A Lithe And Limber Psyche ~ Reflections On Faith

by Eve Livingston

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I’m thinking about faith today, among other things.  I’m thinking about what use it might be, and how to learn the right times to turn to its benefits.

Bear in mind that my use of that word, faith, is not imbued with religious connotation.

I’m thinking of a more psychological form of faith; a more social form of faith.  An older one.  A more primal one.  The kind of faith we had to have, undiluted by imagining it to be about anything else but our social brethren, when evolution was just carrying us in its current toward upright, two-footed ambulation.

Brené Brown has a good description of this kind of faith:  she says, “Faith is the vulnerability that flows between the shores of certainty.”

At first you might find this confusing, perhaps.  My reaction to this simple statement, upon initially hearing it then writing it down then reading it, was quizzical.  I read it over and over as I thought about it.

How is faith itself a vulnerability, I puzzled?  Isn’t Brown saying something about our reaction to vulnerability that more accurately describes faith?  She might make this argument, given her overall thinking.  Maybe even make the argument that these are all (the thing itself, as well as our reaction to it) what she meant to describe.  But I imagine she might also just as easily say, “No…I meant it just as I said it.”

I like the challenge in making sense of it and finding meaning in it it just the way she said it.

For me, that making sense of it points to the Buddhist notion of Dependent Origination, in its call to meditate on what something is, as opposed to how we react to it, or what we think it is.   This relates to the concept of emptiness in Buddhism.  Understanding emptiness is the aim of many a meditator, seeking Nirvana.

So in thinking about faith as “the vulnerability that flows between the shores of certainty,” and in taking this phrase quite literally, we are asked to look at vulnerability itself as faith, and, at the same time, look at the facing it, and accepting it, also as faith.  You can see why I puzzled over this…it’s not easy.

How to better say this?  Let me approach it this way:

You might be asking, how in the world does it make sense to think that vulnerability itself can be equated with a concept like faith?  Faith is usually thought of, in a religious sense, as being at peace with or accepting an idea regardless of empirical proof.  The psychological faith I’m describing here is kind of a mirror image of that religious faith; it is respecting that something is not empirically proven until it is proven, or known until it is known.   It is being at peace with the fact of the unknown, and leaving open space in mind for discovery.   When I think about it this way, it makes sense to me that accepting (even loving) that space for discovery to enter into is, indeed, a form of psychological faith.  And no matter what words you use to describe it, this is also a form of psychological health.

Why do we need it?  To stay open minded.  To be relaxed enough to survive.  To allow our psyche to have a nice balance of curiosity and information.  To not fall prey to our fears of the unknown.

Until known and experienced, we simply do not know what we do not know.  The rest is imagination.  It is important to respect imagination for what it is, in all its splendor.

Even physicists and other scientists, who excel at imagining in a most convincing way what might be going on, for example at an atomic  level, are still often using imagination and giving it their best guess.  Sometimes they have to face the limits of certainty.  Not only do they acknowledge this, but they also embrace it.  And so, we non-scientists, those of us imagining the things we do, are still just imagining.  It is especially important to remember this when it comes to fear and anxiety.  We do not know what we do not know.  This is true whether we are imagining fear on the scale of electrons or elephants.

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So why again does it make sense to ever relax with not knowing?  I’m referring to something very natural, and pretty darned well proven:  nature made us vulnerable.  It didn’t make us omnipotent, nor did it make us omniscient.  It made us not know a great many things.  We were born afloat in that ocean between the shores of certainty, and the thing that’s always made us naturally tick best, as a species, is our curiosity.  After all, remember, we were born soft-bodied and with lots of unanswered questions.

Why would nature do this?  Because nature is really, really smart.  Amazingly smart.  Smarter than us, in fact.

Now, if I had faith right now–let’s say faith which might assist me in finding courage to express myself and share my thoughts, even though I do not know how these thoughts will be received by others–what exactly is it that I’d be making use of?  I’d be facing that it’s OK for me to be limited in my knowledge and certainty.  I’d be at peace about  gathering what knowledge I could, in a relaxed and open manner, as a result of experiencing one moment after the next.  I’d be comforted to remember that this in itself–this not knowing what I do not know–is far from necessarily being a bad thing.  It just is what it is, and I can float along in this moment, enjoying the sound of keys being typed, enjoying the process of thinking and writing and trying my best to explain a difficult concept as clearly as I can, right now, in this moment, in this draft.

So we can have whatever opinion we do of vulnerability–sometimes perhaps we think it is good, other times bad–but ultimately, we are benefited by accepting the fact of it.  I think this very much allows us to have greater experience of the experiences we are having while we are having them.

Accept it, this fact of vulnerability and uncertainty.  Even if fleetingly.  One breath longer each time you ponder it is long enough.

Don’t let your fear fool you.  It wants you to believe that a lack of answers (now, when you want them most) is inherently a bad thing, to be avoided.  Your fear believes this.  And I could make a good argument for why we’ve come to lean on such misleading fears, at this point in our evolution, but that is another post.  For now, just consider the possibility that your fear might be wrong.

Contrary to what your fear would like you to believe, anytime you accept that you do not know what you do not know, and you persist in your openness to exploration and understanding, it is discovery you will arrive at, not the opposite.

Stop questioning your uncertainty–your vulnerability–for a moment, even if just a fleeting moment, and see that it is the ocean it is.  It exists, it is real; even if we do not understand it as well as the shores of certainty…even if we do not like it as well as the shores of certainty.  Accept the fact of it; pure, raw, empirical and without judgment.  It is a real part of our emotional landscape.

I think Brown is saying, and I would agree with her, that human vulnerability is a natural fact, that it is comprised partly or largely of something articulated as the unknown, and that our appreciating its existence, without refusal, is faith.

This is a kind of faith that inevitably leads to relaxedness, flexibility, suppleness.  To a lithe and limber psyche.  Which makes for more fun, by the way, for what that’s worth.

We don’t always have answers or have them when we’d like.  Faith (the psychological kind) is openness to discovery without bias.   It is a position of openness.  It is standing firm in the confidence that by no means does a lack of certainty automatically equate to something bad which must be avoided and refused.  It is finding it reasonable to be open to revelation.

It seems to me this kind of faith can lead you to courage.  In fact, it also IS courage.  It results from not being afraid of confusion and uncertainty, and, at the same time, it makes it possible for you to be less afraid.  A lovely, self-generating cycle.

Being as open to our vulnerability as we are to anything else is crucial to deep and lasting happiness.  It’s a matter of sometimes letting our experience go where it will, bring us to what shores it will, when it will.  Sometimes letting go of control that way is just fine….entirely called for.  Indeed, sometimes we have no choice but to let life itself go where it will.  Sometimes, more than certainty, what we need is to merely know if our curiosity about something is worth what is required of us to continue to explore with patience and love of discovery.  And so what is that thing that might be required of us?  Faith.

Whether the curiosity is about how something might turn out, why things turned out as they did, how to have them turn out differently next time, or about whether we might be able to have something we want or need, it does seem to me that, without knowing the answers we seek immediately, we really are left to face this fact of vulnerability.  This fact of existing, knowing some things, and yet not knowing what we do not know.  Sometimes this happens to be what we wish most we did know, because we tell ourselves that the lack of certainty is something we should not be willing to bear.  But often it is, and we should.  We should until such time as we really have discovered something, and verified it to be true.  Hard as it sometimes is to believe, this is the case regardless of what colorful elaborations our imaginations weave our fears or wishes or opinions to be.

We would, many of us, do well to float more freely upon the waters of vulnerability, until we arrive at certainty’s shores.  Really arrive.  Experience it…explore it…discover it.  Who knows….perhaps after enjoying the float, those shores will lose some of their urgent and idealized gleam, and then all the terrain of our spectacularly varied human existence can be equally valued, equally appreciated.  Maybe even equally loved and enjoyed.

What difference does this make?  Quite a bit.  It makes life lighter, funnier, more delightful; more an unfolding adventure.  It gives us a LOT more space and a lot more freedom to move about the cabin.  A lot.

Content copyright 2017. Eve Livingston, Ph.D. All rights reserved.