Years ago, when I was religious, I found it difficult to imagine how I could cope with adversity if I didn’t have a strong belief in God. I felt that my religious faith was the key ingredient that helped me through in times of trouble. A quick prayer and the feeling that I was being looked over by a loving deity gave me great comfort.
I’m sure many religious people believe that it’s all very well for atheists to hold their views in good times, but just wait until bad times hit. There are no atheists in foxholes, as they say. The reality, however, is that most of us can get through quite terrible setbacks without relapsing into religious belief.
I’ve had a few big setbacks since I lost my religion all those years ago. Some of them have been pretty tough. I had plenty of dark times as I negotiated my way through them. But not once did I have recourse to prayer. No matter how bad things got, I never felt like trying to rekindle my religious beliefs. Honestly, I would have immediately thought it pointless and silly. It simply wasn’t an option.
But nevertheless, I got through these times and lived to fight another day. So how did I manage? Looking back, here are a few pointers.
I tried to be kind to myself. Bad things usually happen, not because you’re a bad person or that you need to be punished, but because such is life. People get old, or find themselves in the wrong places, or make mistakes they couldn’t possibly have foreseen at the time. Realising this made me feel less angry with myself. Guilt was one burden I didn’t have to bear.
I gave myself time. I tried not to expect that all the bad thoughts would go away permanently just by thinking a certain way, or doing something transient. The feelings come back no matter what you do. Realising this helped to reduce the urgency of needing to have solutions for everything. Some things in life don’t have easy answers. As they say, if you can’t overcome it, you can often outlive it.
I tried to live in the present. Realising that bad feelings pass, given enough time, allowed me to better allow the worst issues to roll over me. You roll with the waves.
I tried to acknowledge the pain and feelings I was experiencing. They were real to me, why fight hard against them? If I felt like crying, I would cry. If I didn’t feel like doing something, I left it go until I felt a bit better about it. You have good days and bad days. It’s not about surrendering, as much it is about giving yourself some time.
I tried to get on with life, getting back to the things I liked doing and to the work routine I was used to. It was difficult at times, but it allowed my mind to think about other things. I feel that brooding about the past too much is the mental equivalent of scratching a scab. It can prolong the pain and I’m not sure if that’s particularly healthy.
I sought out and appreciated the company of friends and family members. Just talking about things and the kindness they showed helped me so much. I appreciate that this is not something everyone can do, but it helped me. Even pets can be such great companions. They don’t think much about the future and they get on just fine. Maybe, during these times, neither should we.
I sought out professional help. A chat with a doctor or a counsellor helped me through the more difficult periods. Assistance like this has a big place in overcoming the most painful feelings.
Would my experience have been shorter or less painful had I kept my religious faith? It’s difficult to know, but I suspect there is little difference. There was no sense of help from a loving god as I went through it, but neither were there any feelings of despair or guilt that the same god wasn’t bothering to help.
Religious believers often thank their god for getting them through the dark times. But I think they are missing something. The truth might be that their success is only theirs to celebrate.