My mother passed away in 2019. She was 78. She was sometimes stubborn, sometimes chastising in her spirit, but she was a mother. I never felt that she regretted the role growing up. She was deeply religious. We disagreed a lot.
My first year in college, I came home for spring break with all the wisdom and eye-opening education one can possibly get at this juncture in life. I was in an introduction to philosophy class and felt my mind expanding to more than just what I had learned at the knee of my mother and church.
Prior to my first year in college, I was about 95% sure of most things, and willing to die for about 90%. Soon, however, my percentages changed. I was only sure of about 50% and willing to die for less than 25%. It's amazing how a little knowledge changes one’s life outlook.
Some of the life questions I was learning in my introduction to philosophy classes were very interesting. They were questions like, “if you could know for sure that all your beliefs in life were wrong, would you change the way you were living?”
I thought, “well, yes. Maybe. Hmmm, not sure.”
I came home and asked my mother the same question thinking she might feel the same, but to my astonishment, she said no, she wouldn’t. When I asked why, she said, “I believe the life I have lived following the Bible, living as a Christian is the best life I could live.” So, I pressed further.
“Even if all you believed in, you later learned was false?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
I didn’t ask more questions.
It was the philosopher Rene Descartes who coined the famous term, “I think therefore I am.” He was struggling with the same questions I was. Is there anything in life that I can be 100% certain of? His answer was “no.”
In fact, he came to the conclusion he was not sure of anything. The one thing he was certain of was he was contemplating if there is anything he can be certain of, so because he was thinking about this very thing, he must exist.
Well, that makes sense, I thought.
I can be sure of my own existence, but not much more. If this is true, then how could my mother hold on to a belief that she could not be 100% certain of? What is the point anyway?
As I pondered this dilemma, I began to see that a belief in something doesn’t need 100% certainty. Sometimes we believe because it helps us cope. Sometimes we believe because it is better than to not believe. Sometimes the mere belief in something gives us hope, even if that something may seem away and far off.
Like the belief that someday people will live in peace with each other and learn to tolerate and celebrate our differences. Like the belief that someday we will realize that our planet is finite and we must take care of it. Like the belief that love is more powerful than hate.
After my dad passed away in 2017, my mom was never really the same. She didn’t like moving away from the home she and dad shared for most of their retired life. But she couldn’t take care of it either, so my sister and I talked her into moving into a retirement community. She didn’t like it. She was lonely, as her husband of more than half a century was gone.
I was in Washington state. My younger sister was in Denver, about five hours from Grand Junction, Colorado, where my mom grew up, met dad, raised her children and lived her life. She was the youngest of her six siblings who also grew up, met their spouses, and raised their families in Grand Junction.
My sister, in order to have mom close to her, decided to move her to Denver. I was in favor of the move as well. Within a few short months of moving into her new place, mom wanted to go home. I flew down to see mom's new place. It was very nice. My sister tried to make the best of it she could but mom was not happy.
Remember, I told you she was stubborn.
She kept trying to leave. She didn’t know how she would get back to Grand Junction, but she kept trying. She ended up attempting to leave one night while everyone was asleep, slipped and hit her head on a rock. She was taken to the emergency room and my sister met her at the hospital.
My mom told my sister she was sorry she tried to leave, but soon mom was in and out of consciousness. The doctor told my sister that mom was bleeding internally and may not recover from her head injury. I was wrapping up a couple things so I could catch a flight to Denver. Mom was on life support by this time, but she specified in her “do not resuscitate” declaration there would be no life support.
Respecting my mom’s wishes, we told the hospital, no life support. I watched on my cellphone as mom’s support was removed, but to our amazement she was breathing on her own. All my family was there and I was trying to get to Denver. My sister called me during a long layover between flights. She was so tired from the entire ordeal. Mom was barely breathing. No one could figure out why mom was holding on.
“I think mom is waiting for you,” my sister said. Knowing that hearing is the last thing to go, my sister asked if I would talk to mom. She put the phone next to mom’s ear.
“Mom, I love you, and it’s alright, you can let go,” I said.
After hearing my voice, a slight smile came across mom’s face, according to my sister. Mom labored for just a little while longer, and then passed away before I arrived.
I still ponder life’s questions.
I am still not certain of many things. Sometimes we believe because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes we believe because it offers hope. Sometimes we believe for no other reason than because we want to.
Richard Stride has been a practicing psychotherapist. He has worked in behavioral and forensic mental health for over 30 years as a counselor, clinical director and senior executive. He served eight years as a captain in the United States Army Reserve. He enjoys teaching, public speaking and prides himself on being a student of history. He is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at email@example.com.