Helpful ideas

A while ago I was talking to my parents about some of the things I’ve written. Dad said something unexpected: “you write without mentioning God or religion”. I don’t think that he was necessarily surprised, it was more of an observation. I think he was saying it’s unusual to read about these topics without the writer veering into the religious, spiritual or sometimes mystical. 

My immediate thoughts went to the (potentially apocryphal) story of Laplace presenting his theories on celestial mechanics to Napolean. The following exchange is said to have taken place:[1]

Napoleon: “Who is the author of all this?”

Laplace: “A chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation of the celestial system.”

Napoleon: “Newton spoke of God in his book. I have perused yours but failed to find his name even once. Why?”

Laplace: “I have no need of that hypothesis”

For me the issue is not whether we need the hypothesis, but is it in anyway helpful. Could it still be helpful even if the hypothesis is wrong?

This post isn’t intended to be about God or religion. It’s more about ideas that might or might not be helpful but have no basis in evidence and must be taken on faith. They may even be patently false, but could they still actually be helpful? 

God is the obvious idea. So let’s start there. While God or religion has not (at least not for a very long time) been something that I see any evidence for I’ll concede that doesn’t mean God – as an idea – can’t be a helpful one. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy can be helpful ideas (too patronising? Sorry). 

Is religion a helpful idea dealing with loss, grief and life? 

I’m figuring the majority of people around the world think so. There’s convincing evidence that evolution has favoured religious groups in inter-group selection. Certainly helpful. But you could construe that theory as being more about group cohesiveness during battles over scarce resources. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s helpful on the personal level.

I recently came across a great Muhammad Ali story in a Tim Ferris podcast where he interviewed Cal Fussman (author)[2] Cal describes his experience with Ali in 2003, well after the world had seen Ali’s shaky hand light the olympic flame at Atlanta. I’m not a boxer, I don’t particularly enjoy watching boxing, but there’s a beauty in this vignette late in the champion’s life. I think Ali’s most interesting insight was to a question of wisdom: how did he sustain performance and a drive to succeed? How did he cope? Ali pointed to a quote on a piece of paper: “God will not place a burden on a man’s shoulder knowing that he cannot handle it”. 

It’s an easily falsifiable statement. Mary couldn’t cope with the burden of her brain injury and in the end it was probably the cause of her death. 

But imagine for a moment that feeling that there is nothing life can throw at you that you cannot handle. The truth of the statement is irrelevant. If you can live your life in this way confronting every challenge with the firm belief that God has granted you the ability and tools to overcome it, it’s hard to argue you’re not going to do well. This sort of faith is going to take you a long way. Perhaps it takes you all the way. Perhaps it’s a necessary condition for a champion. Or perhaps it takes you to a point where faith crashes into reality.

My observations of others are that in times of grief and hardship, faith is a double edged sword. While Ali, driven by his faith, can find the inner strength to ‘go to the well’ one more time when challenged, I’ve seen others completely mystified by God’s absence in their backyard when they needed him. One widower I met in the six months after Mary passed away stands out in my memory. Our 30 minute coffee conversation kept pivoting to this guy’s faith and his struggle to reconcile the death of his partner, with his personal God. I hope my body language didn’t give away my internal thoughts: “just give it up, you’ll feel better”. I’m not always great with a poker face. I did genuinely try to listen and understand. But all I could see was an unnecessary doubling down on grief. Grief for the loss of a wife and a faith. If you’re unquestioned belief is that God won’t place an impossible burden on your shoulders, then where do you go when she does. The cognitive dissonance caused by posing the question why would God help this educated white male in an industrialised democracy over persecuted millions elsewhere, was always there. The experience has just transformed the hitherto helpful idea (God) into an unhelpful one. 

Cara made the comment to me the other day: “Dad the kids at school who believe in God have never had bad things happen to them”.

Do I need to emphasise that this is just my experience, my observations? 

What about other ideas that could potentially be helpful even if we know there is no evidence available to think they are true? For instance I could decide to believe that I’m the lead character in my very own (and so much more boring) Truman show. I could take this frame and make decisions based on it. I could live my life making sure every decision is based on the fact that the world is watching and I want to be the best version of myself. While this belief is false, or more accurately put I have no evidence for it (it’s really just a version of the brain-in-a-vat idea) it would produce some very good outcomes. If my goal is to live a good life then this framing would help me take actions that were as objectively good to the outside world as I could muster. 

But could I maintain that belief, if deep down I knew it to be false? I’m not sure.

This is really not that different to maintaining a belief in the afterlife. Or more specifically when it comes to grief and loss there’s the idea that our loved ones are angels watching down on us. At it’s simplest level, I guess it could be helpful to put everything you know about the world to the side and indulge in the nice, comforting thought that those who have gone before are waiting for us. When it comes to the Christian heaven and hell version of the afterlife, you don’t have to believe in God to see the rational logic in accepting Pascal’s Wager. If the price you pay for eternal bliss is the hard work of living a good life here on earth (is it really that hard?), then the payoff is surely worth it. Again though, if the work is truly hard (psychologically or physically), then I wonder if the belief can be sustained if you know it to be false. On the other side of the coin, if the work is not that hard then there are no downsides and Pascal’s Wager is a no brainer.

The answer to this line of thought for me – at least when it comes to religion – is that I struggle and am bound to fail trying to maintain a non-evidence based belief. 

What about faith in time as a healer? I’m now blurring the definition of faith, because here there is evidence, it’s just that it’s no sure thing. Generally you’re current crisis/grief/sorrow/disturbing thought will pass, and you will feel better, later.

There’s lots of research that suggests when your life gets jolted from it’s set point. It does, usually, return to that same set point after a period of time. This happens whether it’s a $1 million lottery windfall, or the death of partner or child. Our level of well-being either skyrockets or takes a massive hit. The lottery example seems intuitive enough (or perhaps I just want it to be true as I jealously watch the news) – most of the time the winners’ levels of well-being, their levels of life satisfaction, happiness even – simply return to the levels they were at prior to the win. Apparently the research says this is generally what happens post grief (I imagine the timeframes are very different). Getting back to the set point after grief for some people seems to take such a long time, that the idea that it does return doesn’t really have any practical meaning. What if it takes you a decade. What it you get hit by a bus before the decade’s out. Then you never made it. Is the idea that things will turn out still useful even if it’s not a truth with certainty?

Planet Grief – I love the title – is a blog by author and widow Helen Bailey. Grief isn’t merely a state of mind or a place you are forced to retreat to, it really is a different world. A planet I had no real knowledge of before. Sure, I knew it existed. But only in the same way that I know the Hindu Kush, or the Blue Mosque, or the Himalayas exist – I’ve seen photos and the odd documentary – but I’ve never experienced them. If I do visit these places one day, I hope to experience their emotion and significance. But, I suspect, in these places, I may also feel separate – unrecognised by those around me. So too on Planet Grief. It’s another planet. People look at you like you’re on another planet, and you feel like you’re on another planet. It’s been a while since I’ve checked in to this weird locale, but I remember it well enough. How confident can people really be that they’ll get off this planet one day? Is it a good idea to have faith in the notion that things will all work out for the best, even if you have to take this on faith?

I bought and started reading Helen Bailey’s book “When Bad Things happen in Good Bikinis” well over a year ago. The book evolved from her blog. I’ve been stuck a third of the way through for almost 12 months – I’m not sure I’ll finish it now (for reasons I’ll get to). It’s an enjoyable read (given the subject matter) telling the story of her husband’s death and her subsequent journey to and around Planet Grief. I’d recommend it to anyone who is “rumbling” with grief[3].

There was one thing about the book that didn’t resonate with me though. Her introduction: specifically addressed to those currently stuck on Planet Grief. Her message: you will get through this, you will get off this planet. 

The confidence with which she makes this statement belies my own observations. Some people take a very, very, very long time. So it’s not actually honest to say that you will get through this, some people don’t. I guess saying to someone “you’ll be ok, there’s a 72% probability that you will get through this…” while possibly more accurate, lacks enough social tact to mean no-one uses it.

I had a bunch of ‘holy crap’ moments reading her book, where I realised that her thinking or actions have so closely mirrored my own at various points. 

One of Helen’s quests, following the death of her husband, was to find someone who had had her experience. Her specific experience. Someone on her planet. Someone who’d lost their wife/husband to drowning while on holidays in another country! For some reason I was many chapters into the book before I saw the obvious connection, and had the ‘hey that’s me too’ moment. Without going into details, that’s probably where the similarity ends, but it was enough and I wanted to reach out to her. I downed the book, and logged onto her site ready to write a message that I’d already half composed in my head. It had been a couple of months since I’d visited her blog.

But I discovered she had died. I couldn’t believe it. I rapidly read the articles from newspapers documenting her disappearance and subsequent discovery of her body, apparently murdered by her new partner. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read the rest of the book, and so it sits there with the bookmark stuck a third of the way through. Leaving me stuck with the thought that perhaps through her grief experience and writing, in some small way a little bit like Ali through his boxing experience and faith, she had found a way to find the resilience needed to overcome life’s hurdles. And that perhaps before her end, it was this that enabled the return of some joy in her life (obvious in her writing) after her husband’s death. All this notwithstanding her own tragic end.

So I think the faith I have (and I’m not convinced that faith is the right word, I’ll go with ‘trust’) is a trust in hope. It’s a slight variation on both Ali’s and Helen’s. While Ali’s focus on his personal God doesn’t help me, neither does Helen’s optimism that things will turn out. If we advertise life with certainty of outcome (it will all turn out for the best either via God’s grace or serendipity) then surely this is just a nice feeling where no action is required. To be fair to Ali my point is not that he took no action, his achievements were incredible. And to be fair to Helen, it is only her optimistic introduction that I object to. Her described journies to Planet Grief clearly show someone taking actions to understand and discover. In short she was not just optimistic, she was obviously hopeful.

Trying to be optimistic in isolation is hard, I think it leads to people becoming stuck. I’ve met enough stuck people in my travels over the last few years to know that they can be stuck for a long while. Yet lots of people do find a way through, and they find it clinging to helpful ideas, regardless of their veracity. Today it seems veracity is an altogether antiquated notion as we struggle with the fact that there are so many ideas out there and lots of them must be fake.

In the world I live in there is always doubt over the outcomes. But that doubt provides the space for hope. The outcome will always be contingent on my actions. I think my objection, if I have one, is to a passive faith. Both Ali and Helen worked hard in different ways and there is inspiration in those journeys that cannot be found in the lottery winner. The idea that with a belief in hope I can work to make things turn out well, may well be misguided, since the metaphorical bus could hit me tomorrow, but for me it’s an unprovable and overwhelmingly helpful thought.

This isn’t necessarily the conclusion I thought I’d reach when I first started thinking about all this. But the idea that sometimes false thoughts can be helpful was reinforced in a small way in the last few days, when I discovered something about the quote at the top of this post. That quote, as pictured in the photo, has watched over my bed for the last 4 years.

Mary bought the board sometime after her accident. I hung it on her side of the bedroom. It struck me as an appropriate message for her, and for me as well. Over the last couple of years when Cara came into my bedroom in the mornings she would often look up and practise reading it aloud.

Just this week I stumbled on the quote in its larger context. It’s Christopher Robin talking to Winnie the Pooh. Who knew? (Ok possibly lots of people, but I didn’t and I’m pretty sure Mary didn’t either.) Reading the complete quote, it’s hard not to smile and imagine that it might actually be Mary talking to Harry and Cara and I from beyond the grave. Perhaps funny little false thoughts can be comforting after all.

“If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” A.A. Milne Carter Crocker / Karl Geurs[4]

[1] McGrayne, S. B. (2011). The Theory that Would Not Die. Yale University Press. (p 30)

[2] The linked interview goes for over 2 hours, so if you only want to spend half an hour, tune in from 0:05:00 to 0:40:00, or try Cal’s own 10 min youtube video of him retelling the story curtesy of Esquire magazine where he writes.

[3] I like this phrase and pinched it from Brene Brown who talks about rumbling with emotions in her book “Rising Strong”

[4] See …A correction and apologies to A.A. Milne


5 Responses

  1. Peter

    It struck me, what does one do on ‘planet grief’, how does one cope while waiting for life to reset. How does one handle the journey where emptiness & dispair can prevail? What makes the expedition bearable,if even enjoyable? Is it the hope in the end result ‘the reset’ and or the hope of finding new & different experiences along the way?

    I am intrigued my the notion of living on many planets in the past, present and future.
    What a thought of flying around in our own solar system. Which planet can I visit today?
    I rave on, and thanks Trent for fostering the dialogue.

  2. Linda

    Great insights trent and thanks for sharing. I enjoy reading jordan thoughts so much. I love cara’s comment and I can’t help but agree. ‘Planet Grief’ is a great analogy ?

    1. Thanks Linda. I stuck Cara’s comment in there because, like you say, there is a sniff of truth in it I think… but full disclosure, I also know when she says “bad things” she’s referring to her specific experience of “bad things”. Plenty of her friends and their families have had their own trials and still maintained their faith… Great to hear from you! When are you guys next in Brissy?

  3. Siri

    Trent, I love the journey you take us all on with your writing and I love the message of hope. I didn’t realise the quote was Christopher Robin either but I can hear Mary’s laughter when you stumbled across it – somehow I think the whimsy of this would have tickled her fancy. I was thinking…you’re going to have to finish that book – I can’t bear the thought of it sitting on your bedside table unfinished! – and then perhaps re-visit the collected wisdom of Winnie-the-Pooh & his crew. I look forward to further insights…

  4. Kaz

    I am in awe of how you can put your thoughts into words so well Trent. Your reflections, despite being puzzling and full of questions, are wonderful to read. I feel for you all in your grief and I’m afraid I have no answers. I was taught that faith is a gift and I really think it is. There is no fathoming involved, yet it’s not a naivety either. Struggles still accompany faith and we plod on in hope, like you say, but in a belief that our God helps us in our healing. However, my faith has never been tested through experiences as painful as yours dear Trent, so I can only ‘hope’ (that word again) and trust that God would see me through.

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