I don’t give much thought to religion and its relationship with chronic illness anymore. I suppose I used to, but that was a long time ago. In fact, I’m only thinking about it now because I got an email today that it’s the topic of this week’s Chronic Babe blog carnival. It’s an important topic, though, and like with most other things, I have very definite opinions about it, so even though this is less of a rant or a rave and more of a reflection, here goes….
Like most Americans, I was raised in a household with religion. In our case, we were not devout. We attended services on the major holidays, celebrated with family and friends, and occasionally, but not consistently, celebrated some minor holidays. I attended religious school for many, many years, so I knew a lot about how things were supposed to work. I knew the prayers, the customs, and the bible stories. The problem was, I started doubting from a young age. When I was three, I asked the teacher at my religious preschool, “If god made the universe, then who made god?” I was told not to ask that question. I was told that god just was. Maybe that was the right answer for some three-year-olds, but it wasn’t the right answer for me. That started me doubting, and the doubts never went away.
So that’s my pre-illness religious background. When I was 12, I still went to religious school, still went to services, still celebrated holidays. I also now had some mysterious pain. At 12, I really didn’t think too much about some higher being giving me the pain, and I never considered praying for a higher being to take the pain away. Having never believed that a god of some sort controlled the minutia of my life, such as my friendships or my grades or whether or not I got a particular birthday gift, this seemed no different than anything else. I celebrated the holidays in a cultural way, and I thought about G-O-D, but I didn’t know what exactly I believed. I was scared not to believe (some of those bible stories are scary!) but I didn’t have that “feeling” that so many adults talked about. When I said to myself, “Please make the pain go away!” I wasn’t praying to any being in particular. I was putting words to the hope that I felt that maybe, someday, things would get better. Maybe that’s all prayer is? I don’t know.
Everything changed in college, as it so often does. I was living on my own for the first time. I went to services more, actually, at the beginning, because I felt a connection to the people there, and it reminded me of home. After I while, I realized that I wasn’t going for the services anymore, I was going only for the people and for the community. Over the years, I gave it more thought, and finally admitted to myself that I just don’t believe in any higher being. My guess is that illness or no illness, I never would have. To me, the monotheistic god, the Greek gods, the ancient Egyptian gods, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster all seemed equally unlikely to exist. Still, the illness gave me an interesting perspective.
On the one hand, why would I want to believe in a being that would make me ill? Or in one that wouldn’t make me better? I’m a good person. I help others. I volunteer at nonprofits. I go out of my way for strangers. Why would I want to believe in a being that would do this to me?
On the other hand, I see religious and spiritual people who take great comfort in their beliefs. I am incredibly jealous of them. I want that. Who wouldn’t want that? Going through the fear, uncertainty, and difficulties of chronic illness, how nice it must be to have a proactive course of action (praying) at your fingertips all the time. How wonderful to have a community of strangers ready to step up for you. How nice to have hope. Of course I want that! I want that, but I can’t manufacture beliefs for the convenience of a support network and what I think of as false hope.
It seems to me that most people either become much more religious or much less so after a big diagnosis (or the diagnosis of a loved one.) As far as I can tell, this happens for the reasons I just gave: either they can’t stand to believe in a being that would do this to them, or they need to believe in a being that can cure them.
The answer is different for everyone. My path has led me to where I am now. Maybe one day my beliefs will change. Maybe they won’t. I think the important thing is to feel comfortable with where I am now. Thankfully, I do. I get frustrated when others try to force their religion on me, but that has little to do with my health, and more to do with their desire for proselytizing. We all believe in different things. Thirty years after preschool, I don’t believe in god. But I’m excited to celebrate the holidays with my family!
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