Yesterday, as I sat on a bench outside The Christie with a friend drinking coffee, I was approached by a stranger. He had been talking on the phone and had walked quite close to us a few minutes prior. “Sorry for that. I wasn’t trying to listen to your conversation or anything. My wife has an interview at The Christie, so I’m waiting for her.” It was pretty random, but he seemed nice enough.
We chatted with him for about half an hour. He told us about his 20 year battle against addiction, how he had found religion and was now a minister, and how positivity has a profound effect on the world around you. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but it was nice to hear someone else’s perspective on life. He had told us that he was 65 and he seemed very happy. There was talk of some miracles; a miraculous recovery from liver cirrhosis against all doctors predictions, the odd story about friends recovering from cancer suddenly and unpredictably, with little medical intervention. I didn’t buy it all, but I understood his point. Positivity is more than just a state of mind. It can influence the outcome of an issue, whether that be a health concern or a critical life choice. He also told me about studies where people of faith were more likely to recover from serious illnesses.
I haven’t researched these studies, but it is interesting to discuss anyway. I believe that faith could lead to a higher survival rate of serious illnesses. The predominant fear in most people’s lives is death. Religion provides a structure that sits underneath death, comforting an individual. I am assuming here that the subject truly believes what their faith stipulates, of course, but I am sure many do. I think that is one of the significant attractions of religion for many people; it provides a layer of meaning to the world, which helps explain what otherwise is unexplainable. Personally, I believe that my consciousness is gone once I die, and I will return to nothingness. It sounds bleak, but I manage to find comfort in it. I like to think of it as similar to sleeping. I recently had an uncomfortable procedure under anaesthetic, and I was none the wiser. My eyes closed, opened, and a doctor told me things had happened, then I got better. I also remember that the world existed long before I lived and will continue to do so when I don’t. My consciousness wasn’t floating around waiting for a body to claim it. It was created at some point. The thought of it being taken away again doesn’t feel too illogical to me, even if I wish it wasn’t the case.
Despite these techniques, though, it doesn’t make death a pleasant concept. If I had faith that something else happened, such as heaven or reincarnation, it would diminish my fear of it substantially. I may even look forward to it if I believed I would come back as a Canadian bear or a red panda in a forest. Not so much if I was doomed to be a rat or something boring like a woodlouse. Or if I thought that I would be reunited with lost friends and family, that would also soften the blow. I would love to see my grandad again, driving around in his large people carrier, cigarette in hand, window down and blasting classical music from his substandard car speakers. It was a sight to behold.
For me, the beauty in all of these things is their limited time in existence. If I saw my grandad blasting his classical music and smoking forever, I may stop realising how special those things made him. I may also worry about his poor ears and lungs. When I was younger, I used to get upset when something came to an end. Most years, my family would go on holiday to Center Parcs for a long weekend. If you don’t know what it is, it’s a holiday resort in the forest where you hire a cabin and do a lot of activities. I remember counting down the days we had left, knowing that it would all be over far too quickly and we’d be going back to our everyday lives (which at the time meant school for me; I would have taken a cabin in the woods in a heartbeat). It was all too stressful, so I spent a lot of time and mental effort changing my perspective on time. If you are constantly worried about the future, you rob yourself of the ability to enjoy the present. I tried to remind myself of that whenever I was worrying that things were happening too quickly.
Someone who has faith wouldn’t only have a more positive view of death, but they would feel more supported generally. Believing that a more prominent force is looking out for your every move must be comforting, especially when you have a life-threatening illness. This is assuming that you believe your God to be benevolent and with your best interests in mind, of course, but I think this is the draw of modern religion for many people. In the same way that positivity may allow you to deal with a severe illness better by reducing the stress on your mind and body, religion provides an anchor to an individual. They feel more supported in their struggle. If it happens to them, they may believe it is all part of the ‘plan’, and they will feel at peace with it whatever the outcome. That must reduce a lot of stress on the individual, in the same way that staying positive does. All of this would allow an individual to be more positive in the face of serious illnesses, after all.
As you may have sensed from my stipulating and non-committal phrases, I do not consider myself religious. I understand the pull of religion more now than ever, though, and not because of the stage of life I am at (didn’t use the ‘C’ word; the blog post still qualifies as not being about THAT). The more I read about the world and its many intricacies, the less convinced I am that we will ever explain everything with science alone. The scale of the known universe is so utterly daunting. Sometimes I make the mistake of talking to my brother Alfie about this fact. He’s an incredibly intelligent and warm individual and is currently studying for his PhD in Mathematical Physics, a phrase that sends waves of dread down my spine. I’ll ask what I consider to be a fairly mundane question, such as, “How do we know that the big bang happened?” Alfie then proceeds to say many words, apparently in English, gesticulate with his hands and draw a lot of seemingly logical conclusions. I usually nod and ask if he has played any good games recently – that’s a subject we can both participate in.
Alfie has always had faith, though, and used to enjoy going to church. When I was at a particularly obnoxious stage of my life, I called him out on this. “A scientist having faith, how preposterous,” I said from my ivory tower, containing no scientist or person of faith yet apparently being the authority on both. Nowadays, I consider myself much more tolerant than I was then, even enthusiastic about people’s faith. Anything that brings someone peace and happiness in life should be celebrated, so long as it is not at the expense of others. It is interesting to hear what people’s faith brings them and how it changes their perception of the world. So, I encourage you to talk to a stranger once in a while and see what they have to say. It may just lead you to write an entire blog post on religion.