“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
— Polonius, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III
Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes comes in the context of finances and very likely was received by an Elizabethan audience as the recommendation to take care of one’s self first and foremost — Polonius being one of the villains of the story. Just two lines earlier, Polonius advises, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”
And yet, our modern reading of these words has become gentler — these words serve as a guiding moral principle advising us of the power of being true to our own codes of morality, often in terms of presenting ourselves as we are rather than as others might like us to be to the world, rather than as a selfish conceit about putting ourselves first in business dealings.
To be fair, I prefer the modern interpretation of these words, even if it may be out of context in the play.
This past Sunday was Easter — the day upon which Jesus Christ is said to have risen from the dead, a miracle, and opened the gates of heaven to the believers. In Christian churches around the world jubilant cries of “He is Risen” could be heard along with “Alleluia” and “Hosanna in the Highest.”
I did not partake.
I did attend our church service via Zoom and listened as our ministers spoke about the realities of Jesus Christ’s death. That he was a political agitator. That he was put to death by a Roman Empire that who saw him as a threat. That while the narrative is that he was not in the tomb when Mary Magdalene and Jesus’s mother came on the third day because he’d risen from the dead, it is very probable that his body was removed and desecrated by the Romans.
We know that powerful people do awful things a to their enemies and there is little reason to believe that the Romans simply let his body be buried. They were, to be sure, a bloodthirsty lot. They fed people to lions for sport for goodness sake. And we know this happens to the bodies of dissidents in our modern world, witness Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the hands of the Saudi government.
I do not wish to belittle or betray anyone’s belief here. If you believe the story of the Resurrection and it provides you with faith and comfort, it is wonderful. We all need comfort in this chaotic world. And a little faith goes a long way.
If I’m honest, though, I never believed it.
But I tried. I tried to believe it for a long time.
Fake it ‘til you make it.
This well meaning turn of phrase, employed so often when someone struggles, grates on me. Particularly in the context of addiction recovery, I find this advice highly problematic. Just think about it for a moment. Addiction leads so many of us to a life masked in half-truths, denials, and outright lies.
We hid our addiction, out of shame and fear. We lied about how often we drank, or where the money came from, or what happened the night before. Even if we didn’t lie to others, we lied to ourselves denying that the problem was as big as it was as we hid the bottles, empty or otherwise.
Faking it until we make it, is just another lie. We can’t fake sobriety. We can’t fake recovery. We have to do the work.
Now, there is something to be said for modeling good behaviors. There is something to be said for setting intention and how intention can be a strong predictor of success. But “acting as if” is different than “faking it.”
I know what it means to fake it.
For nearly half a century I faked it. I did what others told me I should. I went to confession for the first time in 5th grade and took first communion later that year after a well meaning teacher in my school asked me if I’d like to receive the sacraments. Never once did I believe that saying 10 “Hail Mary’s” would relieve me of my sins, or that the stale wafer had transmuted into the flesh of Christ — and thank God for that, I mean, can you say cannibalism? — Later in high school, I got confirmed, because it was what I was supposed to do — even though I was a few years late to the party.
In my twenties, I attended a Catholic Church on and off with friends, but slowly drifted away. I broke up with a wonderful woman largely because I could not accept her interest in an evangelical faith — I still owe an amends there. Throughout those years, I would go to church for the big days — Christmas and Easter — and if I’m honest, I always wanted to believe. I felt that believing might relieve some of the pain. I found myself jealous of the certainty that others had about the hereafter.
This big ball of chaos and confusion that we call earth just might make a little more sense if there was an afterlife of bliss. I mean, it’s a great fucking story, but my life experience runs counter to it at every turn.
When I met my wife, she was an Elder in the Presbyterian Church. I still don’t really know what that means, but I do know that she was invested in it — that it carried meaning for her. And I’d learned, by way of the aforementioned break up, that perhaps I needed to be sensitive to her faith even if I wasn’t all in. I attended church with her, because frankly, I’d have walked through a bed of hot coals to be with her.
It was uncomfortable. Not only was I not a true believer, but I’d been so thoroughly indoctrinated by the Catholic Church that I believed I was somehow committing a sin by attending another denomination’s services. They did a great job telling me that there was only one true church. To be honest, I still struggle with this from time to time even though I’ve all but renounced my Catholicism by burning the Pope in effigy.
This sense of betrayal was so strong in me that I struggled with the idea that we would be married in the Presbyterian Church — even though I loved the pastor of the church. He hooked me on the first day I attended his service which a sermon about how Liberals and Conservatives needed each other.
And yet, I overcame that sense of betrayal and actually became a member of not one, but two different Presbyterian churches. With time, I actually enjoyed the services. Those churches provided me with good people, good community.
But I still didn’t believe in the Resurrection.
And then I got sober.
I’ve written ad-nauseam about my challenges with religion versus spirituality and how I came to a sense of peace when I finally let go of the God of my childhood. It was only after doing so that I felt I could approach the 12 steps in a meaningful way. And it was only after letting go of that God, that I was able to seek out a church community where it was okay for me to have my doubts.
I tried to fake it until I made it for so many years, and never actually made it. Or at least, I didn’t make it in a way that looked like I thought it would. I had always thought that given enough time, I might eventually will myself into believing. That if I went to church and heard the message again and again, that it might some day actually be true for me. But that truth never crystallized.
This past Sunday was a glorious day in many ways. We had beautiful weather and I saw my family. Many of the adults in the family have been vaccinated and it feels like we might actually turn the corner in this god forsaken pandemic. I enjoyed our church service and felt connected to the universe. And I felt liberated because I didn’t need to pretend to believe in the Resurrection.
In the end, if I allow myself to believe that I’ve come to the end of this journey, which is probably another misconception, faking it until I made it did more harm than good. I struggled and suffered trying to reconcile a disjointed belief with my own life experience. It never fit and it was always uncomfortable. That certainty and the peace that I thought it might bring was never going to happen. I’d have been far better if I’d taken Polonius’ advice and been true to myself from the beginning.
It’s not that I have no faith, nor that there is no God — it’s that it doesn’t look like what I thought it would. Maybe, just maybe, that’s what making it looks like.