I'll push the ball up the hill by faith


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Category: Reflections Date: 01 Jan 98

Something else fends off fear and delivers packaged immortality to those who are willing to buy: Faith


I would like to dedicate this New Year’s Day column to my father who, despite my many limitations as a child pushed me to soar, and having done that picked me up many times to nurse broken wings and renew me with courage.

Happy Birthday Daddy!


Faith takes people from mortality into mortality, gives hope ...  it fends off despair and lays down essentially humane rules....


For the New Year I decided I wanted to sort out my study, then tackle clothes, books, bills, old letters and pictures and music, and to clean the desk in my study. I opened it and found a PTA announcement, a Christmas card of 1996 (un-sent) several hair pins, three nails, the broken cover of a CD, glasses without handles, a plastic helicopter, an essay on prisons in America, a photograph of a friend’s newborn baby, a stopped watch, a book on meditation, a red crayon, an address book with the cover torn off, dried mascara , a faded copy of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets a drawing of a castle.


I am ashamed to report that after taking this inventory I quickly shut it again with yet another weary deja-vu. I get deja-vus a lot. Didn’t I just do this last week? I think, at the vegetable stall, testing tomatoes and examining bananas, for the hundredth time in the year. I get deja-vus at home everyday picking up clothes off the floor putting away shoes. But I did this just yesterday, I think. And if you see me standing frozen in the isle amongst washing powder and the bleach, it means I have gone into an existential crisis over the sameness of it all. But if you don’t do things again and again atrophy sets in, nail varnish chips, white walls turn yellow and peel. Even bodies once off the treadmill gather fat, stomachs spread, thighs dimple, bits sag, others inflate. As soon as you let go, everything turns into random chaos epitomised by the first drawer on my desk.


So this is part of the human condition - holding on, constantly renewing clothes and garbage bags, repeating yourself endlessly along this march of time which ends in the same grim place - of total disintegration for all of us. Which is why pithy Americanisms like “Life is a bitch and then you die” are so popular.


Remember the popular film where the wife of the faithless husband repeatedly asks herself why her spouse would go off with a young mistress when he was happy at home. And the answer she received and discovered was “fear of death”. If we live in a culture which is obsessed with youthful faces, bodies and attitudes, it is because fear of growing old is absent in the young. This is partly because their lives are fluid and they have not yet got on the train where the wheels of routine clang out the passage of time louder and louder. In their casual strutting and flaunting gestures, firm face, slim arms and crossed legs, we see imitations of immortality. At age 12, I never thought I would one day be 18 when I could never see the woman in her early thirties which I am now. 


But in my horizon now, I glimpse my forties and fifties, old age even. And I have felt my mortality and fear. Because life is not made of absolutes and facts but is reflected back to us in the company we keep, youth, children, young partners, fends off fear.


We concentrate on the physical, but it is the aura of youth: spirited enthusiasm, curiosity, the ability to bounce back from setbacks, intense enjoyment of the moment, a blunt honesty which cuts out superfluity, insincerity and artifice, transparent emotions from vulnerability to love and hate, which we are drawn to. And those who maintain an aura of youth never grow old, rarely feel fear. Something else fends off fear and delivers packaged immortality to those who are willing to buy: Faith.


No wonder then that almost everyday a Baptist rings his bell outside my walls, a Born Again Christian knocks on my doors. Hindus and Muslims, Jains and Catholics, believers of Sai Baba, transcendental meditation, cults and meditation groups, yoga, interpretative dance, vegans and scienatologists, bend their heads in fervent belief of their spirituality. Rituals are carried out with minute attention to detail and everybody who feels strongly wants to convert everyone else so that they can justify their faith.


When I was a student I admit, I mocked this having been exposed to Nietzchean philosophy which rejected anything that numbed the mind, was rigid or dogmatic in a world so fluid, complex, unexpected, unknown and so filled with possibilities. I was afraid that faith of any sort would set limits and prevent me from experiencing life to its pitch of intensity.


I remember a particular novel (now out of print and I can’t even remember the title) written after the French Revolution when “free thinkers”, by definition atheists who believed only in science and reason, had emerged in Europe. In this novel, one such group of “free thinkers” witnessed how one of their company having fallen gravely ill, succumbed to a belief in God and died after getting full absolution from the Church. Then another among them, the most fervent ‘free thinker’ of all, also declared a new found faith in God on his death bed. After his death, his friends found a letter written by him when he was in full health stating that should he change his mind on his death bed, his fellow “free thinkers” should disregard his faith as a weakness.


This dilemma has stayed with me for over a decade. I have never stopped wondering if had the man had a chance to return for one moment to earth which choice he would have claimed. What was real? His return to the Church or was his letter disclaiming it written when he of was sound mind and body. Perhaps both.


When I emerged into the real world I discovered that all kinds of faith, in all kinds of deities, be they sun, moon, statues, crosses or stars or an unseen God in the east were necessary in a world which is more like a zoo than a planet. A cruel place of random tragedies which happened for no reason to the loveliest people, acts of violence committed by the strong on the weak. A zoo where the myth of Sisyphus who kept pushing this sliding ball up a hill, the struggle to find something fine and humane, is a perpetual and sometimes futile toil.


So in steps faith which takes human beings beyond an everyday deja-vu. Faith takes people from mortality into mortality, gives hope of meeting beloved ones again one day, being born again in a different form, living in eternal happiness in a perfect place. In short, it fends off despair and lays down essentially humane rules, even generates some exultation, so I won’t knock it. I have said often enough that I wished I had faith, but sitting here writing this at the brink of dawn watching the shadowy hills turn green with smoky grey light, breathing in the light cool breeze, I suppose I have.


Firstly, it is faith that - despite the random disaster that life appears to be, as reflected in my top drawer - laws and designs bigger than us all do exist, that everything is predestined (as the Muslims believe) that the law of karma (Hindu philosophy) means you sow what you reap (Christian cliché). It is faith too, that one day our zoo will turn human, that we will stop, like Shakespeare observed so long ago, preying upon ourselves like monsters of the deep and empathise with our vulnerable and wounded creatures. That we will tap our potential to the fullest, be adventurous, see the world and leave it with something precious of ourselves


Which is why on this New Year’s Day (I have been so lucky that Thursday falls today) I will celebrate not renewal (because that happens every time I need new shampoo) but human endeavour which persists, people with spunk who can take their knocks, and instead of being defeated either by the routine or fellow inhabitants in the zoo, fight back and continue to push that ball up the hill.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur