Talking through faith with someone who lost theirs
I made a new friend the other day. Which at my advanced age (35, an age I’ve successfully maintained for the last 17 years), is nothing to sneeze at. Something they don’t tell you when your youth starts appearing as a speck in the rearview is that many of the friends you thought you’d have forever don’t make the trip through middle age.
My new friend’ s name is Tom Missler. A message appeared from him in my inbox after I’d published a story in which I’d abused Josh Hawley like a rented mule. (It’s just an expression, animal-lovers. I actually respect mules. A lot more than I do Josh Hawley.) Tom informed me that he was in hospice, but enjoyed reading my stuff. He was wondering if he could buy a six-month subscription instead of the one-year version, since the doctors aren’t giving him long. But if he surprised them/himself, he’d opt in for the full ride.
At first, I thought Tom might be yanking my chain. Turns out, he wasn’t. Tom has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and has been on oxygen 24 hours a day for the past five years. Though for most of that time, he didn’t let it stop him. A feisty retired money manager, Tom lives in Sun City Roseville in northern California, and is perhaps best known in his seniors’ community for “playing golf with a cannula plastered to my face,” which really puts a crimp in your swing when the tube only reaches seven feet. Now, his playing days are over. This doesn’t bother him so much since “I can no longer swing a club and recover enough air to swing it again in a minute or so. Recovery used to be a few seconds, now there is no recovery.”
It’s been a rough ride, physically: the dizziness, the dry eyes, the parched mouth, the nausea, the pee pills, the extremities so swollen that he can’t even put on shoes. His loving wife, Mary, ministers to him, but it bothers him that she has to see things she shouldn’t have to. He’s hoping that when check-out time is no longer avoidable, “I’ll do the dearly departed part as quickly as I can.”
And yet, if I’m giving you the impression Tom’s life – what’s left of it – is an unrelenting stream of misery, well then I’m doing our conversations a disservice. Because it’s quite the opposite. Tom is darkly funny and strangely buoyant, his mind is supple and curious, like he’s trying to drink as much life in before he has to take his leave of it. He constantly speaks of things that bring him happines, from pieces he reads, to visits with friends who’ve come to say goodbye, to Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream, to the memory of playing golf with basketball legend Bill Russell, who just died himself. “Got to hear, if not enjoy, his famous cackle which passed for his laugh,” Tom recalls.
Tom appreciates a good laugh. In fact, he believes laughter is essential. Even while bedridden, he signals “I can feel some real joy coming on.” He signs off with “hope all is well in the fishing business,” and asks me to keep the laughs coming, since this burden he’s shouldering “tries like hell to steal your sense of humor, sick is a powerful devil.” He now has a tremor when he types, and so the emails come with very little capitalization or punctuation, and with erratic line breaks. Fussy copy-editing is for those who have much more sand left in their hourglass. Yet Tom writes:
i try to find the humor in everything. i tell people sometimes i am so sick it is hilarious and it is true.
most of the time it is similar to riding a roller coaster. gonna have good and bad feelings during the day. just wait out the bad ones until
the good ones come along. maybe you will write a country and western song some day.
I tell Tom that I think he just did.
I ask him where his darkly sunny disposition comes from. What spurs him on, and brings him comfort as he looks death square in the eye, and is meeting what he assumes is his last leg with such grace? I ask if he’s a God guy. He’s not. He came to religion young, “a Catholic kid, with a cruel man for a father, not a deliberately cruel man I don’t believe, but one frustrated by his own demons.” Once a believer, Tom says “at some point, probably in college philosophy where to get the grade god could not exist, I decided to try that on for size and over time I stopped believing.”
We got to talking a bit about God, and it’s that part of our conversation I’d like to reprint here. Cards on the table: it makes me feel uneasy, even if Slack Tide is now, surprisingly, the sixth leading Substack site in the “faith and spirituality” category, though I only brush up against faith matters on occasion. (I’m thinking about getting “We’re #6!” t-shirts for the non-existent merch store, but being a slacker – it’s right there in Slack Tide’s name – who are we kidding? I’ll never get around to it.)
I don’t know why, exactly, I feel compelled to reprint this exchange. Maybe someone needs to hear it. But when I hear the call, it’s not my job to explain it, just to answer it. Besides, when I asked for permission, Tom thought it might be a good idea, too. So I’m leaving Tom’s stream-of-consciousness punctuation/capitalization style in the original, since it feels more like him. Any stream-of-consciousness punctuation on my end is merely a result of me being a lousy copy editor. Here it is, with a few notes on the other side:
i do not believe in god, though i'm encouraged by one of my brothers to get on board and do it quickly, as he wants to see me in the next life.
by this time of day my bowmar is on the fritz a bit too and i can't think of the argument for his existence, but basically it's you can't lose by believing
because if there is a god then you might be saved and if there isn't well you lost nothing.
is it called presumption if i trust that a god that we accept would judge each man on his efforts, and my efforts might make the cut.
i kind of look at what i face from the askew side too. i think once in a while maybe i could bargain my way out of this somehow, but the reality is no one
gets to pass this cup. we didn't ask to be here, but part of the deal is time will run out for all of us.
maybe on just the mental level i don't want to trouble my wife and son, and friends with making a long drawn out death like some copd people endure
more difficult for them. also i know my impatience and anger will grow as the pain gets worse. a terrible thing to have others feel that impatience and anger. it's unfair
to ask others to carry your weight.
it's a very interesting question what gives me comfort? likely it is trying to get through each day learning or finding something that interests me. something that brings
me joy. something beautiful like the sliver of the sky as i look out the window, or the touch of my wife as she rubs cream on my horribly swollen feet. an e-mail with
my son on his adventures as a caddie at pebble. laughter sure gives me comfort too. an ice cream cone. making someone else laugh. we have a choice make it a joy
or make it a sorrow. for now i choose joy, but reserve the right to change my mind.
got a lot of meds to choke down before i get to bed. thanks for the chat.
Well Tom, that's a helluva an honest answer. Thanks for filling me in. I believe you were trying to recall Pascal's Wager. And you actually outlined the essence of it rather nicely. Your brother sounds like a wise man. I tend to agree with him. Though I know faith is a pretty hard thing to will on yourself. We tend to either have it or we don't. It's almost like attraction. I can keep telling myself a 300 lb woman with a goatee is attractive to me, but the lead in the pencil, or lack thereof, doesn't lie. The heart tends to decide these things on its own. Or other organs further south.
But........there's a lot of people like me. Believers, who constantly have to fend off their own doubts, which are easy to come by in my case. I came to faith young - it's easier to come to faith young. You don't have as much life and pain and as many intellectual defenses getting in the way, admittedly. But throughout my twenties-thru-forties, I constantly struggled with the questions that stubbornly resisted getting cleanly answered. Was still a believer, nominally, but one with some pronounced agnostic undertones. And yet, the last several years - during a time of great personal trial I won't bore you with - I learned to settle into the uncertainty. To resolve that all will not be resolved. Not on this side of the veil. So I could relax a little. And I made a peace with it. "The peace of God, which passeth all understanding," Paul called it in his letter to the Philippians. As in, you don't have to understand it all, but you get the peace anyway. Which is something like a gift. You solve the problem without having to do all the math. I've always hated math.
About a week or two ago, my wife had me listen to this preacher. His wife had died three days before he gave this sermon. So the guy was on the rack. In serious pain. She wasn't old, either. In her sixties, I believe. The love of his life - they'd been together since they were very young. A textbook "Why me?" moment. ("Why not you?" the old joke goes........) But in the course of struggling through getting this sermon out that I would not be able to deliver in his situation in a million years, he said something that stuck to me. He said:
"There are some things you can only find in the valley of the shadow of death. And there are some aspects of the kingdom you can only find through childlike trust. You can try as hard as you want to be as smart as you can be. But you can only get it through childlike trust, and to do that you have to have mystery. There’s certain things that only open up in childlike trust."
Mystery surrounds us all the time, everywhere, in the physical realm already. There is much we can't explain, and we live with it. Why do we expect it to be so different in the spiritual realm? I think that's true for many people of faith. They're not better or smarter. They don't necessarily live cleaner, obviously. They're not finding favor by getting more gold stars on the behavioral checklist. They're mostly just people who embrace God, and learn to live in the mystery. And if you quiet yourself and don't throw up all the intellectual defenses (there are lot of well-founded ones - I was friends with the world's most famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens, and we ran around this track a few times), and if you let your spirit speak to you, or the one who created it do the same, as corny as it sounds, you might hear things you didn't count on hearing. It can come in all kinds of ways, just like all the random ways you find comfort. From something you read. Or something you see. Or the words of a stranger. And like your brother and Pascal said, what do you have to lose by giving it a whirl? Why the hell not?
One of my favorite verses in the Bible comes in the book of Mark, chapter 9, when a father was asking Christ to heal his child, and he said, "Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief." It's that second part I like so much. Which suggests he had a faith deficit. He wasn't a man of faith. He was a man of doubt. But he was trying to get there, and was having some trouble getting over the hump. Yet he was met where he was. I've prayed it many times myself: help my unbelief. If there is a God, and he created you, then he understands. He has the owner's manual.
In my belief system anyway, it ain't even about your efforts. Just come in low, with the faith of a child. Or the willingness to have it, if you don't naturally possess it. It's a hard pill to swallow for many. Ain't no shame in admitting that. We're just stating the obvious. It sounds improbable as hell. But the fact that something might have emerged from the primordial ooze before time was even measured, and we're here now, having this conversation on the internet, is also about as improbable as it gets. A lot of things are. And as Christ himself said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7, specifically): "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Maybe it's all a grand delusion. But it's a free shot. Costs you nothing to knock on a door, even if nobody's behind it.
Personally, I'm betting there is. Sorry, brother. I know we just met. And I don't mean to knock you over the head with God-talk. But when you tell me you're in hospice, sounds like an ideal time to have the talk. I'd feel derelict in my duties if I didn't tell you what I thought was the truth. However it ends up working out for you, I admire your spirit in just these few short exchanges. Laughter, yes! Good choice on your end. Makes all the bad-tasting medicine go down. That, and whiskey, which I'm having at the moment. I imagine they don't let you have any in your condition. But that's okay. I'll drink enough for the both of us. Raising a glass to a new friend.......
Postscript: I ended up having to apologize to Tom for the gratuitous whiskey reference. He informed me that he’s currently “between drinks.” He had his last one in 1989, though the way things are going……..Regarding his original subscription question, I told him to forget about it – that I comp’ed him for life. A few days later, a paid subscription notice rolled in anyway. It was Tom’s – for a one-year subscription. I like his optimism.
Bonus poem: Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H. Canto 96.” My favorite lines are in bold.
You say, but with no touch of scorn,
Sweet-hearted, you, whose light-blue eyes
Are tender over drowning flies,
You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.
I know not: one indeed I knew
In many a subtle question versed,
Who touch'd a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true:
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather'd strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone,
But in the darkness and the cloud,
As over Sinaï's peaks of old,
While Israel made their gods of gold
Altho' the trumpet blew so loud.
Bonus track: Here’s a song that’s always done for me what Graeter’s black raspberry chip does for Tom. A tune that’s brought me infinite pleasure over the years, one I play most often after finishing a long piece, with its satisfying swing. It’s the very best version of a song that Taj Mahal has recorded several times, his live take of “Corrina.”
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