Embracing the Darkness, and the Practice Of Faith

My faith is in my optimism.

I started coming to this realization at the beginning of August, during one of the most stressful, exhausting weeks I have had in quite some time, and it’s come up for me a few times since, in various forms of thought.

I have never had a problem with faith. I’ve spent the better part of my life not feeling a particular affinity to the Christian religion, and spent a lot of time saying “I’m spiritual but not religious,” before I finally realized–while walking a pilgrim route rooted in Catholicism of all things–that it has never been religion that I have a problem with. I’m just not a Christian. Growing up in a Christian household that always felt like the sort of thing you didn’t say unless you really, really meant it, and even then, there was always that cloud hanging over your head that just thinking it was a sentence to hell, so it was easier to just dismiss religion in general.

It’s the sort of thing that means something different to any number of different people, but what it really boils down to for me is not a problem with religion itself. I am a person of faith, just not a person who ascribes to the teachings found in one particular holy book.

I say my faith is in my optimism because in the face of a lot of recent personal challenges–my past coming back, my present not making a whole lot of sense, and wondering how much of my future I’m really in control of, 2012 has so far been a pretty bad year for me–for most of the people I know, as well. And I am not a person who sits there on December 31 and thinks about how terrible the past year has been and how much I can’t wait to start fresh. As written in a previous blog post, the new year, to me, is about looking forward, but it’s about a threshold of hope, a feeling that floats on the air connecting strangers to strangers. I see people all the time waiting to dispose of the previous year, and I always wonder. I’ve had bad years, to be sure, but 2012 is the first time I can honestly say I’ve had the thought “is this year over yet?”

I do not feel content. I do not feel peace. I feel stress, all the time. I feel things crashing down around me and I can’t even lift my arms to cover my head. I have very little motivation for anything. I cry constantly, sometimes for no other reason than it’s the Thing To Do.

And yet–I can look around me, and know there is light. I might not feel it, may not even see it, but I still know it is there. Even with any number of awful things happening, I have never lost sight of the fact that light exists, that it’s all around us. I acknowledge that I am not able to see it, but not that is has disappeared, or that I will not be able to see it again.

And that… That’s faith. That’s the basis of it. The unwavering belief in something you cannot see, cannot always even feel. And my faith is in my optimism.

So the next part is… How do you practice that? In a religion-based faith, when you start to despair, start to question, there are Gods and Goddesses, prayers, rituals, holy books, other members of your faith to speak with. But this is–I hesitate to say more personal, as religion and faith are always different, and can be and often are extraordinarily personal. And what I am talking about is still connected to a belief in that which is beyond what we see. It’s more than having a bad day at work but believing the next day could be a good day. It, too, is other-worldy, a belief based on light and love, something ethereal, something higher. A spiritual connectedness.

Not theosophy–this is not a life-force or spirit energy. It’s why I choose the word optimism.

And the question is, when you feel like you are alone in the dark, but you know just outside of that darkness there is light, and that there is nothing trapping you in there, what practices do you take to open your eyes and find that light?

Intention. Gratitude. Love. Acceptance. Charity. Compassion. Empathy. Patience. Opening yourself.

As an HR/administrative supervisor for the largest department store chain in the country, it goes without saying that the holiday season is the busiest time of year for me at work–and my holiday season really starts around mid-August, and lasts through the end of January, with the peak busyness running from mid-October through Christmas Day.

Last year, I got through. The bitterness I feel now, that started well beforehand, and I carried it with me every day. I wrote about it, often. I wrote about wanting to overcome it. But when I was not consciously thinking about choosing to see the good, I did not.

This year, I don’t want that. I want to feel joy, to feel the “holiday spirit” so to speak. I want to be energized when I talk to people, and to come home and feel at home, to do things with my husband, our families, my friends, not just sit around and wait until I feel it’s late enough to go to bed.

Here is another thing I struggle with–accepting within myself that I do not always demonstrate the optimism I feel. That I do despair. That my bitterness and cynicism is not “just a phase,” and one day I will wake up and feel differently, without putting in any effort.

I write when I am struck with the beauty of the world, and it renews me and reminds me of the light that I believe in. But I don’t write about that beauty when I don’t feel it. Why, I wonder? I know that part of it, is I do not like to accept those times. I choose to ignore them, determined they are only passing moods. That the “real me” is the person who, 5-6 times a year, writes an inspiring blog post about how wonderful the world is, if only we would open our eyes. But if I write when that mood takes me, and I am not writing that often, doesn’t that then mean that the rest of the time I am jaded? And wouldn’t that, then, be the “real me?” Or the better question–aren’t they both who I am? And if I am at the low points, but still telling myself “This is not who I am–I am a positive person who believes in the good,” why does it feel like I cannot give those times any gravity? That trying to write from that point of view will in some way validate the fact that I am not always cheerful and optimistic?

And here’s where the practice comes in.

Keep a gratitude journal. It’s something I started doing a long time ago, and then abandoned and never went back to it until recently. I have a friend who does this, and I love reading her gratitudes. And–it’s incredible what that does to a bad day. It’s very simple: write down 5 things that happened during that day for which you are grateful. Or ten things. Or two things. They don’t have to be big. Maybe you got a green light you weren’t expecting, or a stranger held a door open, or your coffee tasted really good. Or the weather was nice. Or you had clean water to drink.

Write out your intentions. For tomorrow. For next week. Next month. I wrote several out for myself for the holiday season last night. You don’t need a landmark like the new year to choose to make resolutions for yourself. Not even specific goals, but a general theme you want for yourself.

Follow through. Read over your intentions. How many of us have been in a class, motivational lecture, or even seen some form of advice on the internet, suggesting you write out your goals and put them somewhere you will see them every day? Do this with your intentions. If you don’t want to pin them to your desk, or tape them to your mirror, put them at the front of your gratitude journal and read over them every night when you write your gratitudes. Think about what you did today that was in line with your intentions, and what was not. Journal about it if you choose, but at least acknowledge it.

Accept your faults. If you’re waiting until you feel like the person you want to be to accept the person that you are, you’re going to spend a lot of time not doing the things you want, because you don’t feel like it’s the time to do them. This is one of the hardest things for me to do, personally. But I’m trying to look at this from the point of view of Maggie the Cat, from Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof:

“When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don’t work, it’s just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn’t put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant…”

Take Pause. When you’re stressed. When you’re happy. When you’re alone, or in a crowd, or with friends. From time to time just stop and observe. In his essay “Myth Became Fact,” C.S. Lewis discusses how you cannot simultaneously describe and experience something, and this is completely true. So while I’m not encouraging distance from experience, sometimes–take pause. If what is happening to you is good, you can take in more of your surroundings. If what is happening isn’t so good, you can more easily see the bigger picture.

These are just the practices that I am trying, but there are any number of others. I’ve spent too long thinking that optimism, that feeling peace within chaos, were things that were inherent. They used to come naturally–but I think it was more the practice of feeling these that came naturally. And as with anything, the more you do something, the more it becomes a habit, and then something you just do.

So, have faith.

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