Faith in difficult times
The year 2022 has not been easy. It can be difficult to stay strong while living with uncertainty. Faith in life, and in our individual and collective strength, can be a helpful guiding principle.
With the holidays and year-end approaching, I find myself looking back at 2022 with some regularity. It has not been an easy year. National and international events have generated much uncertainty and difficulty. I notice that we are frequently saying to each other that we are ‘living in unprecedented times’. And when we use that expression it is not in a positive sense. How do we not lose heart and let fear run our lives?
Fear is a strong emotion. It is almost always based on imagined situations in the future. Our mental picture of uncertain and difficult situations is based on our past experiences and on stories from others. When we are worried, we play out situations that may never happen, and we are pre-judging how we will cope. And in a fearful state, we often envision that we will cope poorly. In reality, we cannot know what the future will bring and we have no idea how we might feel if our fears were to come true.
“When we are worried, we play out situations that may never happen, and we are pre-judging how we will cope.”
Over time I have learned that most of the things I worried about in my life never happened, or if they happened, they were very different from how I imagined they would be. And when situations were extremely difficult I found that I was much stronger than I had ever thought I could be. These are important lessons to learn. I now try not to pre-live my life and instead focus on being in the present. I want to accept that the future is uncertain by definition and that I cannot control it. This enables me to not take anxious thoughts so seriously. It does not make me complacent – on the contrary: the more clearheaded I am, the better I am able to judge the right action in a given situation.
I used to believe that hope – the emotion on the other end of the spectrum from fear – was the best antidote. I am not so sure anymore. Hope, clearly, can get us through tough times and can fill our hearts and minds with completely different images from those instilled by fear. It can keep us going. But like fear, it is based on imagining a future. Hope only gets us so far. It obscures how well we are coping in the present and does not teach us clearly enough how strong we really are. Also, it is often not sustainable. As soon as doubt creeps in, it is easy to slip back into worry. It takes a lot of mental energy to keep hope alive.
I think there is another state of mind that fits better with feeling confident in our ability to handle whatever may arise and that is more likely to make us feel happy and calm in the long run. That state of mind is faith.
I am not talking about religious faith exclusively, although for many faith is based on religious beliefs. In a religious context it can be, for instance, belief in a higher being, in an afterlife, or that things happen for a reason. But faith can equally be a strong guiding principle for non-religious people. Faith for me is having faith in something, perhaps in life, or in the future. It is the quiet, deep knowledge that whatever life throws at me, I will be alright.
“Faith for me is having faith in something, perhaps in life, or in the future.”
When we have faith in life, faith perhaps in something bigger than ourselves, fear becomes something different. Instead of an urgent call to action to make the situation that scares us go away, it becomes an opportunity to explore what is making us feel vulnerable. When we do that, we can be more understanding of ourselves and more at ease with the built-in uncertainty of life. Our decision-making becomes calmer and wiser. Getting to know ourselves better through understanding our worries also enables us to have compassion with others. We can feel connected through the knowledge that we all have similar concerns and anxieties. No matter what our position in life, no matter what our status, background or circumstances, ultimately we are united in our human vulnerability.
I think it is no coincidence that all the major religions place a strong emphasis on compassion and caring for each other. When we do not feel alone, it is easier to find inner strength and find faith in life. At the same time when we have that faith, the ability to be caring and to understand the anxieties of others becomes larger. For people who are truly free of fears, there is no ‘other’. They know we are all one.
“No matter what our position in life, no matter what our status, background or circumstances, ultimately we are united in our human vulnerability.”
I wish I could say I am fearless, but I still have a way to go. For me, fearlessness brings inner calm, trust in my ability to lead my life well and, indeed, a sense of faith. When I feel that way, I am a better leader because I have more clarity.
We simply don’t know what 2023 will bring to any of us. No doubt some things will be wonderful, and others extremely difficult. But whatever life will bring, I wish we can all be happy to experience it in all its richness. I wish for all of us that we can have faith in our individual and collective strength, and, crucially, in our individual and collective ability to overcome hardship. When we are united in our humanity, we can have a lot of faith in the future.