by Becky De Oliveira—
Shutterfly reminded me yesterday that this past week, 10 years ago, I was on spring break with my children and parents in Kentucky, at Mammoth Cave National Park and Dinosaur World. My kids were ten and six. My parents couldn’t join us for the cave tour since my mother has Parkinson’s disease and would have been unable to manage the rough terrain, tight spaces, and stairs. Later, when we met up with them to stroll around the surface of the park, my six-year-old began enthusiastically explaining to Grandpa everything we had seen and done. When we passed the entrance to the cave tour, where the operator had spent perhaps 20 minutes orienting us to the realities and rules of the experience (he was particularly concerned that we understand just how tight the section called “Fat Man’s Misery” really was so we wouldn’t freak out underground), my son said. “And Grandpa, this is where a man said a lot of words.”
That boy is now 16, and his enduring ability to distill almost anything he sees to its basic and most essential quality occasionally astonishes me. Watching a reality TV show about couples, he will say something like, “This relationship is 99 percent her and only one percent him.” Since we’ve all been in a de facto shelter-in-place for the past week here in Colorado—going out only to take walks and make the occasional dart to the grocery store, or, on Monday, to McDonald’s for St. Patrick’s Day shamrock shakes obtained through the drive-thru—he has had more opportunity than usual to share his insights. “Dad is more religious than you are,” he said.
“How do you figure?” I asked, resisting the urge to demand an operationalized definition of the construct religious. I don’t disagree with my son; my husband is more religious than I am. But I’m not sure why. And I really wanted to know how the difference between us appears to a 16-year-old who has spent his entire life watching us, quietly amassing data.
“Dad reads only religious books,” he offered as his first piece of evidence. “You read things like Fifty Shades of Grey.” (For the record, I have never read a single word of the Fifty Shades franchise. He is thinking of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a book I embarrassed him by bringing to school when I substitute-taught his seventh-grade class, thinking I could read it during lunch and gym class, my free periods. I assumed the kids would associate the name with the county in England. This was a grave misjudgment on my part.) He went on to explain that Dad also prays more often than I do, that he encourages prayer as a solution to problems, something I never do, and that he thinks and talks about religion all the time. “If I have a problem,” my son said, “you offer a solution. Dad tells me to pray.”
On the one hand, being the person that I am, I found this assessment quite flattering. I am a rational being—one who offers solutions rather than magical thinking. But in the midst of the crisis in which we find ourselves, I’m not, to be honest, finding solace in much of anything. People are saying a lot of words. Some of them are what I would describe as religious platitudes. (“Let go and let God.” “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”) Others are based on data or reason or common sense or any of a thousand other epistemological models, and they pretty much add up to…a lot of words. I’m adding to those words right here, on this page, as I type. Words are the only thing I know how to do, the only skill I have, and here, right now, they begin to fail me.
We are facing the kind of uncertainty none of us ever expected. I have friends who have lost jobs, lost their salaries for the foreseeable future. Schools and universities closed. If we’re lucky, we are working from home—and wondering how long that will last. Worrying about how many will get sick, about what happens if food runs out. Most of us have lost investments. Some have to put off retirement, like what happened in 2008. One of my clients told me this week he lost just under a million dollars, but he was pretty sanguine about it. He has lost more than money in his life—his wife died suddenly nearly 20 years ago when his daughters were teenagers. “Don’t worry, Becky,” he said. “We are people of faith and we have to believe that God has us, through everything that happens.”
Well, no. We don’t have to believe that. Or anything. We can be skeptical, can let our thoughts go to dark places, thinking of all the people who have had faith that went unrewarded. Anne Frank and her family. The Tutsis in Rwanda. Everyone you’ve ever known who died of cancer. But maybe this is a good time to experiment more with faith—not just words but faith. That feeling of peace that can suddenly wash over you, unbidden, that makes you quite certain that no matter how cliché it might sound, you really do believe that God has us, through everything that happens.
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.