Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Good day Richard, my name is Ken and I have never been a strong believer in a Deity. As a kid my mom did teach us to believe in God, but over my 36 years on earth, I have seen and been a part of some really sad and unbelievable things, which have forced me to open my mind and now I feel like believing is like believing in a fairytale. My only big issue is that I have a new baby girl and I am so worried about something happening to her that I want to believe I could pray to save her from suffering. My family is okay with my feelings, and I know that there are no answers for why things happen. But the situation I am in now is like the whole “there are no Atheists in the trenches” saying. I am so scared for my baby girl that I want to believe in something that may help me to understand if something did happen or to simply be able to ask for her protection. I know my message is a bit brain scattered, but I hope you can help me to be okay with my thoughts and my fears for my daughter.
As you have discovered, having a child means having your heart running around outside of your body for the rest of your life.
I’m scared for my daughter too, although it has diminished over the last 25 years. It was sheer helpless terror at first; now it’s just a slight sigh-producing worry. We are confronted with the utter vulnerability of these tiny, beautiful creatures who lie asleep full length on our forearms, and that brings on a heightened awareness of the likely, the possible, and the improbable dangers they may face. Suddenly we’re on full adrenalin alert, as if waking to the growl of a predator just outside our cave’s entrance. We fear our weapons and strength are inadequate; our confidence feels thin. The urge to call upon a parent figure of our own is powerful. Our earthly parents are ordinary people, or they are aging and frail, or they are gone. So it’s very tempting to call upon an imaginary super-parent for protection or for solace.
I don’t think that you’ll be able to talk yourself into believing again just to have that false comfort, and I get the impression that you realize that too. You’d always know that you were kidding yourself. Once we see things in the light of day, our eyes adjust, and we can’t return to believing in vague shadows, as soothing as their stories might be.
You are experiencing the difference between what our rational minds tell us and what our emotions insist of us, and the distance that can open up between those two things. Intellectually, you know that the comfort, reassurance and confidence that might come from believing in a deity would be an illusion only, like the confidence that might come from a few beers before facing a danger. Perhaps we feel a little better, but it has left us either no more capable of actually handling things, or even less capable. No, we need real courage, not what comes from a bottle or a fairytale. Real courage is not fearlessness. It is doing what must be done despite our fear.
And you have real courage, Ken. You have already demonstrated it.
Love is for the brave. Attaching ourselves to another person is an act of courage. We know that there will be loss and pain eventually. With our love partners, breaking up, divorce, or death are the inevitable price we know we will pay for the joy we gain from their company, yet we choose to accept it. With our children, the risk is greater and the emotional stakes are higher, yet we choose to accept it. We take life as a whole package, joy and grief, and now all of that is compressed into this tiny, wiggling, fragile package that we cradle in our arms.
We cannot keep straddling that widening gap between what our heads and our hearts dictate, like standing astride a boat and a dock. We have to step onto either one or the other. Those who choose the side of rational thinking still have their feelings, so they must console, confer, confide, counsel, and comfort with other rational people. These fathers and mothers talk to their fellow fathers and mothers, frankly sharing their thoughts, fears and hopes, trading their untried suggestions and well-practiced solutions, and letting each other know that they have similar feelings. Through this, they find that their weapons and strength seem at least a little less inadequate, and they’re willing to face down whatever is growling in the dark outside the cave. They do the job of parents, and they do it with the mutual support and encouragement of their fellows.
Ken, your daughter is a very lucky girl. She has a brave, sensitive, loving, thoughtful dad, who cares very much about being the best dad he can be. You can use your anxiety as a drive instead of it being a handicap. Find other dads and moms with whom you can talk about your feelings, parents who think their way through challenges instead of hoping, like children, that some higher parent will handle it for them. You’ll find that you’re not alone in how you feel, and you’ll hear some very useful suggestions and encouragement. When you’re hurting or afraid, they will be real and solid comrades there to comfort you as well. As time goes on, and your daughter in her turn grows strong and confident under your tutelage, your fear will slowly wear down to a slight, sigh-producing worry. It will leave its mark of honor on you; the lines that fathers permanently wear on their brows are badges of courage.