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May 12, 2008

Doubt Inside My Doubt

This essay is reprinted here from O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, where it appeared in May 2008.

My mother is fond of telling me I’m over-thinking it, “it” being anything from organic mulch for my flowerbeds to booster seats for my daughters so you can imagine how she feels about my religious ambivalence. While it’s not quite true to say she was 30 with three kids before she met someone who wasn’t Catholic, it’s close enough. Perhaps as a consequence, she is not a woman who has frittered away her days critiquing her religion. Instead, she prays, mostly for her children, who she so hoped would inherit her bulletproof faith but who are more likely to drive away with her navy blue Buick and a leftover case of Chardonnay she bought at a discount over the state line in Delaware. Both my parents shudder over our discerning, noncommittal generation that has something to say about everything but nowhere to go on Sunday mornings.

I envy my parents’ orientation. Supplication, I’ve often thought, must be easier on the body than TUMS and Ambien. How contenting it must be to believe that someday everyone you love will be in one place and will stay there forever. Who wouldn’t want that? But for all of its obvious appeal, I rarely go to church and have only read a few chapters of the Bible. (I got stuck five chapters into Genesis when Adam was said to have lived for five hundred and thirty years.) But even as roll my eyes, I’m not ready to toss out both bath water and baby. There is doubt in my doubt. And from my earliest days as a mother, I have known that someday, say when the girls start elementary school, I’d be expected to take questions from the audience, so to speak.

Then, in the fall of 2004, well before either of my daughters asked me about God, both my father and I were diagnosed with late-stage cancer. I was 36, and the seven-centimeter tumor behind my nipple was technically my second cancer. (In my mid-twenties, I’d had a melanoma as big as a pencil eraser removed from my calf, leaving a little divot and a long scar that remind me to use sun block and stay in the shade at midday.) My dad was 74, and the scattered tumors around his bladder marked round three for him. And as alarming and unsettling as this was, I did not fall to my knees and petition the God of my childhood.

The day my doctor called with the diagnosis, I hung up the phone, looked over the heads of my kids and mouthed to my husband, “It’s cancer.” Then, after a long hug, a cold Corona, and a cigarette (I had squirreled away a half-smoked pack after a party the year before and for reasons I can’t explain, I couldn’t wait to suck up a Merit Ultra Light that afternoon), we went to the computer and starting searching for information on “invasive ductal carcinoma.” My father got his diagnosis in person; after thanking the doctor and scheduling a slew of tests, he and my mother slid into the Buick and drove down to St. Coleman’s, their favorite little church, for noon mass. They gave it to God; we gave it to Google.

Over the course of a year, my dad and I both got better and, especially in his case, people said it was miraculous. At the very least, it was unexpected. Perhaps even unexplainable, though not to Mom, who summed it up in a word: prayer. “People around the world were praying for your father,” she explained (“around the world” referring primarily to a high school friend of mine who lived in Moscow and had always been particularly fond of my dad).)

I had both always prayed and never prayed, which is to say that I often found myself in bed at the end of a day saying to no one in particular, “Thank you for this good man beside me and those girls in the other room.” But had I beseeched God to make me well? Had I begged God for my father’s life? I had not. Among other things, I didn’t want to be—to borrow from sixth-grade parlance—a user, a phony who thought she could get what she wanted by conveniently nuzzling up to someone she usually snubbed.

After my dad recovered, I talked to an old friend about my parents’ confidence in prayer and their belief that God had intervened. Rather than praise the inexplicable glory of God, my friend thought we should acknowledge and exalt the devotion and ingenuity of man. Or, as she put it: It just bugs me how people want to give all the credit away, as if we were all just useless sinners who didn’t know how to take care of ourselves or each other. In other words, maybe it wasn’t prayer that made my dad better—maybe it was the scope with tiny scissors that removed nine moldy tumors from my dad’s bladder without his even having to check in to the OR. Or all that chemo. Or the meticulous doctor who managed his case with such vigil. I liked my friend’s take on things: up with people and their hard work and cool inventions.

But I kept going thinking back to my father’s initial prognosis. The urologist to whom I attributed my dad’s stunning recovery had told us to "brace for the worst." Ten months later, when he declared my father a healthy man, that same doctor said he couldn’t explain “how on earth” my dad was disease-free. So could I really give all the credit to a doctor who shrugged his shoulders and said it was "anybody’s guess" how my dad survived?

Part of growing up is living with the disturbing and complicating fact that people—even the very smartest people—are sometimes wrong. It was only a generation ago when new mothers smoked cigarettes on the maternity ward while nurses fed the infants nice big bottles of formula, to say nothing of wee Pluto, once required learning for all students of a certain age. Every day, things get grayer and grayer where they used to be neatly partitioned into black and white. Notions that are considered dubious now will, in a just decade or two, become widely accepted. Or vice versa: what is standard practice now will be eschewed, like how no one puts plastic in the microwave anymore. So might we eventually say, “Can you believe that people used to doubt the power of prayer?”

In fact, the federal government has underwritten elaborate and expensive studies asking this very question. Online, I read through a pile of 2002 research that showed a measurable, therapeutic benefit to prayer. People who prayed and were prayed for had higher recovery rates. Sure, the link can be explained away: prayer, like any type of quiet meditation, is relaxing, and relaxation has proven physiological benefits. But a click away from those reports is collated surveys of surgeons and oncologists—a huge majority of whom pray for their patients. Scientists praying. So it’s not just my unguarded, gullible parents. If doctors can get to belief, might I?

If there is a God, he knows how much I want there to be more to human existence than a series of discrete physical experiences that start with birth and end with death. I want all of us—and all of our lives—to be meaningful. But small. I’d be elated to learn that this go-round is only part one of something that has a thousand parts. I’d love to laugh at this life from a distance. As it is, I relish the fact that I am one of six billion people the way my mother revels in Pavarotti’s recording of the Ave Maria. Being one in six billion means my life can’t possibly matter to anyone but me and my little flock and that means almost everything on my mind, all my mistakes and failures and anxieties, is utterly inconsequential. When I forget my place, things begin to matter too much and I find it hard to get a good, deep breath. When that happens, I close my eyes and imagine flying over houses, lifting off the roofs and seeing all the people whose lives are happening concurrently with mine—arguing, dying, cooking, begging, hugging, losing, building, stealing, suffering and laughing, people learning that their adult son shows signs of schizophrenia or their mother is bankrupt, brothers playing air hockey in the basement after a fight, couples listening to music on the sofa, holding each others feet. Each of us a little bitty fish in an inconceivably large pond, swimming in circles, nothing to do but enjoy the water.

But maybe that’s a foolishly incomplete picture. Maybe there’s something between and around and inside of all six billion of us and maybe that something knows every hair on each of our heads. Maybe we are not anonymous. Wouldn’t that be outrageous? And beautiful?

Enter faith, the tallest order, the tightest nut, the humbling of yourself before purposes you don’t—and cannot ever—comprehend. Let’s face it; believing that there is a God who might get involved in your life—your tiny little life—defies all reason. In fact, it’s beyond anti-intellectual. It’s downright foolish. But then there’s the confounding, cuts-both-ways quote from Voltaire, the great French thinker who criticized the church while still seeing evidence for a supreme, eternal being everywhere he looked: who said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd.”

So, I let my parents share their faith with our children. When we visit Philadelphia where my parents live, I let them take our daughters to church. At night, my mom gets the girls on their knees and shows them how to cross themselves and position their hands and bow their heads. It is a lovely sight, and I would never discourage it. But when we get back to California where we live, the girls are loaded with new ideas and the kinds of questions I always knew were coming.

Claire, who is a senior in preschool recently asked what lights are made of. After I gave her my best answer, something sketchy about filaments and electricity and Thomas Edison, she said, “In church, they said Jesus is a light.” Georgia, a first-grader, reprimanded me for saying ‘Oh my God.’ “God is a bad word,” she said. To which I heard myself say, “Oh no, honey. God is not a bad word. God is a very good word.” Both girls have asked if they could be the Holy Ghost for Halloween.

Regardless of where I am on the spectrum from atheism to theism, I’d rather my girls be grounded in something, even something that seems too good (or too damn crazy) to be true. So when the girls ask me about God, I say that people believe all kinds of things and no one really knows, including me, but that I hope for God. Then I tell them what my husband recently told me with tears in his eyes. I say being with them is the most spiritual experience of my life—the highest high, the deepest yes, the most staggering gift—and that gift must have come from somewhere.

And what to say about all the little gifts, the everyday stuff like a good cantaloupe or the rebate check coming just in time or a great public school teacher? For that, I’ve taken to saying grace with the girls. We all hold hands while I talk about our friends, our family, our health. Then my husband, generally prompted by my raised eyebrow, says a prayer for the people we know who are having trouble. The girls mostly tolerate it (sometimes adding a thank you for a popsicle or a playdate) and look forward to saying Amen, after which we do the family wave, as if the home team just scored. It feels good, saying grace. Not only because gratitude is a pleasant emotion but also because it is a step in the direction of my childhood, where grace was offered regularly (if quickly) and faith was less ambiguous.

For now, that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m just another person pulsing with thankfulness, wondering what will happen next. Someday—despite all medications and all prayers—people in our lives will get sick and will not get better. They will die. Georgia and Claire will ask me where they went and I’ll probably be wondering the same thing. Have they gone to a paradise, a separate plane of existence where God holds them in palm of his hand? Are they internalized in the people who are left behind? Do they become part of the earth and therefore, an endless part of the cycle of life?

If you asked my dad, he’d assure you that heaven exists and boy are you gonna love it. Just like if you asked him why I got better, he’d say something about how God wants me to be here. I tell him I got better because there was an antidote, namely four chemotherapies, each an impressive creation of man. But that just makes him laugh, shake his head and flash his big knowing smile. “Aw Lovey,” he says, “don’t you see? What do you think makes a man spend his days trying to cure cancer?”