My Turn: Fear versus faith at the winter solstice

  • Photographing the solstice transition from dark to light. Jean Stimmell

For the Monitor
Sunday, December 31, 2017

These dark days of winter solstice pull me down, causing me to ruminate more than usual about the future of our country. I reflect on how, since
9/11, we have become consumed by fear: fear of terrorists, immigrants, people who don’t look or vote like us; fear of nuclear war, climate change, epidemics, vaccinations, gluten; fear of almost everything.

Given this fertile ground upon which to work, fear mongers and demagogues have weakened our democratic way of life, tilting us toward autocratic rule.

I ponder what gives my own life meaning and reason for hope. It dawns on me in the light of the approaching new year that what sustains me is my faith, which continues to grow the older I get. And, indeed, it is this faith that empowers me to confront my fears.

Choosing faith over fear is a remedy proven over the ages. As Alexander MacLaren has written, “Faith, which is trust, and fear are opposite poles.” If you have the one, you can’t have the other. Yes, it is the people with faith who dare to overcome their fears and make positive change by standing up to injustice.

Therefore, the essential question becomes: How do I strengthen my faith, how do I reestablish my trust in order banish resignation and fear?

By way of example, I will share my circuitous journey toward faith, even though many may find it, at the very least, unconventional.

Without doubt, I started my adult journey through life as a confirmed agnostic, dedicated to rational thought. Or, like the TV detective Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Since starting out with unseeing eyes many decades ago, my faith has grown to the point where I can now glimpse the outline of what’s always been there but I couldn’t see, what William Blake so superbly expresses with poetry: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.”

I think the most significant influence leading me toward faith has been my mentors – some known to me personally and others through books or the media. They have been shining lights in my life, modeling compassion, wisdom and unbreakable faith, often forged through unspeakable tragedy and hardship. I have especially learned, over the years, from my remarkable patients.

Another positive influence is my meditation practice, which I began while a graduate student at Antioch. It continues to this day, although, I admit, on a haphazard basis. To me, meditation is an act of faith, like going to church. When I sit, after quieting my breath and cascading thoughts, a certain peace and calm envelopes me. Often, an unbidden smile lights up both my face and my very being – coming from I know not where. Except that I do know: I am in the presence of a greater whole, bigger than I am, that puts me in synch with the universe.

A third influence is my Big Dreams. While I admit to having only a few in my long life, they have been quintessentially spiritual and sacred. In one such dream, I am watching a little nun cross a raging river, beckoning for me to follow her to the other side.

In another, I am wandering in a dark cave without beginning or end and stumble upon a Buddhist nun, tears streaming down her face, cradling her dead baby – which might, in fact, be me. In her grief, she is magnificent: fiercer than any warrior, more authentic than the Buddha. I sense that She is my guide, sent to lead me to the gate of real faith.

Marion Woodman, well-respected Jungian analyst, tells us that in dreams, the Goddess often leads the dreamer into a deep cave: “Out of the darkness will come treasures and hidden riches . . . the possibility of something new.”

Many other influences have deepened my faith. Nature is a big one. Sometimes I can effortlessly merge with Her sacredness. Other times, it requires work like a long hike up a big mountain to achieve the effect. Hiking, hiking – yet my mind will not stop distracting me with endless thoughts. Eventually, however, when fatigued enough, my mind gives up and stops. Then, gloriously, I find myself totally immersed in the wonder of the present. Like being wholly focused on chopping wood or carrying water, all I hear is the sound of my feet as they hit the ground. Free at last.

From all the things I have ever heard or read, there is only one passage that perfectly resonates with my experience. It’s in a wonderful book, Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman:

“When I assented to the faith that was latent within me – and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.”

To fight the fire of fear raging all around us – and through us – we must, of course, as good citizens, rise up and take positive action. But first, I think, we should try to quell our fears with the faith that comes from nourishing that rare flower that lives, lonely and neglected, in too many of us.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)