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Faith and Understanding
Faith and Understanding
My wife Sandra had faith; she believed in a higher being. It came to her naturally. When she was eight-years-old, she insisted on going to her local Episcopal church in Manhattan Beach, California, even when her parents long ceased attending. Her parents were believers, but evidently, organized religion was not for them. They would drop her off at church on Sunday mornings and then pick her up later when services ended. Sandra’s father was raised a Christian Scientist and her mother was born Catholic--I guess they compromised and became Episcopalians. I don’t think there was much religious talk in their household, although I’m only speculating. In the 20 years I knew them, I can’t remember much conversation about faith and religion, but it was taken for granted that God existed, you prayed to him, and said grace to him before dinner, something I was not used to, and which always made me slightly uncomfortable. Sandra just believed—it comforted her--she didn’t make a show of it.
When Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, her faith was a source of great strength for her. I’m not sure if her faith in God, her daily prayers and daily reading of the Everyday Bible gave her body relief from pain, or kept her alive any longer, but I don’t think longevity, or survival at any cost, was Sandra’s overriding ambition while working her way through this disease. I think rather, she wanted to give herself deep spiritual comfort in her trying and eventual dying days. She knew her days were numbered, and she wanted to give our daughter Samantha and me all that she could while she was still able to do so.
I am not a believer. And although Sandra and I viewed religion differently, we never, after 20 years of marriage, tried to make the other feel small for believing as we did. We also never had any desire to convert the other. In fact, I think she was quite proud and amused to call me her “little heathen”. That doesn’t mean we didn’t discuss our differences—we did, regularly, and sometimes loudly, over 20 years—and guess what?--we didn’t change each others' minds. 20 years later, we felt about faith exactly how we did when we first met. When we were planning our wedding, I was adamant about not having God mentioned in our ceremony. Just the thought of it made me uncomfortable. Despite her beliefs, she didn’t give me a hard time about it. It’s not that she bent over backwards for me, but as she always said, “I know in my heart that I believe, and I don’t have to prove it to anyone.” I was a lucky man.
I’ve always been cynical about faith and religion. This cynicism crept into my brain when I was young. Maybe it was growing up in liberal Hollywood, or maybe because my parents were not religious. I just didn’t buy the whole idea of a God who created this incredible universe out of thin air, let alone the idea that he created it in six days, and took the seventh day off to rest. I know what people say, those six days were really not six days as we know it, but were six days in God’s world—which I guess, could mean six billion years instead. I didn’t understand why so many seemed fixated on something that for me seemed so implausible.
Some of my worst memories growing up were the times spent at temple for the High Holidays. For some reason, it seemed the holidays occurred only during heat waves— the hot Los Angles sun beating like a tom-tom on my head--making me woozy. These were the only days that my brother and I wore suits. Black suits that absorbed the heat. My mother was not religious and my father definitely wasn’t—and I think we only started to go to temple after my parents divorced, when I was seven. We didn’t talk much about religion in our household and didn’t hold any religious rituals or traditions, like keeping kosher or upholding the Sabbath like many of our neighbors did. I think my mother felt an obligation to take us to synagogue so we didn’t completely ignore the fact that we were Jewish. Really, I think it was just to appease her mother who was the treasurer of her temple, ran the annual rummage sale, and kept a kosher house. Anyway, I pouted my way before, during, and after these services—which were done strictly in Hebrew, and I had no idea when to stand, which was often, when to sit, which was not as often, and I couldn’t tell how long these services lasted, but if I was told they were 10 or 12 hours long, it wouldn’t surprise me. These were miserable days for me—I would rather have been in school.
When Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer and as it progressed over the years, I started to get more interested in faith and religion—not because I started to believe that there was a God, or that I was changing my views about religion when a crisis was occurring, as the old adage declares, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I just wanted to learn more about religion and why people are attracted to it. And the more I studied, the more I started to wonder why people believed in God at all when there is not much evidence for his existence. (Of course when I say that, I sound egotistical—that I have all the answers, which clearly I don’t—that’s why I continue to study.) The brilliant astronomer Carl Sagan, who died relatively young to cancer, famously said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Like him, I just never thought there was enough evidence to support the idea of a God.
As Sandra’s health declined and as she found continued comfort in her belief in God, I started to find comfort in my skepticism. I developed an even greater appreciation of how beautiful this world is. How much beauty we witness every day, but don’t realize it for the most part—or, probably more accurately, don’t acknowledge it. It took Sandra’s illness and eventual death for me to understand what magnificence this world holds for us. I didn’t know, or even really cared that there were thousands of different types of flowers—all with different colors and shapes and sizes and smells; subtle and luxurious—big and tiny--an incredible array of beauty right in front of us. To me, this is not a miracle of God; this is the beauty of life. And it is extraordinary.
During 20 years of marriage Sandra asked me to go to church with her only one time—for Samantha’s confirmation. The Bishop, dressed in all his glory, spoke with great passion and understanding, then in a beautiful ceremony, Samantha and the other 10 or so kids got confirmed. I could tell Sandra was very proud even though Samantha seemed somewhat bewildered by the whole thing. Sandra looked at me and knew exactly what I was thinking, “What a bunch of hooey!” I really don’t know how she put up with me, but I know she enjoyed watching my discomfort. We thought differently—it was OK—we loved each other.
In the end, she knew she was in good hands, despite what I thought.