Writing Prompt: 2. How have your belief systems changed through your lifetime? How do they compare to when you were a child? What new beliefs have you discovered? What old ones have you let go of, and why? For the Sleep is for the Weak Writing Workshop.
I’m 7 and reciting Old Testament, New Testament – daily – with my classmates. We learn snippets of scripture and bits of Bible to say aloud, voices communing in words of law, like church only with the power of the law coming from our mouths and the power taken away by our droned and cloned unity. Like church, the words spoken normally by authority from our young and lisping lips, lack of understanding unimportant, diction and memorization everything. I’m not sure that was the point, but perhaps I missed it. Recitation, rote learning. Designed to give us something to reflect on. I just heard the words.
My junior school was very religious, very Christian; it didn’t occur to me at the time but we were being taught by extremely devout women, women living their faith and keen to impart it. I’m not sure why that aspect of the school drifted past me. I don’t recall icons or religious pictures around the school, unlike the more conventionally C of E school Fran attended, but I do know we were read books such as The Pilgrim’s Progress and that assembly each day was called ‘prayers’ and consisted of hymn, moral and thoughtful presentation, then a proper prayer and a recited Lords Prayer by all of us. When I moved on to ‘big school’ I naturally expected religion to become more important and was surprised to discover it became perfunctory, though still a nominal part of assembly each day.
At home, religion was perfunctory. Mum believed, Dad didn’t. We only went to church if we stayed with my Grandparents. Father Christmas reigned at home but Jesus reigned at school in the Nativity play, at Easter. We were not allowed to say “God” and I had a Bible, given by my neighbour, which was my favourite fiction reading for a long time. But God wasn’t in my house, wherever else he was in my life. And the confusions continued; my unbelieving Dad nonetheless insisted, even when I was in my 20’s, that I would not be allowed to sleep in the same room as my boyfriend unless I was married. And then, married equalled church, by and large.
I was truly confused. I ached for the camaraderie and confidence that church seemed to give my friends, their blind faith, their rituals and routines, the child-like belief in something fantastical. I didn’t believe it, couldn’t believe it and it made me feel a failure. Like I was missing something, some great truth, some understanding. In schools where faith, Christian faith, was the norm, it made me feel outside normal.
Aged 8, we read the story of Job and the supposed truths of that story refused to settle with my brain. God was good and God was allowed to do terrible things to people; he was allowed to test, to take away, to punish and break people and they, to prove their love, were supposed to take it, love more, care more, trust more, believe more. The reward would come later, afterwards, when all that was wonderful and meaningful about this life had been sucked away.
To me, being relentlessly bullied at school, all this seemed terribly unfair. It made me wonder if I was supposed to take all this and be better for it later? It made me wonder if somehow she was ALLOWED to do this and was better, greater, because she could? It makes me think now that it is no bloody wonder that children allow adults to do terrible things to them and manage to believe it is all their own fault and that in order to fix it they have to believe and trust more, not less. In fact, looking back, it is a bloody twisted and rotten view of faith, if you want my opinion.
I’ve rattled and crashed through religion ever since. Not faith; I’ve never struggled to believe in a greater good. What I took from my junior school, if nothing else, was that to be kind, honest, open, truthful, thoughtful of others needs and to have a moral code that puts the needs of others as equal to your own, is the right thing to do. That was certainly the thread of theory to my PNEU school, even if they couldn’t always make it so in practice. It’s probably why the Chalet School books appealed to me so much as a teen; I liked harking back to a more genuine time, because I don’t think my senior school cared much about our souls, more about our exam results.
Five years ago, I broke my moral code. I went against everything I believed in, everything I thought was right, everything I believed to be the good and honest and right thing to do. I did it because I balanced needs and saw that more people would benefit from one choice than the other, but it sat so badly with me that I broke. I had no idea till then that it could be so crushing to abandon your core values, your truths. I broke them all. And when I broke them, I abandoned any final belief in God. That God. If there was a greater being who would put me in that position to test me, I didn’t want it.
Time passed. I wanted another baby and it didn’t happen. I turned my thoughts away from wondering if it was punishment. And then, suddenly, I was pregnant. Another baby, scaring me to death with bleeding and uncertainty. I lay in my garden with a new set of beliefs, ones I had turned to and begun to trust in that time between. I lay on the lawn in the sun, all at one with nature, with a peach coloured hollyhock bouncing before me and decided that I was at peace. I believed in something, some greater good, but it was not that God from my childhood. I was going to trust something else.
Twice in my life, I have wondered whether I should be looking harder at the signs. Once, I jokingly told a devout and evangelical friend who had invited me for tea under false pretences, intending to ‘convert’ me to his church, that I would believe in God if I won the lottery that week. I swear by everything that is true, I woke up three nights later with 4 numbers in my head and I put them on to a ticket. They came up. They really did. Max remembers it too. In those days, 4 numbers normally got £70. Max and I went out for a slap up dinner; next day we claimed the ticket. Bizarrely, that week there had been masses of winners and I only got £17. It was as if someone said “Fine, I’ll play your game, but not so much that you profit.”
And then Freddie. I did a terrible, bad thing and I gave up on Christianity forever. And I got my baby and I had him taken away again. Punishment? Warning? Retribution? And eye for an eye?
I have no idea. I don’t know what I believe any more. I believe in the grass under my feet and the trees and the sun and that people who are kind and good and think of others deserve good things to happen to them. Only they don’t. Sometimes it feels like the bad things happen to the good people. And I don’t want to believe in anything that makes us live the life of Job.
Other times of course, I know that in truth when people know they are good and bad things happen, they look for answers. And answers come in parables and pretends like “if I am good and bad things happen, it must be because I am due for joy in eternity.” How comforting. I can see the hand of a great and powerful being in my life if I look hard enough, the threads of my life that pulled into a picture at the right moment, to give me the strength to live with losing my son. If I choose to see that. I’m not sure if I want to believe in anything any more. How can I possibly even believe in the universe, in mother nature, in the ebb and flow of life force, when it took a baby away and made me live without him?
In a comforting life I could look forward to being reunited in heaven. I didn’t have him christened, so some of those fine and comforting and upstanding religions will say he won’t be there anyway. No, I think I’ll just look forward to being stardust. I’m not a scientist, but I can believe in one day being atoms again.
What do I believe? That life is amazing and life truly sucks. That I’m more comfortable with people I can love and things I can touch than a deity I have to believe in no matter how improbable and fantastical it is. I was brought up to believe that God was real and fairies and witches were not. Made no sense then and it makes no sense now. But the sun is real and the trees are real and the past is real and the nature of people, from time immemorial to want to feel and touch a spirit inside themselves is real. That the truth that most people are good, not because God is watching but because good and kind is what comes naturally.. that is real.
And then I hear myself think that and I sigh.
Jesus, I think. For God’s sake.
I don’t think there is any saving me.