book-review-waiting-higher-power

Book Review: Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power

I’ve never been Marya Hornbacher’s target audience. I’ve never had an eating disorder, never diagnosed as bipolar, and I’ve never had to work to overcome a substance addiction. The closest I can come to her experience is getting diagnosed with OCD and learning to come to grips with my addiction to anger.

Twice in my life, I’ve found myself reading her books.

I first read Wasted back in the early-2000’s, possibly while still in high school. I went through a morbid stage, where I read a lot of real-life stories of those battling eating disorders. Her book was one of many, and I remember enjoying her writing style.

When I started searching for books to read for this month, books relating to a higher power, I wanted to go a non-traditional route. I tried to find a book told from a nonbeliever’s perspective. But not your typical atheist text, one filled with anger towards a particular higher power. I wanted one that examined if you could be spiritual without a higher power.

Marya’s book, Waiting, came back as a top result, and since I recognized her from Wasted, I decided to give it a go. I did not read a summary, nor did I research beyond the title, subtitle, and author. I placed it on hold from my local library and waited. It was a shock when I started reading it and realized I was not the target audience, again. Marya’s book is for people in the process of recovery who do not believe in a higher power*. But given how some popular recovery program’s require a higher power to work through the steps, there can be anxiety surrounding a lack of belief. Marya’s book fills that gap and provides comfort and assurance that a person can complete a program without belief.

Granted, it was my fault for not researching the book. I judged a book solely by its cover and as a result, found that it might not be for me.

But the book was for me. I may not be in recovery for substance abuse, I am in recovery for some equally destructive behaviors. Marya had plenty to say that applied in my own life, primarily as I work through the process of self-acceptance, and stepping outside of my addiction to anger.

So it ended up being a beautiful accident to read Waiting for this month’s book review. 

What follows is my review of a book I chose on my own. I did not receive any compensation for this review.

Book Information

Title: Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power
Author: Marya Hornbacher
Date Published: 2011
Publisher: Hazeldon
Pages: 137
Genre: Spirituality/Recovery

Goodreads Link
Amazon Link (non-affiliate)
Official Book Website (non-affiliate)


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Who is to Blame?

After getting a chronic illness diagnosis, there is a flood of emotions and thoughts for the first couple of weeks. One significant feeling is strange relief in finally having an answer depending on the length of your search. But what follows behind is the dark cloud of, “why me?” It’s tempting to blame your higher power for your illness.

To a certain extent, externalizing the blame can be healthy because often it isn’t our fault we got sick. The source of many autoimmune diseases is nebulous or entirely out of our control.

When you blame your higher power, you run the risk of negatively impacting your faith or misplacing it all together. If your higher power is a stable source of comfort and you feel betrayed by them, then the internal conflict that arises can be destabilizing.

The Chronic Illness Crisis

Chronic illness creates a rift in so many different parts of your life. It can negatively impact your intimate, professional, or higher power relationships. There is an existential crisis that occurs when you get your diagnosis. So many overwhelming emotions and very little room to navigate through them. 

When you get into a place where the dust settles, you may be left wondering, especially if you have a belief system, why it is happening to you. How did this happen? Why did this happen? What did I do to deserve this illness?

If you speak with your higher power and hear silence, it can feel particularly frustrating. Often, we are taught to believe that they will be there for us, comfort us, and protect us. Or if you are taught that these sorts of things happen for a reason, it is natural to want to blame the higher power. Rarely do we find a good enough reason to be given a chronic illness.

More concerning, we may even feel to blame for the illness. That we get it because we aren’t following a particular path our higher power laid out for us. Even worse is if an outsider tells us that’s the case.

So did your higher power turn their back on you? And who is actually to blame?

Happenstance or Punishment?

Is your illness a coincidence, or was it some test/punishment put before you?

That’s a question only you can find the answer. I want to tell you that it is not a punishment, that your higher power had nothing to do with giving it to you or allowing it to happen, but that isn’t my place.

If it helps to view illness as a test, and that creates a healthy challenge for you to work towards overcoming, then do it. But if it brings you into a dark emotional place and causes a conflict with your higher power, look towards your options. Your higher power wants you to be healthy and find comfort in them. See what you can do to get back into that space.

When you blame your higher power, you place yourself in the role of victim, and that creates a negative emotional cycle that can spiral out of control. You are a victim of the illness, yes. But you don’t have to give in to the mentality which can lead you to feel stuck.

Who is Responsible for my Illness

Depending on your type of illness, no one.

I have plenty of spots in my life where I can say I am partially to blame for getting my MS. I didn’t get enough vitamin D growing up in New England. I got mononucleosis as a child. But what if I drank a cow’s worth of milk a day, never got mono and still got MS?

It’s pointless to blame myself because I genuinely have no clue why I got MS. I view it as the luck of the draw. If I spend time reflecting on the “shoulda done this,” I would drive myself crazy. I accepted I am not responsible for my illness.

I was deconverting around the time of my diagnosis, but I know precisely my response if I was still religious. It would be a back and forth between blaming my higher power for allowing it to happen and blaming myself for doing something that displeased my higher power. I wouldn’t consider the diagnosis as something that happens in life. I already had a lot of emotional pain with my higher power. I would have either gone to an even darker place emotionally or begun the process of deconverting to protect my mental health.

Yet, my higher power was not to blame for my diagnosis. When I was younger, I often thought of my higher power like a child that flicked bugs for their pleasure. I was a bug, and so they put negative lessons in my path to make me miserable. It wasn’t until I could look back and see what was really happening: I was experiencing the same sort of stuff everyone else did. I was not being singled out as I thought.

Maintain Your Source of Comfort

You need as many sources of comfort in your corner with a chronic illness. If you feel that you must blame your higher power for your chronic disease, consider finding a leader within your community to help you through the healing process. Make sure it is someone you trust, and remember they are fallible too. Their interpretations may not be healthy either, so you may need to search around for someone who provides you the comfort and answers you need.

Blaming your higher power will cause a rift in your relationship. If a relationship brings you comfort, then you want to maintain that connection. It will give you the emotional and mental strength you need for your flare-ups and treatments. Do what you need to do to repair that relationship so you can focus on your health.

If it helps, consider placing the blame where it belongs: circumstance. It’s a random confluence of events that led to your health getting to this point, not you or anything else. While it is a rather abstract thought, and sometimes that does not bring the same level of catharsis, it is healthier than blaming yourself or your higher power.


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Is a Higher Power Necessary?

If you don’t have a higher power or belief system, is it necessary to have one to help manage your chronic illness?

No. No, it is not necessary.

If you have a higher power and feel satisfied, then this post is not for you. This is for the small percentage that are either ambivalent about their beliefs or actively do not believe in anything. This post is for those who have to navigate the all-too-familiar field of well-intentioned family and friends who say, “I will pray for you,” or “if you believe in this higher power, you will be healed.”

These forms of unsolicited advice can raise feelings of misplaced shame, put us on the defensive, or create an awkward interaction. If you find that you navigate these scenarios with ease, then this post may not be for you.

Instead, this post is meant as comfort for those who may have recently de-converted or questioning, and emotions might be rawer.

If It Isn’t Broke…A Disclaimer

The summary of this post is this: if you live without a higher power and that works for you, then do not let yourself get distracted by others telling you that you need one. Only you know what works best for you, and if you find more comfort outside of organized belief, then embrace that comfort.

Once I de-converted, I found more peace in my life. But it took a long time to feel comfortable with that peace. There are still a lot of raw emotions I am working through, so sometimes hearing the language can cause me stress and shame. 

I’ve learned that I need to accept the words and intentions of others with grace, not resentment or shame while standing firm in my decision.

The Distraction of a Higher Power

Most of the time, when people have a higher power or organized belief system, it is a built-in source of comfort. If you need a distraction, guidance, or a focal point, your higher power can provide that. Because of this, often for others who have a higher power, they want to share the comfort and peace they get with you.

It works for them, so it will obviously work for you. I am fond of saying this on my blog as much as possible: what works for me may not work for you. The same goes for belief: your mileage may vary.

Additionally, when I hear people tell me that I need to place my concerns in the higher power I deconverted from, it can be painful to hear. It reminds me of the negative experiences I had and pushes me back into a dark place. It puts me into an awkward space of not knowing what to say or wanting to respond sharply. 

Getting told to turn to a higher power becomes emotionally and mentally distracting. When coping with a chronic illness, being unnecessarily put into a space of shame, even if the other person is well-intentioned, is unhelpful.

If you do not believe in anything or think differently, hearing someone proselytize is irritating because you aren’t coming from the same starting point. If you don’t believe in anything, those words can ring hollow and feel like a wasted exercise on their part. It distracts from the opportunity to have a different or more meaningful conversation with them.

Unfortunately, it’s Not About You

When others start telling you what you need in your life, it isn’t about your needs. It’s about them and what they need to do.

When I came to this realization, I found it easier to handle these interactions. When someone tells you they will intercede on your behalf to their higher power, or that you need to believe in that higher power, it’s giving them comfort. It brings them comfort; therefore, it will bring you comfort, so they want to share it. Or they feel powerless, and the idea of appealing to a higher power gives them a sense of helping you. 

Now, I just listen to what they have to say, say “thank you,” and try to shift the conversation to something else. I find it strangely comforting knowing that someone cares enough to share this with me. Today’s climate is rather hostile to outward expressions of faith, at least in my community, and it takes a lot of courage for the individual to put themselves out like that for me.

Consider a Greater Cause

I mentioned this at the beginning of the month, the idea of a greater cause. A greater cause is not a religious belief, but something outside of yourself that motivates you in life. It can be a form of activism, volunteering your time, or a professional or health goal.

Finding a purpose outside of yourself can provide you a similar distraction a higher power gives someone else. It can ground you, guide you, and provide fulfillment. When others ask you what you believe, you can redirect towards this cause if you are open to having that conversation.

It can give you the strength you need to handle the awkward conversations because you do have something equally important in your life.

Know that you possess the ability to decide what is best for you. Others generally come from a well-meaning place when they tell you about their higher power. When they do, know that it’s not necessarily for you, but to provide them comfort. Shift the focus of the conversation away from the topic as graciously as possible, and reframe it as them caring genuinely about you.

It won’t be easy every time, but it might make these interactions less awkward.


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A Higher Power with a Chronic Illness

Approximately 84% of the world’s population is religious in some way. The number may be lower if we compare those who say they are religious, versus those who actively practice. It is safe to assume that the majority of the world has some sort of religious background. For many people, when dealing with a crisis or celebration of some sort, they reach to a higher power. This higher power connects humans to one another, reaffirms the community bond, and provides comfort in times of need. When dealing with a chronic illness, sometimes that higher power provides the strength needed to cope.

For September, the MS Mommy Blog will discuss the advantages, and at times the disadvantages, of having a higher power during a wellness journey. If you have one deity, more than one, or none at all, you’ll find that I will touch upon your situation at least once this month.

A Quick Disclaimer

If I linked you back to this post, it’s because of the following disclaimer.

The MS Mommy Blog takes a strict stance of not promoting one particular religious practice over another, nor will it disparage a specific system of belief. If I take lessons from one philosophy more often than another, it is not an endorsement.

Because this month will have a lot of conversations surrounding religion, I will be as broad and general as possible to be inclusive. If I do use specific examples or terminology associated with one particular religion, it won’t be to promote it over another. This has everything to do with the limitation of the English language and tap into Western cultural shortcuts.

All examples will be done in an honoring way: I will not criticize any particular system of belief. I will, however, address some of the mental traps we fall into as a result of religion, not because of the religion itself. This might be perceived as a criticism, but please do not take it as such.

To be all-encompassing, I will not be using the word “god” in any capacity. Instead, I will use the term “higher power” or “greater cause.” If you have a particular deity, that is your higher power. If you are not religious or an adherent to a traditional belief system, you might have a greater cause that you focus on (see humanism as an example of what I mean).

Looking Beyond Ourselves

Often, at the start of any wellness journey, there’s a call to look beyond ourselves. We might reach out to our higher power to help us start or give us the strength to move forward. Being afraid to try something new, no matter how beneficial it may be, is reason enough to need strength from wherever you can get it. If you are not religious, you may look for other motivations: a child, a partner, or just for yourself.

Whatever the reason, we are looking within to look beyond.

The act of asking a higher power for strength or finding a greater cause allows us to reflect on our life from an objective perspective. We can see ourselves as others see us, and see where we might need an extra boost. Then we can ask for help from our higher power, or see resources related to our greater cause. The act of asking for help is a form of externalizing our desire and can help propel us forward.

I often find that looking beyond myself helps. It’s usually in the form of providing an example to Jai, I see what I want him to do, and therefore, I must model my behavior, so he follows suit. I am looking beyond myself to make changes in my wellness journey, and I find more success because of it.

Finding Motivation Beyond, Maybe

If you grew up in a particular system of belief or are newly converted, you know what works for you. If reaching out to your higher power gets you the answers and comfort you need, then do so. But make sure whatever response you get back is honest and healthy. Sometimes we get a specific response (or lack of response), and it may not be our higher power, but our unconscious getting in the way. That’s the “maybe” in this section’s header.

If you are not receiving comfort or an answer encouraging your personal wellness, seek out a second opinion. Find a leader you trust within your belief community and seek counsel. Understand that they are fallible too, but your higher power should want you to be strong, find comfort, and be healthy. Your leader should help you get a more honest response that isn’t muddled with unconscious and discouraging thoughts.

No Excuses

Here’s where I am going to get controversial: do not use your higher power or greater cause as an excuse not to make positive life changes to manage your illness. Really think about what your higher power or greater cause asks of you. One that wants you to be healthy and managing your illness in the best way possible is reasonable. One that asks you to stay stagnant and be unhealthy may not be your higher power, but your own unconsciousness afraid of change.

If you find that after speaking with your higher power, it gives you an answer to stay unhealthy, you may need to seek outside counsel to get to the source of that answer.

Higher Power & Chronic Illness

So how can a greater cause or higher power help you with your chronic illness? That’s something we’ll be examining for September. You may have one, and you may not. Whatever works for you and keeps you motivated and feeling happy – that’s what matters most.

Your wellness journey is your own, and ultimately, you need to stick with what keeps you moving forward healthily.


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