It’s lonely out here: the wisdom of the shipwrecked

I didn’t anticipate how lonely this journey would be.

I don’t mean that I’ve been completely abandoned by the people I care about, though I have lost some friends. I mean loneliness at the deepest level. A kind of subterranean emptiness that runs like background music in my mind and only rises to the level of my consciousness when I’m especially tired or disappointed about my life. Think: free-fall.

Nor is loneliness the same as being alone. I enjoy being alone more than I ever have. I mentioned to a friend the other day that I think I’m becoming an introvert. This journey, by its very nature, is solitary so it’s not surprising that I am frequently alone.

Loneliness, in my case, arises from the realization—at least the deep suspicion—that there is no back up plan, no emergency savings account, no life insurance policy. In short, no god. But beyond questions of my own mortality and occasional musings about the afterlife is the more pressing question of the present moment. What do I do when it feels as though there is no “big Other” to turn to in times of discouragement, depression and adversity? Even though I have never been able to count on god to be there for me the way a close friend is there for me, the idea that god is there—like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, or Gandalf in Lord of the Rings—was comforting: hardly ever “there” but also never far away. The inconsistency never bothered me that much. I knew that god was working in ways that were not apparent to me. Just knowing he had my back provided more psychic relief than I ever knew.

There is a song that for me epitomizes the view of god that was always so comforting to me. While I was always careful to weed out the worst of the sappy, romantic, “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs at my church, this one, against my best efforts to be strong, always moved me.

“He Knows My Name”
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I have a Father

He calls me His own

He’ll never leave me

No matter where I go

What a powerful idea. A father who calls you his own, who never leaves you no matter what you do or where you go. The perfect father. As a feminist I always wanted to add a stanza that began, “I have a Mother.” The weakness of Evangelical theology easily shows in a song like this. But inasmuch as I am a reasonable sample of the Generation X in North America, I have a comforting feeling about the name “mother.” To have a father who never leaves you…now that’s something!

My own father has always been there for me. To this day he is my back up plan. Even so, he has disappointed me many times and I can bring those moments up in my memory with relative ease. I can also remember quite easily the times I’ve been a disappointing father to my two daughters. I just never thought to hold god to the same standard to which I held my father, and myself as a father. I always let god off the hook. Precisely because god is inscrutable he is beyond my critique. When I felt let down by him I just assumed there was more going on than I could understand and trusted him. That’s what it means to be a Christian, right: to trust god?

In the past three months I’ve been feeling the effects of loosing my faith; the gut wrenching feeling of not being looked after by a benevolent Father in the heavens. God was my back up plan. The promise was that no matter what happened to me, no matter how bad things got, it would never get so bad I couldn’t handle it. There is a text in the New Testament which says,

No testing has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tested beyond what you can bear. But when you are tested, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13, NIV). [1]

My theology about this text (and others) made a distinction between “hurt” and “harm” within the realm of god’s kingdom. Many things befall us in this life: good and bad. As Jesus said, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. But when bad things happen—when we are deeply hurt—we can know that nothing will truly harm us. Even my body can be tortured and killed but I know that no harm can ultimately befall me because I am in god’s care. It’s a way of saying, as Fernando Sabino said,

Everything will be okay in the end.
If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

From this line of thinking Christians developed a cliché: “God will not allow anything to happen to you that you cannot handle.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and not a bad one at that, even if you take the “god” part out. If you don’t believe that anything will befall you that you cannot handle you basically find that you can handle most things. Add the god-element and you can begin to feel rather invincible. Until something happens that, well…you can’t handle…without the help of several doctors, anti-depressants, a trip to the hospital, and so forth.

The point is this: remove the safety net and life gets a great deal more frightening. Remarkable, isn’t it, that you can walk quite easily along a 2×4 piece of lumber while it’s laying on the ground. Raise that 2×4 100 feet in the air and suddenly the fear of falling makes even the first step impossible. Climbing a rock wall while connected to a harness and a belay is infinitely easier than free climbing the same wall. The consequences of failure are no less than the difference between living and dying.

But coming face to face with reality is the only way to actually live. Just because something is comforting and makes me feel better doesn’t make it helpful or even good. Anesthetizing our fear and anxiety with god is no better than drugs and alcohol. In fact, the similarities are many. Escaping reality through drugs—actual chemicals or stories—causes both personal and societal damage. I don’t have space here to elucidate all the ways. We find out what we are really made of when we gradually remove all layers of falsehood—childish security blankets—that we use to filter out the pain of existence.

As recently as six months ago I would have argued vigorously that my faith was not childish and that I was not using god as a crutch. I even preached sermons about how god is not there to make our lives better. Nor am I saying that all people hold their faith in childish ways. I’m saying I did. Against my best intentions and theological machinations, I still was the child of a fatherly god who would not let me be exposed to the inexplicable pain of the world. In spite of my best efforts to understand god differently, god remained my cosmic backstop, making sure the ball didn’t get too far past me. My experience now is that there is no backstop. No failsafe. No way out.

I have also covered over this anxiety by intellectualizing about it. It allows me to avoid staring fear in the face. Sometimes I skirt around the terror by being “right.” I see this all the time on this blog. We can assert our rightness and somehow by doing that we momentarily escape the feeling of free-fall.

I’m sure some are better at facing the fear than others, having been doing it for longer with stronger mental and emotional fortitude, but if I’m honest, I’m still terrified. It’s not a fear of hell. Seventh-day Adventists don’t have a typical Evangelical theology of hell. The fear is more basic than that. It is the fear of absolute loneliness; the sort of emotional void that no one can fill. The death of a loved one is painful enough. The death of god is indescribable.

Jose Ortega captures this feeling so well when he says to live is to feel lost and shipwrecked.

Take stock of those around you and you will see them wandering about lost through life, like sleep-walkers in the midst of their good or evil fortune, without the slightest suspicion of what is happening to them. You will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth- that to live is to feel oneself lost- he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality. [2]

The only way to be fully alive—fully human—is to stop the rhetoric, the posturing, the farce, and face the terror of shipwreck head on. My journey is about getting out of the life boat into the infinite ocean of unknowing. I’ve been dangling my feet over the edge of the lifeboat for many years, intellectualizing about it, but now I am treading water and the lifeboat has drifted out of sight. Some days I think I see land off in the distance. Most days I’m not sure I’ll be able to stay afloat long enough. The fear is real. There are no shortcuts or magic escape hatches. Just this endless ocean, beautiful and terrifying.

———-

[1] I have substituted the word “testing” for “temptation” and “tested” for “tempted.” It is an equally legitimate translation of the Greek word πειρασμὸς and many translations choose it.

[2] Jose Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the Masses (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1932) pp. 113-114. The Spanish original, Le Rebelión de las Masas, was published in 1930.

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About Ryan Bell

For 19 years Ryan Bell was a pastor, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. In March 2013 he resigned his position due to theological and practical differences. As an adjunct professor he has taught subjects ranging from intercultural communication to bioethics.
Currently he is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape in the United States and blogs about that experience here at Year Without God.


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