I was born into a religious family, and I was raised into believing that God’s will preponderates over everything. That whatever happens, no matter how big or how minuscule, is in accordance to God’s will. That if God wants you to succeed, that if God wants you to pass that exam or that job interview, then, no matter what, you will succeed. And that, likewise, if God wants you to fail, then, no matter what you do, no matter what your plans are, you will fail.
That He is the One who knows what’s best for you. That from the moment you were conceived, or even from the beginning of time, He has laid out a plan for you. Every step, every skill, every score, every job, every relationship, God has already decided for you.
That you have a purpose in life. That you were born specifically to fulfill that purpose, whatever that may be.
And that you gotta have faith, that whatever happens to you, is for your own good, and is for the best, because God has planned that for you.
Well, somewhere along the way, I lost that faith, and I stopped believing. How that all happened is a story for another day. But, for now…
I have heard and read from other people who have talked and written about this, whether they are talking about themselves losing faith, or of other people losing faith. And I have found so many people expressing that losing one’s faith, that losing the idea that there is a set, God-given purpose in life, is a tragedy. Even some atheists say so. That they wish they could turn back time and go back to when they still believed in God. That they envy religious people who are guided by what they believe to be the roadmap that God has drawn for them. That it depresses them to think that there is no such thing as “God’s plan for me.”
Personally, I find that rather discombobulating. Where is the tragedy? What, exactly, is there to envy?
Once upon a time, when I was much younger, I thought that I was one of God’s favored ones. Being born into the “correct” church — in my case, the Catholic Church — can do that to you. A toxic mixture of gratitude and arrogance. How thankful, and proud, I was that I was a Catholic, that I was born to be enlightened, unlike the Protestants or the Muslims or the Buddhists or whoever, who were all, or so I was taught to believe, cursed with the misfortune of having one foot in hell from the moment their parents forced them into the “wrong” faith. Having been “blessed” with gifts of financial wealth, status, comfort, beauty and brains cemented that belief even more into my head. How often did I see other people, other Catholics even, who prayed harder, who were kinder and more generous, being less fortunate than I was! God must have blessed me indeed!
And so, I believed, like so many other religious people do, in having a God-given destiny. In my case, I believed that my God-given destiny was a good one, a comfortable one, even a glittering one, full of wealth and success. A destiny towering heavens above the destinies of others. I didn’t know exactly what it was — would I be a world-famous scientist, or a professor, or maybe even a prize-winning writer — but I believed, in my heart, that it would be marvelous, in the most worldly sense of the word.
But I also feared much from what my mother had often told me, especially whenever I slipped up in my behavior or in my prayers (or in my church donations): “What God has given, He can always take away!” And, as I had much to lose, I was very, very scared. I decided to be as faithful as I could be, participating in Mass, listening to the readings and the homily, and keeping the words in my heart, singing the songs, praying as often as possible, obeying my parents and my superiors to the letter, and accepting whatever fate, good or bad, threw my way as being of God’s will, being all for the best because God knows what’s best for me… I did and believed all that. Primarily because of that fear. Believing that God could strike me with, at best, failure in my endeavors and my relationships, and, at worst, a mixture of disease, paralysis, amputation, disfigurement, torture and rape, in case I failed up in my moral duties (and it usually didn’t take much!), was incredibly frightening. I had to please Him, at all costs, because He was the holder and shaper of my destiny.
I was living in fear.
However, I also remembered that even the most faithful men and women, specifically the saints, suffered some grave misfortune in one form or another. For example, St. Peter was crucified upside down, while St. Therese suffered and died from tuberculosis at the age of 24. These were all despite, and sometimes because of, their great faith in God and their obedience to the teachings of the Church. So why did God allows His most faithful servants to suffer? I was told that (once again) it was God’s will, that He allows His best people to suffer in order to test and strengthen their faith, and to demonstrate to the world His power and His glory.
What then, was the point of following God if it didn’t guarantee being spared from suffering? To please God? To make Him happy? To be a saint, a great Catholic? I actually did not care about pleasing God for its sake, nor about holiness or sainthood; I cared about pleasing God only to avoid His wrath, and to ensure a good way of life. So what’s the point of all this obedience and morality, what’s the point of this fear of “What God has given, He can always take away!” when He would just take away and inflict what He wanted, regardless?
These lives of suffering were the kinds of plan that God had made for his best people. Then what kind of plan had He made for me?
Fast forward to years later, to now, I ask the question once again: Where is the tragedy? What, exactly, is there to envy?
The idea that God is the master of all destinies, the idea of surrendering to His almighty will, is, if you look at it very closely, not reassuring at all. On the contrary, it’s actually incredibly debilitating. It made me wonder: What’s the point of all this dreaming and wishing, studying hard, working hard, persevering, being the best me I could be, if God had a plan for me, a plan that could turn out to be against everything that I’ve ever dreamed and worked for? It’s not the kind of mentality that spurs a human to dare, to take risks, and to strive to attain his/her best potential. Rather, it is the kind of mentality that chains a human to his/her destiny, like a weak little fish, without will, without choice, being dragged by the roaring river. Let God’s will be done. Bahala na.
In my path to irreligiosity, I’ve rejected all that.
Instead, this idea that I now keep in mind, that there is no inherent purpose to the universe, to the human race, to my life, that each of these just is, has been to me the most empowering thing. Thinking that life itself has no purpose on its own is not depressing to me at all; on the contrary, I feel so giddy and energetic whenever I think about it! Because not having an inherent purpose means that I can make my own purpose in life. It means that I can try to be whatever I wanted to be. I can make my own goals, and work hard toward them, with a chance that I would succeed.
No God to tell me that I am destined to become a doctor, a dancer, a homebound mother, or a suffering martyr. I can be whatever I want to be. Because God isn’t the one who knows what’s best for me. I know what’s best for me.
Of course, that means ditching the bahala na mentality. The bahala na mentality throws abandon to the wind, and surrenders a person’s life to fate. It goes really well with the idea of God’s divine plan. An extremely lazy way of living one’s life. That’s not the kind of life I can live now. I have to take control of my life. I have to be master of my own ship. I have to be diligent, I have to strive, to work hard, to give myself my own direction. It’s very tiring, to be honest. But empowering. Exciting. Chock-full of possibilities.
Plus, it came with the pleasant side-effect of me realizing that I do not have any divine privilege. That other people, regardless of their beliefs, are equally as important. It was a lesson in humility that dragged the silly Catholic girl in me from the lofty heights where she was. It was a lesson that forced me to grow up and to take responsibility, and for which I am very grateful.
I don’t know about you, but as for me, I would rather be exhausted from hard work, stressed from the uncertainty, yet free to be master of my own life, than to be comfortably living in fear as some bipolar divine dictator’s slave-maid.