As a child I wanted to know what would happen next. I can still hear myself asking, “What are we doing today?” And, “Are we there yet?!” I wanted to be certain about how the world worked. I loved science and research. I wanted to be able to test the hypothesis, form the theory, and know the correct, 100% right, answer. I wanted to define right and wrong, to be perfect and not to fail or fall short. I defined faith as a checklist of facts and unerring understanding.
I found comfort in faith that knew the answers. But life gradually undermined my ability to hold onto certainty, clarity, and knowing. From our shared and my individual “ground zeros,” devastation, despair, and loss dropped like stones in a pond, spreading out in concentric circles. The questions consumed me: Where was God? Why was God silent in the face of incomprehensible suffering and pain and loss? Is there a God? I was overwhelmed by the silence of God, uncertainty, and the ambiguity of not knowing. Faith vanished. Questions and doubt filled the void.
I asked, “How I could live with what is?” What I thought was true about faith did not stand the tests of my experience. I could no longer pretend that I understood faith. But to live without faith felt like disconnecting from meaning and a valuable perspective on life. I wrestled with faith and doubt. Was there a container that could hold them both?
The reality is that none of us can ever know exactly what will happen next. And, no one knows what is on the other side of death. It is a mystery. But mystery is not just an unknown void. Mystery is a place of curiosity and awe, amazement and surprise; and it is a place of uncertainty, doubt, and silence. Mystery can contain faith and doubt – mix and stir – and stand back!
In isolation, I don’t fully enjoy mystery’s awe and excitement nor do I much like meeting alone with doubt and the unknown. Surprise and wonder, uncertainty and doubt are most completely experienced with family, friends, and community. Mystery is an intriguing, unique container where I can hold “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand” with “Yay!” and “Eureka!”
Mystery is a container for faith and doubt, where I choose to “walk not by sight,” where I choose to hold uncertainty without fear. In living with what is, I’m willing to live without answers. I’m willing to embrace wonder and awe, uncertainty and doubt, and God’s silence – all as mystery: the vessel of faith, a container held together by the love that we share and the love that surrounds us.
If I ever believed that I had control over the circumstances of my life, that decisively ended when John Foster and I were told we would not be able to have biological children. Up until then, my life had moved forward on a seemingly known path in a given order: graduate from high school, go to college, find a job, get married, be a part of a community – then a permanent detour. Fast forward to 2002 when my life was forever divided, torn–in–two when John died suddenly at 45 while I was away on a business trip. And twelve years later, I would hear the words, “You have ovarian cancer;” followed in two short years with, “The ovarian cancer has recurred; we can treat the cancer as a chronic condition, but it will eventually kill you.”
I have no control over these circumstances. None of the situations were ones I would have chosen. I lamented and grieved the myriad of losses that came with each unexpected change. Naming losses was part of my process: cut-off in body-soul-spirit by death, the loss of shared memories, less energy to spend time with family, a diminished ability to do the work I love, and fewer options for travel to visit friends. On some days, I was dissatisfied and angry about the lack of control, each turn of life’s events, and the pain and suffering that went along with the twists of time. On other days I felt optimistic and energetic. Emotions, like circumstances, seemed to change with the clouds.
One of the things I am told directly and overhear as I sit in waiting rooms these days is to treat cancer by fighting and battling the disease. I read obituaries, “She lost her battle with cancer.” Or, “He fought hard to the end against cancer.” More generally, the culture around us supports that idea that all of life is a contest with winners and losers; it is up to us to compete and grab what we can for our families and ourselves. And, if you have cancer, just stay positive and fight to win; you can do it!
But I have come to understand that fighting and battling against reality create more suffering. I see that dissatisfaction and fighting increase my wish for things to be different, to be other than they are. When I finally stopped trying to change circumstances that I had no control over and acknowledged the reality of the present, I began to find peace. The only way forward, the only way to a calm centered heart, was to start from where I was: living with what is.
Do not confuse peace and calmness with resignation or indifference to reality. I have not turned away from life. Instead, I am choosing to fully engage with all that is present: joy and pain, laughter and sadness, light and dark, hope and fear. Rather than judging myself or my circumstances as good or bad, I ask myself, “How can I be present with what is in this moment? How can I act generatively and creatively given what is? What can I do today that is beneficial in the context of what is?”
Life is not fair. We each have life experiences that are easy and hard to varying degrees. We each experience events that are beyond our control. And, while I do not always feel like “living with what is,” I’m trying to learn what it means to engage and embrace what is with grace and the knowledge that I am surrounded by love.
Mildred Thompson. From the artist’s statement:
“… a visual language … inspired by scientific theories and universal systems.”
Jan Richardson wrote this blessing in Illuminated 2014: A Map in the Dark. From it came my art journal page: a portal with a path emerging into the unknown. May it invite and bless you too.
When the mystery.
When the shadows.
When the questions.
When the unknown.
May we find what stills us.
May we find what rests us.
May we find the courage to enter
the cave of the heart.
May we light a candle
to the mystery.
May it become in us
May it become in us
May it become in us
by which we know
and this step
© Jan Richardson, 2014
This blog began as a way to share my desire to see the world in new ways, to explore what it would mean to intentionally look, meditate, and encounter life moment by moment … with curiosity. I started posting my photographs with a reflective title phrase. I soon added the occasional haiku, short poem, or quote that spoke to me in my exploration.
Later, I gradually shared my mixed-media mandalas. My interest in mandalas began when I added the experience of ovarian cancer to my life journey in June, 2014. I was searching for “spiritual impressions” that began in questions about faith, hope, and love – the wholeness always within me. Could these questions be investigated through creating art, on purpose, without judgment?
And in the place of now, I find myself beginning to shed my shell. I put up the shell to allow time to process the unknowable experience of the original cancer diagnosis and, ultimately, the recurrence diagnosed in August, 2016. I plan to write about my growing and changing understanding of faith and fear – hope and despair – light and darkness – and the love and grace that surrounds each of us at every moment that we stop to acknowledge it.
Peace and love to each who chose to enter this portal with me.
Art Journal entry from December 8, 2014
Maren Hassinger, Sculpture featuring twisted New York Times newspapers. From the artist’s statement: “… twisted hundreds of pieces of newspaper, in an active process, evoking the human condition – pain, tension, loss, tragedy, and grief.”