to realize that each person has the right to define the meaning of their own life.

It’s important that we ask ourselves this question as well. How do we fill our days? Are we merely passive observers in our own lives, or do we take an active role from waking to going back to sleep? Are we doing the things, seeing the people, visiting the places, and experiencing what we desire each day? It is easy to get caught up in life and just try to get by one day at a time. What direction are we going in life? Are we becoming the person we want to be?

Perhaps the frustration and irritation we sometimes experience when asked, “Where do you work?” or, “What do you do?” comes from our lack of intentionality. Maybe it is long past time for us to switch jobs. Maybe we have lost the appreciation we once had for the work that we do. Maybe we value ourselves for what we can produce and have found that we never measure up to our own standard. Maybe we cannot work. What do we value in our own lives? If we can set goals and values for ourselves, we can work toward them and hold fast to them as we go through each day no matter where we do or do not work.

We need to think critically about how we value ourselves and others. Is the most important thing about ourselves what we produce, or is it something else? Maybe our relationships, our integrity, our passion, our consistency, or something else about us is more important than what we are paid to do every week. We might find that our work is the most significant thing that we do, and that is great! For those who assess their lives and find that something else is most important to them, perhaps it is worth rejoicing in that.

How do you fill your days?

Noisy Silence

This past weekend I attended my wife’s Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) meeting for worship. For those unfamiliar with this tradition, their services are unique in that the majority of the meeting is held in silence, broken only occasionally by someone who feels moved to speak. My wife, Allison, and I attended with my sixteen-month-old daughter, who was the only child in the room. In my opinion, a silent gathering is not a great place to bring a noisy toddler, but many members have assured Allison that they enjoy having my daughter present in the meetings – noise and all.

I did my best to participate in the meeting. Although I am not a Quaker, I respect the tradition and have found silence to be an incredibly difficult and powerful discipline in my own life. But I found myself distracted by my daughter. I wanted to watch her constantly. I wanted to make sure she was okay, staying relatively quiet, and I honestly just enjoy watching her play. In the middle of all of this, I found myself thinking about silence and how I might practice silence while being a stay-at-home dad to a busy, noisy little girl.

The purpose of practicing silence is often to calm our minds and identify both what we are thinking and feeling most prominently. In the midst of the chaos of life it is easy to miss what we are thinking about and what we are feeling. Silence helps us to remove distractions and focus on our inner world. The inner often mirrors the outer; both are noisy, chaotic, rife with mixed messages and conflicting thoughts or feelings. My practice of silence in the past has helped me to calm myself on the inside so that I am better prepared to deal with the noisiness of life around me. I found myself longing to practice silence once again. The only problem is that my life is a lot more busy and a lot more noisy than it was in the past.

The spiritual masters often spend hours per day practicing silence. This practice helps them to achieve a sense of peace and an awareness of themselves and the world which they would otherwise miss. We long for the same insights and peace that these spiritual masters have achieved, but we cannot afford the luxury of spending that much time staring at a wall every day! Instead, we have to learn to find silence even when there is so much commotion all around us. It won’t be easy, but if we want to practice silence we will have to learn to do it while the jackhammers are still going outside our window (as one is right now as I write this!) and the baby is crying and the phone is ringing and the dog just won’t stop barking at the squirrel outside. We can find a deeper practice of silence which is not based on the absence of noise around us, but on the quietness of our own minds in the midst of everything going on. We can practice a noisy silence.

The world is noisy. Our minds are noisy. We cannot stop the noise around us, but we can calm all of the different noises from within. We can sit regularly for even five minutes while we wait for our coffee to brew and practice introspection. What thoughts and feelings are emerging as I sit here doing nothing? What anxiety do I feel about this present moment? What excites me about today? It’s a good idea to have a pen and paper by us when we practice silence. Any pause in the day is likely to spark our memory of all the things we need to do and sometimes writing them down is the only way that our minds will let us acknowledge them and then move on from them. Even with all of this noise around us, we can focus inward and forget the outside world if only for a few minutes.

As we continue this practice of occasionally looking within, we come to find that it spills over into the rest of our lives. We start to notice things about ourselves in the midst of the chaos. We are learning to look within all the time rather than at specific, predetermined moments. This is the goal of silence – to achieve peace within by modeling calmness with our outer actions. Pausing to reflect and focusing inward do not seem to come naturally to us, but we can learn to do this with the practice of silence even in a noisy world.

Skilled or Stupid?

There’s no honor in being stupid. True, we cannot all be genius inventors, scientists, artists, or other great figures. But that does not mean we shouldn’t try. Each of us has a responsibility to ourselves and to the world to become the best version of ourselves that we can be. There is an unnerving and surprisingly popular sentiment that it is somehow noble to be ignorant. Some people will brag about how little they read, how they only get their news from one source, or how they only consume entertainment and nothing else. This is not good.

Each of us has the capacity to become an expert in some area of life. Even if we have not been gifted by birth with the ability to understand complex ideas, each person has an aptitude to gain expertise in some area of life. There are many different types of intelligence and different kinds of aptitude. Some people are excellent at caring for children, others excel at decorating, while others excel at making sales. These kinds of intelligence are equally important and valid. Whatever our area in which we possess a certain aptitude, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to develop our skills to the best of our ability.

It is easy to struggle with the notion that, “I’m not good at anything.” Most of us have felt this way at one time or another. I have never met someone who is good at nothing.  I have, however, met quite a few people (myself included!) who have felt at times that they are not good enough at something. It is easy to feel this way when we are surrounded by others who know more than we do and have developed greater skills than we have done. We owe it to ourselves to realize three things about ourselves. First, each of us has at least one area in which we are intelligent and capable of becoming an expert. Second, that area is incredibly important. Third, we can get better.

Becoming an expert is not a small task. Those who pursue academic paths to expert status must first undertake an undergraduate degree (4 years), then perhaps a graduate degree (1-3 years), finally completing a doctoral degree (3-8 years, depending on the field). This process takes anywhere from 8-15 years, and results in a person who meets only the bare minimum requirements to be called an expert in a teeny sliver of knowledge! To truly become an expert requires further research and writing beyond the completion of a doctoral degree. A person can only be considered an academic expert if they continue to read and write in their area. Learning and growing never stops.

If other types of intelligence are equally valid then they deserve equal dedication. If it takes a minimum of 8 years to become an expert in an academic area, it seems reasonable to expect a similar amount of time to become an expert in photography, caring for children, resolving conflicts, cooking, designing websites, or anything else in which we might become expertly-competent. Being an expert takes hard work and dedication, but it is something that any of us are capable of becoming. And it is something worth pursuing.

Where do we go from here? First, we need to know ourselves well enough to know where our strengths lie. This can be a difficult task on its own. Luckily those who are closest to us can be helpful in identifying where our passions and strengths lie. Second, we need to identify the resources and path(s) necessary to become an expert. Books and classes are great, but experience in actually doing whatever we want to become an expert in is most important. Third, we need to work hard. Knowing our strengths and how to develop them, we must use the resources we have identified. Then we are well on our way to achieving expert status. It is likely that others will be better than us, even when we are finally able to claim the title of “expert.” This should not discourage us, but instead encourage us to learn more and to get better. Being an expert means that we are always learning and improving.

There is no honor in being stupid, but there is great honor in identifying our strengths and developing them until we reach expert status.

Pursue Your Foolish Dreams

As a Millennial, I grew up being told that I could be anyone and do anything. “Follow your dreams!” we were told. Then we grew up, went to college (or didn’t) and found that our dreams don’t pay the bills. Some of us worked hard, got lucky, and ended up in careers doing what we love. Most of us didn’t. It turns out that following our dreams was not necessarily a good idea. Some of us abandoned those dreams, others continue to pursue them – consequences be damned! But there is a middle ground.

Instead of giving up on our dreams completely or ignoring reality, we can have passion and ambition while still having a less-than-ideal career. In my case I went to school for religion and then developed a shaky relationship with religion. I was trained to be a pastor, but now I do not know if I will able to be one. I am still passionate about the work that a pastor does. I want to give counsel to others, lead, teach, preach, be an administrator, and create a team of people working together toward a common goal. The challenge we face is taking our passions and finding where they provide value to society so that we can be paid to do what we love.

Recently I had an idea for a project. This project involves creating a pretty significant website. The issue is that I have no idea how to do that. The last time I messed around with HTML was 18 years ago and a lot has changed since then! I know very little about programming languages and all the various facets of web development. I could be realistic and give up on my idea. Even if I put forth great effort to learn how to make this project work, I might not be able to finish it. Worse, maybe I’ll finish it and it will not be useful. The safe bet would be to say that the risk is not worth it and give up.

What if we shifted the focus from results to process instead? This project could potentially yield excellent results, but the odds of that happening are pretty low. However, the process necessary to complete the project will be guaranteed to have benefits. If I pursue this project I will learn not only how to create a website, but also how to ask for help from others, how to find resources online, and countless other skills along the way. I will encounter new people and communities and discover new things about myself. Our dreams may not succeed but perhaps pursuing them will enable us to earn wisdom, skills, relationships, and more.

If the alternative to pursuing our dreams is to do nothing but coast through life, perhaps it is better to pursue our dreams – even if they are foolish. It is possible to pursue foolish dreams in a foolish way, but it is also possible to pursue a foolish dream wisely. We don’t have to quit our day jobs or let our responsibilities go to the wayside. The pursuit of our dreams can happen evenings and weekends, on vacations, or even through our jobs or education. If we set our expectations correctly, pursuing our dreams will be a win-win situation. Even if we do not arrive at the goal we set, the process of working toward what we hope for will bring us new skills. We will meet new people. We will be better equipped to define our dreams less foolishly and more realistically. Maybe we cannot be an astronaut, but we could end up working in the aerospace industry. We might not become a Top 40 musician, but maybe we can become a local favorite at open mic nights and local music festivals.

If we can learn to celebrate the journey toward our dreams and be realistic about what we can and cannot do to achieve them, we set ourselves up for success. If we reach our dreams, fantastic! If not, look at the progress we have made and all we have gained along the journey. If we are creative and a bit clever, we can put our new resources to use to get us closer to living the life we are dreaming of living. If we hold in one hand the needs of the world and in the other our passions, we have the potential to walk the path of success – not that we will reach the goal, but that the process of trying to reach it will make us into the kind of person we were longing to be all along.

Stuck in the Present

A picture is worth a thousand words, but they are lies. Photographs certainly do tell a story and can bring memories flooding back into our minds, but they can lead us into believing that they tell the truth about life. Photographs are static. In a picture we never change. We are forever the same age, knowing the same things, believing the same things, and doing the same thing. In reality we are constantly changing. Even from moment to moment we do not remain consistent.

I’m not trying to say that photographs are bad or evil, but we should pause to consider whether we view life through a static photographer’s lens or whether we are aware of how our lives are constantly changing. Do we feel that we are basically the same person now as we were a decade ago? Do we sometimes think that nothing in our lives changes? Do we feel stagnated and that every day is the same thing over and over? If so, then we have fallen into the trap of seeing life as a photograph and have failed to grasp the ever-changing present.

We might think of the cells in our bodies and how they are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. Perhaps we could talk about friends and family who move in and out of our lives. Maybe we could try to measure our mood from day to day and hour to hour. Looking only at these factors, we can see that we are constantly changing – how much more when we think of the multitude of variables in our lives!

We might agree intellectually that our lives are dynamic – that life is constantly changing and we are constantly changing. This does not change how we feel – stagnated. We want to experience something new and different. Sure, things are changing, but they are not the kinds of changes that we want to see. It might be the case that we need to put our efforts into making life change in the way we desire, but that is not what this post is about. Striving to make a change can be necessary at certain times. At other times, all we need to do is to change our perspective – to see the beauty at work all around us. Do we perceive the ways that we and the world around us are changing?

Although I do not have solid evidence for this claim, I believe that life always moves forward and upward rather than backward or downward. An evolutionary force is at work not only genetically but socially, emotionally, and even spiritually. That which brings forth more life flourishes, while that which does not fades away. Maybe we have our missteps and failures in careers, relationships, and our inner life, but we learn from them and move forward having been made just a little stronger, more clever, more mature, and more capable. Even our failures and our feeling of stagnation can push us to become better. Doing the same thing over and over might not be very exciting, but it is changing us.

I’m a stay-at-home dad. Every morning I wake up around the same time with the same routine. Every afternoon I give my daughter a nap. Every evening my wife returns home and plays with my daughter. Having a child is wonderful, but it can be dreadfully repetitive. What makes it wonderful in spite of all the repetition is that every day my daughter learns to do something new. Every day I find that I am a little more patient. Every day I love her a little more. Every day I learn how to care for my daughter a little better. If we were static beings in a static world, repetition would be boring, but we are dynamic beings in a dynamic world. Life is always changing both in and around us and it can be a beautiful thing. Sometimes the beauty is right there on the surface. Other times it is buried deep within pain, suffering, frustration, or even boredom. What is important is knowing that it is always there and we can find it if we are willing to look. Just be sure you don’t trust a photograph. It tells the truth about yesterday, but it knows nothing of today.

IMG_20170714_152709813

Seeing and Perceiving

What is reality? Is it what a sane, rational person can perceive with their five senses? Is it something we can observe with instruments and measure? When we talk about something being “real,” what do we mean? Most of us take for granted that the things we perceive with our senses are based in reality, but how often do we stop and think about what is actually happening when we perceive something?

The sun’s gravity produces heat and pressure, causing hydrogen atoms to fuse together. This gives off energy in the form of light, a teeny sliver of which we call visible light. This light travels from the sun to earth. From its perspective the journey is instantaneous, but for us there is an eight and a half minute delay. This light then strikes our atmosphere, where it comes into contact with atoms and molecules which absorb and re-emit the light, changing its direction and frequency. This light can then strike an object within our sight, reflecting off its surface and striking the back of our eyeball. Nerves in the back of our eye respond to the light by sending a signal to our brain, which interprets the impulse. If we are paying attention to what we are seeing, our brain will automatically create an image from the impulse it received and begin the process of categorizing and understanding what we are seeing. When we see this object, our perception is dependent on all of these events coming together to produce a mental image.

With all of these factors coming into play, we have to wonder whether or not this process of seeing is reliable. When we see something, does it correspond to how another sees it? What if the makeup of our eyes is different? What if our brain processes the information differently? What if we were not paying attention and the image came and went without us even recognizing its presence? What about the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum which we cannot perceive with our eyes alone? There is a world of information which we cannot normally perceive, and even our perceiving is suspect.

Our senses and perception have brought us this far in life. Isn’t that proof that our perception is reliable? To a certain degree, this is a reasonable argument. Our senses are adequate for living our lives. But is adequate what we desire? No, we desire more – to see accurately what is true and what is real. “Good enough” is not good enough; we demand to know reality for what it is and not merely how we perceive it. Scientific investigation is a strong answer to this problem of our “seeing but not perceiving.” With scientific instrumentation we can observe the unobservable, making the full band of the electromagnetic spectrum observable to our eyes by converting it into data and sensations which we can understand. But even then we are left with the problem that we are perceiving these only indirectly. We know what color blue is, but what color is 99.1 FM frequency?

To a certain degree it is hopelessly pessimistic to dwell on the limitations of our perception. These are not problems we can solve or obstacles we can overcome. The human eye can only see what it can see and the brain can only interpret what it gets from the senses. But it is incredibly helpful – humbling – to remember that we are so limited. There is a vast amount of information in the universe. There are whole realms which we cannot explore without relying on instrumentation to interpret the data for us. We could talk about distant galaxies, black holes, and dark matter. We might consider quarks, atoms, and other particles. We might even consider the perceptions of the person who is nearest to us at this moment. Though they may be within speaking range of us, their perceptions of the universe are completely inaccessible to us. We cannot know what “blue” looks like to them because we do not share their eyes and brain. So we must remain humble.

Eyewitness testimony is one of the most unreliable forms of evidence. What we see, perceive, and remember – this does not necessarily correspond to what a camera sees or what a receipt or footprint might demonstrate. Yet much of what we believe most strongly relies heavily on our experiences of life and how we perceived them. It may be helpful for us to consider these limitations when dealing with others. Perhaps what they said was not really spoken in a harsh tone. Maybe they did not really roll their eyes at us. We give so much weight to our perception because it has gotten us this far in life. Maybe it would be helpful to question our perception more often – not to live in the ambiguity of never knowing if anything we perceive is reliable, but with less confidence in our own perceptions. We might try having a greater reliance on – and openness to – how others perceive things. And of course an openness to scientific insights can help us greatly.

What do you think? Is our perception reliable? Is it wise to seek out opinions of others to see how they perceive the world? Is science more or less reliable than our own perceptions?

Crawling in Darkness

This post is dedicated to those who are stuck. To the ones who feel they have stagnated, who have come so far and yet it now seems that they will go no further – you are in good company. This is for those who have lost their motivation and who no longer see the path set before them. To those who are ready to give up or to pursue a new path because this one is clearly going nowhere, this is for you.

Ambition is a fickle mistress. It seduces us with promises of greatness and success. Ambition springs up when we are content. It pushes us forward and dangles the carrot of a new adventure in front of us. We begin with joy, our hearts beating faster, ready to take on the world. Woe to those who are ambitious, for they will taste the sweetness of success before the bitterness of working for it.

The journey is exciting. The path is full of new challenges which we conquer one way or another. We seek advice from those around us. We receive encouragement, congratulations, praises, and satisfaction for being brave enough to do something different and difficult. The new task need not be slaying a dragon, beginning a colony on Mars, or inventing something which changes the world. It is usually something much more mundane – having a child, beginning to exercise, attending school, or changing careers. Maybe it is something even smaller, but to us it is a great new adventure. Millions or billions of people might have undertaken the same journey, but this is our journey. It is new to us and it is exciting – in the beginning.

Time goes on. We fight one battle after another. Some days are a challenge, others a joy. We persevere through difficulties at first because of our motivation brought on by the clear vision of being successful. Later we keep going because it has become our habit. Over time, we find it more and more difficult to press on. Our feet grow heavy. The light around us dims. The praise, encouragement, advice, and support of those around us fades away. The darkness begins to set in and our ambition is nowhere to be found. We question ourselves and our journey. Maybe it’s time to give up.

So here we are. Those who began this journey with passion and vigor, who had the support of others and who saw clearly before us the victory which would come very soon. But it has not. We have worked hard, been loyal to our cause, and fought bravely. Certainly we have faltered from time to time, but in each instance we managed to find our way back to the path and to move forward. But now it is difficult – nearly impossible. We have lost our way and there is no help for us. We are alone.

Is this greatness? Is this success? No, this feels like failure. We have become disappointments to ourselves and to others. We are ready to give up and change course. Let us count our losses, lick our wounds, and find a new journey which will perhaps this time yield better results. Surely this is what we must do, for those who are successful and who finish what they set out to accomplish do not face this much hardship and darkness and misery.

There is good news for us who dwell in the darkness. Day is coming. No failure is permanent unless we allow it to be. We may be lost, frightened, and alone today, but tomorrow is coming. As sure as the sun will rise in the morning, those who are lost in the darkness on their path will see the light once again. We have a term for what is coming next – a “breakthrough.” Think about that. If we encounter an obstacle, we must break through. Think of the forcefulness in this language. Inventors, leaders, visionaries, entrepreneurs make breakthroughs. What are they forcefully moving through if not the very situation of apparent failure and loss in which we have presently found ourselves?

What if our success lies just ahead? If so, we must not give up now. We are closer to finishing now than we have ever been before. Perhaps we are still some distance from our goal, but we are much closer than we were yesterday. Certainly we are closer than when we began this journey. It would be safer, easier, and more comfortable to stop now. We have no guarantees of success. Maybe the next hundred attempts will be failures. We may need to find a thousand ways not to succeed before we find one way which works. Maybe our path to achievement is not straight and paved but winding, hilly, and overgrown. But the path is still there even if we cannot see it.

Blessed are those who persevere, for they will be rewarded. Perhaps not with the object of their pursuit, but by being transformed into ones who are not dissuaded from stumbling forward toward their goal even when the way seems impossible. How many persons in history were on the verge of great discovery or success or achievement but stopped short? We may never know, because their stories are not told. Let us be among those who persevered and found the end of our path. If it was worth beginning, it is worth finishing. Who knows what we will discover?

Doubting Faith

“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”

-George R.R. Martin

Like bravery, faith is not the absence of doubt and questioning. It is the decision to move forward in spite of and even because of doubt. Some would call this foolishness, but those who understand faith in this way are living according to reason in pursuit of truth.

Faith is neither unreasonable nor a matter apart from reasoning. Reason precedes faith. We can know something to be true with our intellect only (e.g. today is Sunday), but faith is a step beyond the simple knowing of factual information. It is a leap into the unknown which involves the whole of a person’s being. It is a an affirmation with our whole life that something is true even if it cannot be definitively proven to be so. It is trust in a principle, an ideal, a person. It is the assurance that we will not be disappointed if we live according to what we affirm.

If we know something to be true beyond doubt, then it is not a matter touched by faith. We do not profess, “I have faith that today is Sunday,” or “I believe that objects in motion tend to stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force.” These things can be proven; they are facts and there is very little room to doubt or question them. Faith enters the picture when something is unable to be proven. Faith is subjective. It is something which must be embraced by the individual for him- or herself and by nobody else on their behalf.

“I believe in God.” This is a statement of faith. Who can prove that God does or does not exist? Who can demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt what attributes this being possesses? We can make arguments and arrive at reasonable conclusions which appear to be consistent with our experience and empirical observations, but nobody can prove or disprove the existence and nature of God to the extent that most would agree on the conclusion.

Why, then, should we have faith at all if faith cannot be demonstrated to be factual? As stated above, faith and reason are connected although they do not overlap. Before taking the step of believing in something, we must first understand what we are to believe. We must ask questions of the object of our belief. What evidence is there that this is true? The object of faith is not something irrational. Belief in something we made up on the spot is not a proper subject of faith. Reason must bring us to the precipice of faith from which we make our leap. First comes searching, questioning, and using our intellect to explain the object of faith as clearly as possible. Next comes faith. Belief before reason is not faith. Belief explained by reason is not faith. Only belief which has been informed by reason and is entered into with our whole selves by going beyond reason can properly be called faith.

So then what is doubt? Doubt is the natural result of applying reason to the object of our faith. If the object of faith cannot possibly be proven, then we must have unresolved questions even while we take the leap of faith. To be clear, we have been talking about faith as a leap, but this does not mean that faith is irrevocable or a single motion only. Faith is the continuing trust that we place in the object of faith. It may waver or fail. Faith is never the absence of doubt, but rather the embrace of doubt with the resolve to move forward rather than stagnating until we hold absolute proof. If we wait to prove the object of faith, then we will never have faith. If we believe without ever questioning or allowing doubt to have its place, then we never had faith in the first place.

We must then conclude that in order to have true faith, we must also have true doubt. Since faith depends on reason leading us to an object of faith which cannot be proven, unresolved questions must necessarily exist. Can a person have faith if they doubt? That is the only time a person can have faith.

Life Before Meaning

Three years ago I began a new journey. At the time I was a seminary student, working for The Salvation Army as a youth minister. I’d always had questions about faith and had entertained doubts, but for the first time in a decade of calling myself a Christian, these questions and doubts began to disrupt the foundations of my faith. I stepped back.

I took a break from seminary and left The Salvation Army (a complicated story, perhaps for another time). I wondered where I’d end up and what I would do now that I found myself moving away from the faith I’d held to so closely. I wondered what I would do for a career. Did my education matter? Did it have any relevance to what I would do in the future? Maybe I had wasted my time.

I had an identity crisis. Who am I if not a Christian? Where do I belong if not in a community of faith? Who do I live for and what do I value if not what I had learned in all my studies? From the time I was 17 until my time of questioning I had diligently sought answers to life’s greatest questions. I wanted to know who I am, why I exist, what I should do, and how I should live. I wanted to belong somewhere and to be understood. I wanted meaning. Now I had lost it.

I realized that I had set myself up for failure in my pursuit of meaning. Though I had studied, prayed, received counsel and prophetic messages, and explored my own heart and mind I had not yet lived. I convinced myself that life was to be lived in a certain way for certain values, but I had not let my own life speak. I resolved to take a step back from my rigorous pursuit of meaning by intellectual and academic means. I decided to live first and let my experience of life demonstrate its own meaning.

I took a job as a maintenance technician. I tried hard to do the job well and learned a lot. I had some health issues which prevented me from working, so I took some time off. I found another job doing maintenance. After a few months I was let go. I realized that maintenance was not for me. My experience of life was showing me who I am. I felt a desire to work with people and for others. I began working as a Youth Advocate for a children’s home working directly with ten foster kids. I loved it. I felt passionate again. I excelled at my job and looked forward to it. I found that it was forming me to be a certain kind of person. I was gaining patience I had never found in myself. I learned to handle stressful situations while staying calm and reasonable. I was able to teach about hygiene and I loved it. My passion for life and for serving others was resurging within me because I was living life as it came to me and not trying to force myself into anything.

The time came for me to leave that job to be a stay-at-home parent. I began to reflect on the past years of my life. I asked the same questions which had troubled me three years ago. Who am I? Where do I belong? Who do I live for? What do I value? This time I was able to begin to answer these questions from my own life experience. I found myself drawn to those same themes I had read about and to which I held fast when I called myself a Christian. I value the Kingdom of God and its King, Jesus. I want to live for a world where the poor are comforted, the meek inherit the earth, those who hunger are filled, and the pure in heart are called God’s children. I belong in God’s Kingdom, doing his will so that love and justice prevail.

Who am I? I still am unsure. I have not abandoned my doubts or questioning. I am not persuaded of the whole of Christian doctrine, creeds, practice, and values. I don’t even know if I’m a Christian. What I do know is that I’ve made peace with doubt and questioning. My experience of life these past years is driving my pursuit of meaning. Preconceived notions and idealistic expectations have not driven me to a forced life of faith, yet letting go of these and living for the sake of living has brought me back to where I started. I believe in Jesus and the Kingdom he proclaimed. The remainder of my questions and doubts have yet to be resolved, but I know how I will find answers. I will go forward with life and let the answers find me on my way.