Where Does the Belief Pinch?

“The wearer knows best where the shoe pinches.”

– Spanish proverb –


When I was growing up, shoe shopping officially happened twice a year: in Spring for Easter shoes and in Fall for school shoes. Mother would take my sisters and me downtown to Thornton’s Department Store, where the salesman measured our feet and then retreated to the back room to see if the styles we had chosen from the display were in stock in our sizes. When he brought out the available selection and we tried them on, Mother would press her thumb on the top of the shoe between my big toe and the shoe tip to make sure there was room to grow. Then I would walk around to see if the heel slipped up and down or if the shoe rubbed uncomfortably anywhere. Mother made her pronouncements about the fit and the look, and the salesman added his opinion, but then they always looked at me and asked, “How do they feel?” After all, I was the one wearing the shoes. I was the one who knew whether they felt too tight or too loose.

Just as we’re the only ones who know where our shoes pinch, we’re the only ones who know where our beliefs pinch. We often feel the pinch for the first time when we’re teens, coming of age for the first time, trying to establish our own identity. We’ve bought into someone else’s beliefs and opinions – usually our parents’– which is a handy place to start our faith journey. In fact, it’s the usual place to start. But we’re not usually encouraged to question those beliefs. In fact, we’re usually given incentives not to. But if we don’t question beliefs at some point, then they’re not truly our own. Wearing someone else’s beliefs is like wearing hand-me-down shoes. If they don’t fit, after a while we get blisters and aching arches.

Of course, it’s possible to adopt another person’s likes and dislikes in anything from fashion choices to political views. In fact, it’s possible to live our whole lives with adopted views and beliefs. We may even argue vehemently for those beliefs, because they’re held by the community or “tribe” we belong to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the belief(s) reflect the true heart of who we are. Someone else’s views are just that: someone else’s. If I don’t believe them, if I don’t own them, they’re not mine at all. I’ve not personalized my beliefs.

That wouldn’t matter if God were an impersonal force. In that case, assenting to a belief system and living with an impersonal faith would make sense. It’s true that many people consider the Divine Mystery to be simply a force. That’s definitely a belief option, but it’s one that leaves me cold – like a child reaching for the comfort and love of a mother’s arms but finding a teddy bear instead. A teddy bear is some comfort, yes, but it’s not personal. In other words, no person is responding. The teddy bear has no warmth of its own to give; its only warmth comes from absorbing the child’s body heat. No object is able to return a child’s reach or empathize or care about the child.

Objects and forces can’t love, and they don’t care. A pillow cannot love me. A cathedral cannot love me. Nature, as inspiring as it is, does not love me. Music may move me to tears or motivate me to dance, but music does not care whether I – or anyone else – cries or laughs or dances. All these, as comforting or sacred as they may feel, are impersonal. They’re not persons.

Love and caring are personal; they are shared between persons. So the Universe, or the Divine, or the Ultimate, or the Presence, or God, or whatever we call the Mystery that connects with our deepest spirit and brings us personal peace is, I believe, personal – a person or persons. A Being. And no matter what we think of the Presence or Universe or Divine or Ultimate or God, by definition this entity is greater than all of us combined. Since the best that humans can aspire to is self-giving love, then surely that describes God at the least. And since love is shared only between living beings, then the Mystery I call God must be a living Being. Person-al. That’s why I believe that no matter how old we are, we need to continue to come of age in our spiritual lives, questioning blind beliefs, and personalizing our faith, making it our own.

Just to be clear: Questioning blind beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean dropping them. It’s possible to question, examine, and choose to keep them. At that point, they’re not blind beliefs any longer. We’ve chosen them as our own, at least for the time being – even if our only reason is, “Because it rings true to me, and I choose to believe it.” At least that’s an honest answer, and hopefully it makes us more gracious toward those who have chosen to hold different beliefs.

Occasionally when I was shoe shopping, I’d have my heart set on a certain pair of shoes. But when I tried them on, they were too small, and the next larger size was out of stock. I was tempted to overlook the fact that the shoes pinched. When a belief pinches, we may not want to admit it. Examining it can be uncomfortable. Questioning it can be unsettling. Considering a change can be frightening. But honest wondering is a natural part of a living, growing faith. Honor the questions. It’s okay to be uncertain. There’s no rush to have every answer. The fact is no one has all the answers. Welcome the mystery. Your life and your faith will be richer for it.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.