Seeking a Placebo: God, Me, and Everything.

Some people can be hypnotized.

Some of us see signs. Everywhere.

Some can turn off the pain of hot coals singing our feet.

And many of us feel certain God watches over us.

But then. . .some of us cannot.

Years ago, I was watching a film on how people “see the bright light” during near death experiences, a documentary that explored the spiritual and/or biological evidence and theories surrounding the universality of this phenomena. People from far ends of the Earth have commonly described the brilliance and sense of wellbeing at coming closer to this light. Historical references crossing centuries cite the same experience. As I watched, for one brief moment, I had such complete faith that there was “more” beyond “here”, the most blissful tranquility simply settled over me.

I said brief moment. Too brief.

I am the person who says to those pitching the intricate design argument, “Well, if this is all too complicated to be random, then who created God? Or did he randomly appear?” If one must be begotten. . .

Believe me. I would rather feel the peace than questions.

My husband’s faith on paper sounds like my own. Like me, he does not imagine a God who is fatherlike, listening to our every word, magnanimously answering prayers. He does not believe in predestination, hell, or even destiny. But, unlike me, in practice his faith is deep, sure, comforting; he willingly goes to his knees to give thanks, to empty his heart of fear or pain. He lives as fully in the moment as anyone I know, trusting that with sense, all will be as it should.

On those nights when I am still awake when the morning’s alarm rings, I envy the easy sleep my husband enjoys. His profound ability to hand his day over to God is undeniably complex, yet simple.

When I use the word God. . .I might mean the rain, or the Earth, or Jesus, or love. It really doesn’t matter. To my husband, it is the unknowable, the essential, the everything of all. We agree on this, yet his relationship with God fits him so well.

And more than anything. . . I want what he has.

To find this relationship isn’t as simple as reading The Bible, or the Koran. It will not come to me by studying the wisdom of prior or modern religious leaders. As much as I loved reading Joseph Campbell’s expertise on comparative religion, his knowledge and historical exploration of humankind’s faiths enlightened me, but also stunted me. This scope allowed me to see how essential to man a belief in a parental otherness is, but also made me very aware of man’s creation of God. The truth of those conflicting observations made me all the more aware of how important spiritual understanding beyond myself can be, but also made me so conscious of the false underpinnings of it.

My faith suffered a stroke.

I have hints of this peaceful faith I seek when I watch my family of cardinals return to our forsythia each year, or when my youngest son tucks me in at night (he switched the roles on me last year when I came home from the hospital). Finding a colony of trout lilies each spring, listening to a talented student sing wholeheartedly, lying with my ear against my husband’s heart as we fall asleep. . .all connect me to my God.

But then my brain interrupts with worries that mankind won’t truly move forward until we give up this father figure that all cultures seem to have, give up religion, and take on the awesome responsibilities of the universe ourselves. But. . .then again. . .How lonely and scary, and even a little dangerous.

So I waffle spiritually. My husband has no inner conflict here; peacefully changing what he can take responsibility for, moving through the world as if it is all up to him, but relying always on God for comfort are not contradictions to him. He’d just smile at you pleasantly when you try to argue this point. His belief is a living example of what phenomenologists call Epoche. His faith is so deeply felt that it needs no debate because of it.

Faith is found within me rather than without me. This concept is dawning on me, oh, so barely. So ephemeral a thought, that when I think on it, it evaporates.

I suppose I could design my own Eat. Pray. Love. experience to search for my spiritual peace. (But I am certain I’d end up never leaving the Italian leg of that journey, glorifying pasta, gelato, and Michelangelo every single day.)

What I am certain of is this: Twenty years ago, a pharmaceutical study on a new cancer drug was taking place with several groups. One observed side effect of this medication was extreme eyelash growth (among other more painful effects). Patients’ eyelashes literally could grow an extra inch. Unexpectedly, many members of the control group receiving the placebo, and no medication at all, discovered their eyelashes growing. The power of their mental system was so deep that their bodies physically altered, simply because they believed they were receiving the medication.

Do you see how astonishing that is? Unlike the hair on our heads, eyelashes have a set length. How can believing they will grow, actually shift the genetic predisposition of their length?

What limits can faith in anything have then? Does it matter that a “God of his Understanding” exists literally to my husband? No. What matters is that when he hands over the stress of his day, he believes fully that all will be the way it should be. He doesn’t try to define the “should be”. In fact, he doesn’t try to decide what that even looks like. He simply trusts that he will be able to face what comes his way because to him God is essential.

I do not mean to demean any religion by suggesting that faith is as baseless as those sugar pills, but I want that power of the placebo. I want to believe so deeply that no matter what the reality is, no matter whose belief system turns out to be right, I can be hypnotized into feeling no resentments, I can trust that everything will be okay. Not only will I see signs of greatness everywhere, I can walk on coals and no longer feel any pain. It is the belief that matters.

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