When Faith Falters

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faithFor as long as I can remember my primary identity has been grounded in Jewish community. From summer camp to youth group, that is where I first felt I belonged. So much so that I went on to minor in Judaic Studies in college and focus on Jewish Communal Service in graduate school. Most of my 25-year career has been spent serving the Jewish people, and I have always felt lucky for the chance.

While Jewish peoplehood and Jewish faith are not the same things, I’ve generally taken my faith for granted. I work in a synagogue, after all.

When I was first diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer I felt the warm embrace of both the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. My community could not have possibly been more supportive and I never bothered to think through the distinctions. My connection to them was synonymous with my connection to God. I was grateful for the many prayer groups across the county who held me close, to the strangers who would never know more than my name, but petitioned God on my behalf anyway. And our faith seemingly prevailed. Despite the unpleasantness of chemo and a long, long surgical recovery, I was “cured” and able to leave breast cancer behind me, stronger for the experience.

Today, as a metastatic patient from whom mortality cannot be hidden, I’m less sure. My faith’s teachings are admittedly vague on the subject on afterlife, favoring a focus on what we can and must do in this life over speculation about the next one. We have this time, it seems to say – make the most of it. Enjoy it, but do good things, too. Not because you’ll get credit for it later, but because it’s the right way to be. So after all these years of serving the Jewish community, of trying to do good things, what’s left? I understand I may not die of breast cancer, but I will unquestionably die with it. And as each treatment fails me, my faith is a bit more compromised.

Are God and heaven and hell just human constructs designed to make us feel better, safer, about the mystery that is dying? Are they real in the absence of evidence, in the same way that we can’t see or capture the wind? Or perhaps they exist only for those who have faith. I don’t believe my faith will heal me, as much as I wish it could. Wonderful, saintly people have died of illness, and evil people have lived long and prospered. It’s impossible for me to believe in an interventionist God in a world like that.

Ultimately I believe, with rare exceptions that range from Hitler to the Dalai Lama (yeah, don’t see those two in the same category very often, do you?), that we mostly try to be good, and we succeed and we fail and we go on. I have friends, mostly Christian, who urge me to have faith. I understand why – from their perspective faith is the key to heaven. From mine, if there is one, it is good deeds. And I guess I believe that actions do speak louder than words…

But it begs the question of faith. As the lives of some many fellow bloggers and twitter friends are prematurely stolen from us, as my own health falters, do I have faith?

I remember when my mother in law was diagnosed with mesothelioma. In the months before she died we would have long conversations of faith. She had, once, believed in life after death, and had a notion of it being good. As her death approached however, just when she probably needed it most, her faith was gone, or at least well masked. She came to believe in nothing. I’ve always hoped in her final days, when she no longer had the strength to talk on the phone, that she found what she needed.

Which has me wondering what I need. Would this path be easier if I were a true, unquestioning believer? Would I find comfort in “knowing” what to expect after I die? Perhaps, if I could ever really move from thinking to knowing, a move the skeptic in me is likely to never make. In the end, it always takes me back to the very beginning. Within hours of being diagnosed the first time my anger at what this would mean for my loved ones burst forth. Never mind me, I’ve done bad things in my life. We all have. But to make my loved ones suffer for my actions, the unanswerable question always remained: what could Zach, at the tender age of three, have done to deserve this. That, in the end, confounds my faith; I have not found a way to put my trust in an unjust God.

I figure I have lots of time yet to work this one out…

20 responses »

    • Very well said.

      After Feb 2013 when I lost my newly found half sister to cancer and 3 days later our friend dying in front of us from a massive heart attack while camping and I tried CPR , my faith has been shaken. At the same time I had to believe I’d see them again in the afterlife as our time together was far too short. So a mix of shaken faith and faith renewed. I’m still confused even after talks with my uncle who was a Lutheran Bishop (my mom’s family is Lutheran, dad’s is Jewish). Faith is also a difficult construct when you know you were born Catholic, likely baptized, and adopted by a Lutheran mother and Jewish father – though I choose the points of faith from each religion in a buffet style to create my own unique mixed belief system.

  1. Hi Lori, This is powerful. Since my diagnosis, my faith was, and still is, shaken. I’ve never admitted this anywhere before. So many doubts and questions arise when we face difficult times. I have no answers… Much love to you. xoxo

    • Exactly how I feel, Nancy. It’s been especially hard to talk about it as a Jewish communal professional. But I think MOST people live with this questions – all the more so when we’ve had to look death straight in the eye! I suppose there is only one way to find the answer, and I’m okay living with the ambiguity for a long time to come! XOXO

  2. I have had several epiphanies in my life which only make me as sure as I am of anything in this world that when we die our souls rejoin with God and it is wonderful and beautiful and so full of joy and love that we wonder why we were ever afraid. God loves you unconditionally, Lori. And weeps for what you must endure in this world. Things happen in life that have nothing to do with God. And cancer is one of them.

    I want to share something with you: my niece was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which as you know has a very low survival rate. She underwent radical surgery, so bad that it took a couple of months just to recover from the surgery. She went to Johns Hopkins for a consult and they prepared a program for her that an oncologist in NY who works with Hopkins conducted. She had
    six months of continual chemo, the kind that is administered both orally and intravenously. It is a year and now she is having follow up radiation. So far, there is no sign of the cancer in her body. However, pancreatic is tricky. She lives every day to the fullest , enjoying work and and family.
    I hope a similar future is there for you. Incidentally she is a religious woman and her community was always there for her.

    • Thanks for your comment, Vivian. I do know how challenging a pancreatic cancer diagnosis/treatment can be and I’m THIRLLED that your niece is doing so well! May she have a refuah shleimah!

  3. Lori you raise so many great questions and I don’t have any answers. It’s so true that when it comes to the afterlife the Jewish faith is vague. Your natural instincts as a mother are so understandable when it comes to the innocence of Zach. He doesn’t deserve this but neither do you…xoxo

  4. Hi Lori, I so love this post. I grew up very Catholic, went to Catholic school for elementary school. Stayed active in the church until I was 16 when the skeptic in me reared its head and asked ” does this really make sense?” I let go of religion but kept the lessons about doing good deeds, because it’s the right thing to do. That was 40 years ago. I still look up in gratitude for a particularly beautiful moment, I still look around me for people who might need help – opening doors, giving up my seat, smiling at someone most people ignore, I too feel I probably did something in my life to deserve this karmic bitch-slap, but my family does not deserve pain on my account. I understand so much of your questioning. Thanks for your insight and for sharing, this is always a tough one.
    Love and hugs,
    Jane

  5. dear Lori,

    I left a semblance of formal religion a long time ago, but over many decades developed a very deep sense of spirituality, one that focuses on using the gifts of life to be a good citizen of the universe. I was devastated to find it all shattered when Hugh died. I could derive no comfort from it, and I was so damned angry and felt so abandoned and bereft of any spiritual feelings when I needed them most. I felt is was so cruel, and couldn’t make any sense of it. so I just let it go for a long time. then I began to realize that I needed to do just that. I needed to step back and let it evolve for the new (and sad and frightening) place I had landed in.

    now my spirituality is stripped to bare bones – it is completely centered on love, on gratitude, on life both here and wherever we go when we die – not heaven, not hell, but someplace I imagine I was before I touched down here. I wrote about this recently in a comment to Marie’s blog after seeing a quote that made me ponder the meaning and the connection of having a body, but being a soul. maybe you can check it out – it’s under her post about “a wound still fresh”.

    I wish you much love and a bright and shiny beam of hope to help you find your way.

    xoxo, karen

    • Karen, what a journey! I agree so completely that what matters most is harmony – with my natural self, with those around me, with the planet. I can only imagine how your “faith” was shaken when Hugh died. I will certainly look up your post on Marie’s blog. Sending love and light right back to you. Xoxox, Lori

  6. Lori, thank you for writing this. As women who have mammos and pap and pelvic exams every year (and I just had to go back for a follow up mammo, but I’m okay), I feel like our mortality is always sort of dangled in front of us. It’s scary, and of course much more scary for those of us who actually have or have had cancer. I often think about faith issues when I think about these questions, and I wonder what would happen to my faith if I did have cancer. As you know, I too grew up with OSRUI, temple, etc., and loved Judaism. I would say that in recent years my spirituality has become less connected to any single religion, and more a system I have developed, and still am developing, in my own head and heart. My current outlook has elements of Judaism, Buddhism, love of the cosmos, nature, and mystery, and books I’ve read (The Power of Now and others). I have come to feel (“believe” is the wrong word for this; “feel” works better for me) that each human and each living thing is part of a collective universal energy, that each of us IS a soul who HAS a body, that the soul will never stop existing, but will only someday leave our body, that that soul is part of the collective universal energy (this is partly where science comes in for me, with the ideas that we are all made from stardust and that neither matter nor energy cease to exist, but are only transmuted into each other), that when our soul leaves our body it is still part of that collective universal energy and still exists. I also think/feel/believe that it is possible that our souls have been in other bodies and will be again — of course I can’t prove this, but it seems just as possible to me as anything else. Why should it not be true? It doesn’t seem to me to contradict anything we know through science.

    I have to say that all of the above makes me happy and much less afraid of death. We’re all part of the same huge swirling mass of stardust, and I think we will continue to be into eternity. How my particular molecules will reconstitute themselves I don’t know, but I think my soul will continue to be out there, or maybe come closer in again, into another body. There is certainly much we don’t know — much mystery. But doesn’t that make the possibilities so much more open? To me one drawback of organized religions is their somewhat paranoid insistence that they know a lot more than we really do know. I am much more comforted by the mystery.

    • Thanks so much for your very thoughtful response, Elizabeth! I certainly do agree that religions claim to “know more” – but I imagine that is a result of having been created to answer the unanswerable questions and, perhaps, grew into arrogance.

      If I’ve understood you correctly, I think we share a curiosity about what exists beyond this life, which is how I’ve typically felt about death and what lies beyond it. At the same time, to deny that there are questions doesn’t work for me, and this piece evolved from a moment where I had nothing but questions – why the last drug didn’t work, what the next one will hold, what happens if it doesn’t work, and what comes when none of them do.

      I’m mostly okay not knowing – I think living with the big questions keeps life interesting. But I also know that many of us privately struggle with these issues, and that I think open dialogue is far more interesting!

      I’m so glad you shared!! XOX

  7. Hi Lori
    I’m glad you wrote this very thoughtful post. I think many of us have felt some of the same doubts and questioned what we’ve always believed in or were raised with. I was raised Catholic, but when I was diagnosed metastatic 17 years after DCIS, I read Harold Kushner’s book, which I found helpful and interesting. (When bad things happen to good people). Hang in there.

    • Kushner’s book is excellent, I agree. I read it long before I ever had cancer. I think it helps us feel normative, but I don’t know that it offered me any answers. I continue to ponder…

      So glad you joined the conversation, Ginny!

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