I never believed in God as much as when I was seven years old.
I didn’t grow up in a religious home although my stepfather always read aloud from the Bible on Christmas Eve before we were allowed to open our presents.
But when I was seven, I spent a whole summer praying to God every chance I got; praying that I would win the Barbie doll that was first prize in a children’s comics lottery.
I didn’t win, and I soon stopped praying, that’s how fickle my faith was.
In my teens, I made friends with two girls at school who were devout Catholics, and I admired and envied their faith. If only I could believe, life would make so much more sense, I thought.
Many years later, I was in my early thirties when, out of the blue, I had a stroke. My father had died the year before, and I was working hard to complete a PhD dissertation in international relations while dealing with my loss. On a rainy but mild day in May, I left my shabby flat in Bayswater to meet a good friend for dinner in Soho. On my way to the tube station, I noticed I couldn’t walk straight and that my left arm wouldn’t move when I tried to lift it. Instead of dinner out, I ended up in hospital, where a CT scan confirmed that I’d had an ischemic stroke.
I was incredibly lucky to make a full recovery but the stroke, the cause of which remained unexplained, left me seeking something beyond my academic lifestyle, something deeper and more meaningful. Something spiritual perhaps, that might help explain not only the stroke but the other why’s of my life.
For the next two years I dabbled in religion, thinking I’d finally found what I was looking for, but in the end, I had to concede that it wasn’t the answer for me, however much I tried.
Ever since, in a continuous effort to find a way to find a resolution to that deep hole inside me that won’t heal, I’ve sought the help of psychotherapists of all kinds. I’ve tried Buddhist meditation, ‘secular’ meditation, transcendental meditation. I’ve lined my bookshelves with self-help books (most of which I’ve never read). But despite my efforts, the magic formula I hoped to discover remained elusive.
Because, of course, there is no magic formula. Perhaps I was going about it the wrong way around; looking for answers that weren’t there, instead of staying with the questions, and accepting the uncertainty that comes with having questions but no answers. It’s akin to what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability, “…that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
It isn’t easy living with uncertainty, without answers to all those why’s I’ve carried within me since my childhood and giving up on my quest for answers won’t necessarily solve my existential doubts, the ambivalence about life I feel from time to time.
But it does open up the space for recognising and embracing the different parts of my life that do have value and meaning. Sometimes, it’s the ‘small’ stuff that truly matters: a hug from a child, a friendly message from a stranger, that intricate spider’s web that is growing ever larger and impressive on our front porch; and moments of laughter and fun with the people I love.