This essay is about my spiritual journey (that I'm still on). Filed in Letters to My Sons
| Believe in something greater than yourself
Growing up in our family, it was simply understood that everyone believed in God, so it never really occurred to me that some people didn't. The problem with our interpretation of God was that it was a belief born of guilt and fear. If you didn't pray to God, bad things would happen to you, but if you did pray, God would take care of you. By that logic, even if I was not sure about the existence of God, it didn't hurt to pray and hedge my bets.
As I grew up, however, several things occurred that made me question my faith. The first was that my parents couldn't explain to me why we held certain beliefs, performed certain rituals, and held to dietary laws. This blind faith left me hollow inside. I didn't want to trust religion only because I inherited my faith from my ancestors.
Although I attended Catholic school and received Catholic education, which included going to religion classes and attending Mass, at home we practiced Hinduism. What I learned at school was vastly different from what I was taught to believe at home, so it shouldn't be hard to understand that these discrepancies made for one very confused Me.
The problem was: Which God should I pray to? In school I was taught that Jesus Christ is the one and only true Lord and Savior, but if I prayed to Jesus, I felt like I was betraying the God of my childhood. Would that God become upset with me for praying to Jesus? There are many different religions out there, each one claiming it was the true religion handed down from God. If there was only one God, then why are there so many religions and prophets? Who was right? Should I pray to Jesus, Moses, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, or some other deity?
To my surprise, my mother gave me what I thought was a reasonable answer: God takes the form of man and comes to Earth whenever the world needs guidance. That is why, throughout the ages, different prophets have walked the earth. I did some research and discovered that the Quran says that God sent prophets to all nations on Earth, at various stages of their histories. This supported what my mother was saying.
But no matter which God I prayed to, there remained the questions of whether that God heard me, and whether he would answer.
One Monday morning in seventh grade, I was sitting in homeroom when it dawned on me that I had not done my English homework. My heart pounded as I imagined the English teacher walking from desk to desk, collecting the papers as he approached. I was terrified. I had done all the other homework, but for some reason, this slipped my mind. In situations like this, there was only one thing to do--pray.
I knew there was no hope, because there was no reason for the homework not to be collected, but I closed my eyes and prayed, "Dear God, please help me. Please have the teacher not ask me for my homework." I assumed this would be one of those many prayers that would go unanswered.
The morning announcements came on over the speaker in the classroom, and all the students stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. Then, we sat down for the announcements. I was shocked when I heard, "The seventh-grade English classes have been canceled for this week, as we all mourn the loss of Mr. Switzler's mother."
I was overcome with guilt. Had I just killed my teacher's mother? And for what? So, I wouldn't have to turn in a blank sheet of paper? I immediately prayed again, "Hey, God. Ummm, I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt. Couldn't you have thought of a less lethal way of answering my prayer? I mean, thanks and all, but really?"
Even though I knew that I had not caused her death, I still felt bad about it for some time. I figured God knew what he was doing, and who was I to question it. That death was on God, not me, and I'm sure there must have been other extenuating circumstances.
My disillusionment with God grew in my teen years because of the overall situation in my homelife. I experienced a lot of physical and emotional abuse from my parents. At times, they were not mentally stable and took their frustrations out on me. They would become verbally, physically, and mentally/emotionally abusive. Quite honestly, it was pretty much a constant during those years.
During this period in my life, I can't begin to tell you how many times I prayed to God to deliver me from this private hell, but I felt like my prayers went unanswered. Night after night, I prayed before going to sleep, but the next day, nothing changed. The agony of this feeling of loneliness and abandonment was so strong it felt like a physical pain. I decided that prayer was not working. I still believed in God--I was afraid not to, but I concluded that for some reason he had forsaken me. I stopped praying and lived my life without much more thought on the subject.
I had closed my eyes and my heart. I was hollow inside. And like I said, I was also very confused. I didn't want to trust religion simply because it was what my family did and their parents before them and theirs before them, and so forth.
I spent a great deal of time pondering the identity, purpose, and deity of God and religions in general. And was God as concerned about religion as people were? Or is religion what people have turned God into? There was no spiritual connection or relationship with the God of my childhood. So, I kept thinking and looking.
I also wanted to reconcile the spiritual world with the physical world I knew. I have always been interested in learning new things (and I hope you are too). One day, it dawned on me that I'd learned in physics class that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. Mass can be converted into energy, and energy can be converted into mass, but it is not being created. There is a finite and measurable (in theory) amount of energy in the universe, which has been in existence since before time. All living things in the universe have energy--it is required for life. When a plant or animal dies, the energy is released into the universe.
For our high school senior class trip, we went to Rehoboth Beach. It was the first time I remember staring out at the vast ocean. I'd been to the beach as a baby, but this was my first time I was capable of being aware of my surroundings. I watched as waves crashed in from all over the world and thought about the enormous amount of water that make up all the oceans. If I could float on that water, I could go anywhere in the world.
I struggled to comprehend the vastness of the ocean as I stood at the edge of a crater filled with water that spanned the entire surface of the earth. I stood silent and peaceful to feel myself existing on top of a planet that was speeding through space around the sun. I wondered if I was upside down on this spinning rock until I realized that in space, there isn't up or down.
I thought about the giant waves along the equator where the warm waters collide with the cold; I thought about the ships at sea that I knew were out there, some bobbing gently up and down while others were struggling to fight the waves that lifted the hulls, then crashed them down into the water with impartial and unforgiving force; I thought about what giant beasts lurked beneath the surface--whales, octopus, squid! It was at that moment, I realized how small I was in comparison to the universe.
As I felt the tiny pebbles of sand under my feet, it occurred to me that while I was small in comparison to the universe, the universe of which I was a part is made of even smaller parts--all the particles that make up an atom and maybe even the stuff that makes up the particles.
As I thought more about these things, a picture of God emerged in my mind. God is the total sum of all the energy in the universe. The Bible says humans are made in the likeness of God. To me, that means God gave a little part of itself to create us. The reason we think of God being so powerful is because one person's energy is so small compared to the unfathomable amount of energy in the universe.
It is very hard for many people, even Christians, to understand the concept of the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit. They are all spoken of as separate entities but are actually a single entity, God. Hinduism also has a Holy Trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, as the three highest manifestations of the one ultimate reality.
I believe all the prophets of the various religions are part of the same force that created the universe; therefore, you can follow all of them if you choose. They each have a message we can learn from. The point here is that we are all a part of and manifestations of one God.
Many religions believe humans have a little bit of God inside us. If the energy of the universe is everywhere and in every living thing, then whatever force created the universe is in each of us as well. So, it's not hard for me to believe that God (the universe-creating force) is in each of us. For me, it has been critical to believe that there is some higher power that I can turn to and lean on. I have had too many crazy, unexplainable things happen in my life for me to not be open minded.
There have been a few studies which claim that prayer works. Other studies have shown the brain emits electrical signals into the universe during prayer, meditation, and deep thought. What happens to these particles once they are released is anyone's guess. I don't think science will ever be able to answer the big spiritual questions, and that's okay, because that's where faith comes in. If you have faith, you have hope for yourselves, your families, and your futures.
When I was twenty-eight years old, I didn't think I'd amount to very much. I worked a job making $17,800 a year with very little opportunity for advancement, because I was a college drop-out. I envied the people who traveled all over the world for work. I longed for an "important" job where travel was required.
I was living paycheck to paycheck and looking at other people making five to ten times as much. I often wondered how these people got their jobs and what it must feel like to have all that money, to drive a nice car, and live in a big house. I quickly told myself to put it out of my mind because that was never going to be me. I didn't have a college degree, and I didn't have any marketable skills to do anything more than what I was already doing. At that time, I believed that I'd be in that job forever, because my parents had warned me that I would not be successful.
At that age, I also didn't have a girlfriend. I had only dated one girl in my life, and I never thought I'd be able to find anyone else who would love me. Again, I believed my parents when they told me that I'd never be able to find a girl to marry me, because I was too fat and sloppy.
It stands to reason that if I was not going to find a girl to marry, then I certainly was not going to have any children. In addition, while I always wanted children, I was terrified of becoming a father because of the abuse inflicted upon me by my father. I did not have any role models to show me how to be a loving and caring parent. So, if I ever messed up being a dad, I'm sorry. I honestly tried to do the best I could for you boys.
It wasn't until years after I got married to your mom that I thought about God again. For the first half of my life I had self-esteem issues, depression, and carried with me a heavy baggage of childhood abuse and emotional issues. Despite all the pain and hardship, my life ended up exceeding my expectations. I met and married your mom, I advanced in my career, we were able to live in a house that is bigger than any dream house I ever thought of as a child, I lost 100 pounds, and I bought my dream car.
When I stopped to think about how everything was going in my life, I felt...blessed. I felt like I should revisit my relationship with God. Maybe I was the one who had abandoned Him? Looking back at my life, I'm glad I had the pain so that I could discover the value of struggling and find the strength and perseverance within me to become the person I am. I used to be angry at God, because I felt like he had abandoned me in my times of need. I feel like after all these years, God's plan for my life has been revealed. God didn't abandon me; He was forging me into the tough individual I have become, so I can handle life's challenges and make a better life for my family.
I don't claim to know how it all works, or how intricately involved God is in our lives, but I am confident in my convictions of faith--a faith that is ever-looking for God at work in our lives and in the world around us.
The past seems clear now. I understand that I had to go through that pain to get to where I am today. Don't get me wrong, I had shed my anger and forgiven God and my parents years ago, but it took having you boys to put my entire life in perspective. I can see my life pass before my mind's eye, and I can finally understand the meaning of the events that took place. I remember as a child lying in bed at night crying and asking God, "Why?" After forty some years, I now know "why" and am grateful to have experienced such pain. I am reminded of two phrases: "If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger," and "Everything happens for a reason".
The bottom line in what I'm saying is that you need to have faith that things will work out, and you need to believe in something bigger than yourself. I'm not saying you need to believe in God, but you should believe in a higher power, if for no other reason than to admit to yourself that there are things in life that you have no control over.
I think of Shakespeare saying, "All's well that ends well." Hopefully, my life does not end any time soon, but it is moving in an "all's well" direction. In my own life, I have seen situations that are well, because ultimately, they end well.
In October of tenth grade, I turned sixteen and was able to get my driving learner's permit. I could drive a car, as long as an adult was in the car also. In December, a few friends and I had been invited to a Christmas party. I asked my dad if I could drive my best friend, Fred, and myself to the party (with my dad as the adult in the car). He reluctantly agreed. Several of us met at Fred's house before the party to figure out who was riding with whom. I'd been given directions that seemed straightforward at the time, so I didn't write them down. Another friend of ours, said not to worry about it and just follow her.
As soon as we pulled onto the highway, I lost her tail. I started to worry, because I was driving (for the first time) to a party and had no idea where I was going. I began driving fast to try and catch up to her. My dad kept telling me to slow down. As I read the highway signs, I thought that the upcoming turnpike exit was the one we were supposed to take. I made some sharp swerves but passed the exit. I ended up on the exit ramp for Baldwin Road, but I did not know whether to go east or west. Well, then it was too late now. I already passed the west exit, so I guessed we were going east.
"This can't be that bad," I thought. The party was on Baldwin Road, but I had no idea if we were going the right direction or not. All the while, I had Fred in the back seat trying to navigate and my dad sitting next to me very angry. We drove for thirty minutes in the dark through the winding tree-lined road with my father getting increasing upset with my driving and the situation I put us in. We discussed stopping the car and calling to ask for directions.
Baldwin Road is a busy street, and this being my first-time driving, I was too nervous of slowing down to pull over with cars racing passed me. Every time I slowed down to get into someone's driveway, there would be a car behind me, intimidating me. I would slow down, then speed up, then slow down again, and speed up again. I could not make up my mind which house to turn into to ask to use the phone. By now, Dad was really getting agitated with me.
Finally, the traffic subsided enough that I felt comfortable slowing down to pull into a driveway to call for directions. The three of us saw a house with its lights on and agreed that I'd turn into that driveway. As I drove up the hilly driveway, I saw that the front door was open, and people were milling about. This was a good sign, I thought. I wouldn't need to knock on a stranger's door. It would be easier to get someone here to let me use their phone.
Fred and I saw two girls running toward our car, yelling "Hey! You made it!" At first, we were confused, and then it dawned on us that we had pulled into the driveway of the house we were supposed to be at. It felt as if God or the Universe had been guiding me all along. I missed my exits and was too afraid to slow down, only to be delivered to the place I was supposed to be.
Throughout my life, I may have missed other opportunities, but perhaps I will end up at the place I was supposed to be all along. Now, my childhood prayers are answered. The path to enlightenment is through suffering. I had to go through the suffering to gain the strength and drive to achieve the success I have in my life. I have come to realize that God was creating a stronger, better me during my hard times.
As you boys go forward in life, I'm not going to try to influence or persuade you to shun organized religion. I'm not sold on organized religion, because I can't get passed what I consider the dogma of it all. But I certainly don't hold it against those who find organized religion comforting or necessary. I do, hope, however, that you look for God and put your faith in him, because I've seen several 'sides' of this whole religion thing, and even though I don't agree with a lot of the 'how' of religion, I can tell you the 'who' of religion can only be God.
I was (and still am) in awe of everything around me. I couldn't fathom that such a complex universe with millions of different creatures, one hundred and eighteen elements, planets, stars, energy, and the five forces of nature could be an accident. There must be some higher power that created such a complex world. I'm not suggesting anything supernatural; what I'm suggesting is that the power and forces that created the universe and created us is a "living" force and certainly much more powerful than you or me. I mean, when was the last time you created the universe? That is the force I choose to call God.