Contrary to how impressed people are with all the schooling I’ve completed and my many degrees, I wasn’t the best student in high school. Aside from playing sports and being involved in student council, I was bored, distracted by boys, constantly worried about fitting in, questioned whether I was pretty enough, and didn’t give much thought to college until my senior year (for the record, most high schoolers prep for college stuff way before their senior year). But there was one class that at once held my attention and made me anxious: honors English.
At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was as surprised as the teacher to learn that I was placed in the honors English class (I was always in advanced classes, but this was a step above…composed of an elite group of smartie pants). On the first day of class, I almost didn’t show up because I was convinced that it was an administrative error, but I couldn’t just skip class (I didn’t want to get detention on the first day of school…I was sure I was going to get detention at some point but not the first day). So I showed up, feeling very out of place and quite intimidated. The students in the class had taken honors courses together since their freshman year, but I was the newbie. And while none of them made me feel unwelcome (most of them were my friends), the teacher went out of her way to make me feel like I didn’t belong.
As she walked around to greet each student, she’d glance over in my direction every so often, which made feel even more anxious. It turned out that she’d in fact met with all of the other students at some point in the Summer because they were given an assignment to complete…not Summer school, but homework that included an exam at the end of the first week of class. This homework included an analysis of some of the stories in the Bible. This was all news to me. Nobody told me about this, which made me feel even more out of place…convinced that someone in the administration office was out to lunch when they put my schedule together.
As she approached my desk, my heart started to race so I kept my head down, fiddling with my class schedule in my hands. She said hello and asked my name and for my class schedule. My eyes darted up in her direction as I managed to form a “hello” under my breath. She asked how I’d ended up in her class and I told her that I had no idea. She said I could stay for the day, but that it was probably a mistake that I’d been placed in the class, and that she’d speak to someone in the administration office to see fix the error. I nodded and sank into my seat…I was embarrassed and hoped no one else had heard our exchange.
During class, I took notes and tried not to make eye contact with any of my classmates, and especially with the teacher for fear that she’d call me out and ask why I was taking notes if this was my first AND last day in her class. Even so, she handed me a syllabus (surprising, I thought). I didn’t pay much attention to her lecture (most of which was a review of the syllabus), and after class, I ran straight to my 11th grade English teacher’s classroom, hoping to gain clarity about the mix-up. I managed to catch him and told him what happened. He said it wasn’t a mistake, and that he’d recommended that I’d be added to the honors English class because I’d excelled in the advanced English class the previous year as well as the first two years of high school English.
He said I needed to be challenged and that I’d do well in the honors class. He also said he’d speak to the teacher to let her know it wasn’t an administrative error. I must have stared back at him blankly because he assured me that if I wanted to move back to the advanced class, I could, but that he recommended I stick it out. I was as upset with him as I was happy to learn how much faith he had in me. Since it was still morning, I asked if I could think it over, and let him know what I’d decided at the end of the school day.
The rest of the first day of classes was a blur given my weighty decision: stay in my comfort zone (advanced English) or push myself out of it and take on the challenge (honors English). The thought of dealing with her again made me queasy but I knew that if I didn’t take on the challenge it would haunt me (it really would because I love a good challenge). It also brought up issues of faith – how much did I believe in myself? Did I know I could do well (or at least not flunk out)? I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I’d try my best and see where I landed.
Suffice it to say that it was a bumpy ride. I failed the first exam on the Bible stories but progressed steadily, and by mid-year, I was doing well. Vindication arrived when I received an A- on a major writing assignment. I finally felt like I belonged in the class and had earned her respect. By the end of the year, I was at a B+, which in an honors course is valued as an A (or maybe an A+…).
(BTW, I didn’t attend a private, religious high school and I’m not sure why the initial assignment/exam centered on Bible stories…it just did. And aside from one other assignment that focused on a story in the Bible, the rest of the assignments/exams were non-religious.)
The purpose of telling you this story is to highlight faith, which isn’t limited to a religious definition such as the belief in the existence of a higher being (God), but also includes having confidence in yourself, something or someone (having faith in someone’s word, that life will get better, that your car will start in the morning, etc.). Sometimes, your faith is restored or strengthened after you see tangible proof; sometimes your faith is shaken, and depending on the situation, having it restored might be a challenge, if at all; and sometimes, no matter what happens, your faith in God, the good of others, etc., is unshakeable.
You can also call it trust or confidence, but I’ll call it faith, which is one of the lessons of the Ten Rules, specifically Rule #10 (You’ll Forget All of This At Birth). Throughout my life, I’ve been challenged to keep the faith. Not that I don’t have faith in God, myself or the goodness of others, but my faith has always been tinged with skepticism or uncertainty (but my faith in God is unshakeable even if I don’t understand things sometimes). My faith in my abilities is what wavers. And while, for the most part, I had faith that I’d do well in my honors English class, I didn’t have a crystal ball and God didn’t come to visit me to deliver the message that with perseverance, I’d be fine.
The writing assignment that I received an A- on focused on the story of Job in the Bible, which deepened my faith – not only in myself but also in what it means to have faith when what you see or experience around you makes you question whether things will turn out all right. I didn’t grow up reading the Bible, but the story of Job is one to be appreciated by people of all faiths (as well as by nonreligious folks). True, there are stories in the Qur’an and Torah of patience and faith, and I’m sure you have your own stories and experiences that have tested and/or strengthened your faith.
In the story of Job (for those who aren’t familiar), at the urging of Satan, God tests Job by allowing monumental suffering at the hands of Satan: taking away his wealth, his family, and his health. Job’s wife questions why he still has so much faith in God when everything has been taken from him. She encourages him to curse the Almighty, but Job refuses to do so, holding steadfast to his faith. Job’s friends assume that his suffering is a result of his sins, but Job is a humble, pious man. He speaks to God and the Almighty reminds him of His omnipresence, wisdom, and power. Job agrees, acknowledging that as a fallible human, he doesn’t have the capacity to understand God’s ways, but nonetheless trusts Him. Afterward, God blesses Job by giving him twice as much as what was taken from him, and Job lives to old age – a happy, prosperous, and God-fearing man.
If you believe in God, then this story needs no further explanation and the lessons of patience and faith are obvious. If you don’t believe in God, the lessons of patience and faith are still relevant because I’m sure most of you, if not all believers and non-believers alike, have faced challenges, leaving you to question why you’re being cursed, singled out, or so unlucky. And once you get passed the “woe-is-me” and questioning, you’re left to figure out how to deal with the circumstances. But if you view them from the perspective of life having meaning beyond the physical/tangible, and as lessons to be learned from, then you’re left with faith…the faith that things will turn out in your best interest even if you can’t see what that is at the moment.
There are a lot more experiences I can share to illustrate faith, like when I applied to one school…my dream school for Ph.D. studies and got accepted; when I moved to the East Coast (away from my family) with the faith that, no matter what, all would work out; when I deployed to a war zone and had faith that I’d return home; when my father had surgery and I held on to the faith that it would go well; and when I walked away from a relationship instead of getting married because I had faith that I’d meet someone more compatible (albeit I didn’t have unwavering faith in these situations but enough to pull me through).
Some of you might read the above and think that the experiences I’ve had are trivial compared to those of you who’ve experienced REAL tragedies such as sudden death of a loved one (parent, child, spouse), loss of a job as the only breadwinner of your family (potentially resulting in the loss of your home), the onset of cancer, and/or false imprisonment due to the fact that justice isn’t blind, etc. I can’t pretend to know the extent to which your faith has been shaken and whether it’s possible to remain hopeful. Maybe these tragedies haven’t shaken your faith in the Almighty, but have eliminated your faith in what it means to live a good life.
No matter, I believe that if you get stuck thinking along these lines, your focus is not on the totality of existence, which includes physical and spiritual dimensions. Science explains a lot but it’s never been able to prove the existence of God or the spiritual dimension. And for life to be meaningful, it has to include more than what we experience physically.
Throwing your hands up and not trying anymore isn’t an option because all you’d be doing is letting life pass you by until it’s your time to die because we will all pass on one day (we just have no idea where we are in THAT line). Life can be harsh sometimes and the explanations for why you experience tragedies may be hard to come by, so unless you’re resigned to become (or remain) a pessimist, you have to shift your focus to what IS working in life because it can’t be all bad (check out my post on gratitude for more information).
If you’re not religious, it’s your prerogative…no preaching here. For me, having faith in God is important and provides the grounding in a world that would otherwise feel somewhat meaningless. But I’m not a fan of organized religion either…I have respect for the traditions, the rituals, and the need for order, but I’m not wedded to a particular mosque or sect. (As a matter of fact, I’m a SuShi…LOL…my mother is Sunni and my father is Shia – two of the major sects in Islam. I wasn’t raised to wear my religion on my sleeve nor to condemn non-Muslims. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three Abrahamic traditions and are best viewed as relatively similar vehicles or paths to connect with God. And of course, there are also other traditions beyond these such as Jainism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, etc.).
Some of you believe that you’re in total control, but when life throws a monkey wrench into your well-laid plans and things go awry, what do you do? Where do you turn? If you’re a fatalist and believe that all events are destined, then maybe it’s easier to deal with the blows and not get too emotionally attached to your circumstances. But as humans, most of us are affected mentally and emotionally by negative experiences. Some handle it better than others, especially with the passing of time. Regardless, most of us are changed and constant negativity can chip away at your faith. Some of you are good at compartmentalizing your losses with your faith remaining intact (kudos to you!). Some of you lose faith and find it difficult to ever gain it again.
So how do you cultivate or strengthen your faith? And why is it important to have faith that things will turn out okay, if not fine (but maybe not exactly as you expect)? I don’t have all the answers, but the following provides some ways to keep the faith, whether in God, in your abilities, and/or in others.
Review Past Experiences. When I face challenges, I draw on my previous experiences and remind myself that things turned out okay or better. I know this might not be the case for some people because sometimes things turn out worse than you anticipated. Maybe I’m a lucky person to be able to say that things always turn out okay or better, but I’m not sure luck has much to do with it. I’m an optimist, and in keeping the faith (in God, in the goodness of others) I remind myself of all that’s going right instead of focusing on what’s gone awry. By recounting my blessings, the view of lack is quickly replaced with a view of abundance. It’s important to understand that it takes regular practice to keep my faith intact…a constant reminder of all there is to be grateful for when my thoughts veer into negative territory.
Will This Kill Me? If the answer is “no” then there’s reason to have faith. Sure, things will happen that’ll leave you broken (losses, traumatic experiences), but time eventually heals wounds…you might never be the same or feel whole again, but you’ll survive. That’s the essence of life, right?!?! A compilation of good and not-so-good experiences leaving us the choice to accentuate the good and deal with the not-so-good as lessons to be learned.
Perspective Is Important. What you consider to be a tragedy, another person may not. You might have a bad day because you got into an argument with your spouse, you missed your train and showed up late to your meeting with your boss, and therefore, will not get the promotion you expected. And yeah, that’s a sucky day, leaving you to want to go home, change into your jammies, and curl up in a fetal position binge-watching dramas on Netflix. But a bad day for someone else might include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, getting kicked out of their home because they’re behind on rent, and not having enough money in their bank account to pay for groceries.
The latter is a far worse day than the former. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about what you consider to be a tragedy. Everyone’s entitled to feel rotten about the challenges they experience, but what I’m pointing out is the need to view your tragedies relative to worst-case scenarios. I’m certain that after learning about someone experiencing the latter tragedies, your challenges won’t look as bad (but don’t let guilt creep in!).
Faith Minimizes Stress & Anxiety. When you experience challenges, don’t you almost always look for ways to overcome them as opposed to succumbing to them? Chances are you assess your situation and try to come up with solutions as opposed to throwing your hands up and deeming the situation hopeless. Yes, you’re stressed and anxious, but keeping the faith that things will eventually work out is a lot better than doing nothing and worrying yourself sick. A couple of years ago, I had six rounds of interviews at one company – the last interview was with two senior VPs, so I assumed that I was in the running for the position. But I never heard back from the company.
I contacted the hiring manager and the HR folks a few times, but nobody got back to me. I was totally ghosted. It was very deflating. To this day, I’ve never heard back from them. It left a very bad taste in my mouth and I’ll never apply nor recommend this company to others. But a few weeks later, I started my search again, and in hindsight, I’m glad that things didn’t work out with that company (who wants to work with people who don’t have the decency to get back to a candidate…especially after six rounds of interviews?!?!).
I wholeheartedly believe that, at the end of the day, it’s your faith that’ll pull you through. How you go about holding on to it will determine how you experience life: as a glass half-full or half-empty person. A reality check might be all you need to put things in perspective and know that you haven’t been singled out to lead a miserable existence. When confronted with tragedies and challenges, look to others for support, count your blessings, and have faith that the impermanence of things guarantees that nothing good nor bad lasts forever. And that we, in fact, just might be spiritual beings having a physical experience, as opposed to the other way around.
Peace, love, and blessings,