You’ll get hit with it sooner or later, everyone does. And you’ll get hit more than once. Most of the time, you can duck or dodge it. But every now and then, it hits full force: a clearing blow to the gut. It’s always lurking in the shadows. Always waiting to strike.
It can hit a soldier sitting in a foxhole on a winter night in a foreign land. It can hit a young woman who has just found out she’s pregnant. It can hit a middle-aged man as he sits in his office crunching numbers on a computer screen. It can hit the elderly as they take the medications that keep them alive.
Children, too, are vulnerable, but, due to the newness of the world, they generally bounce back more readily. As they grow, however, the punches come quicker and with more force. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Next comes the existential crisis common among young adults. How did I get here? Where am I going? What does it all mean? This can be an exciting time of discovery. Or it can be an off-the-rails train ride to the wasteland.
It might come while you’re at a party. Maybe it’s a college party. Maybe the party’s thrown by your boss. You stand in a corner of a room holding a beer or a glass of wine and it comes out of the blue. What are you doing here? Nothing makes sense. How does one make meaning out of the absurd?
You never outgrow it. No matter how strong you are. No matter how wise. Once asked, the question will echo throughout your life. Sometimes booming, sometimes a whisper, sometimes a whimper in the depths of the night.
It comes in the darkness and slithers through your guard like a serpent through a chain-link fence. It whispers, “What’s the point of it all?”
The whispering is called Doubt.
I read Nietzsche unsupervised as a teenager. He was a talented writer. His poison was sweet. Nietzsche is infamous for penning, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” He believed that humans had simply outgrown the need for God and in doing so had laid the whole notion to rest. He was wrong of course. Dead wrong.
I didn’t realize it then, though. So I promptly dropped out of high school, turned my back on my Catholic faith, and set out to impose meaning on the world because if I—an isolated individual—did not create meaning for myself the world—meaningless without me—would remain meaningless.
I stuck to this path for many years and through myriad sorrows. When I eventually realized that creating meaning was beyond my individual powers, I turned to the East in an attempt to annihilate the “self” which had failed to create meaning on its own.
John Senior had a similar experience and puts it in a nutshell in The Death of Christian Culture,
"Once this state of liberation from 'self' and from 'the ten thousand things,' as the physical universe is called, is achieved, there is discovered—one cannot say 'he discovers'—an abyss beyond even the emptiness because the masters of this tradition say that 'nothing' is an illusion too. The ultimate irony is that after a lifetime of seeking one discovers that there is literally nothing to have sought; not even 'nothing,' which is a rational idea."
“What’s the point of it all?” According to Nietzsche and the East—one a rabid individualist, the other anti-self—there is no point. Both roads lead to nihilism.
Making money for the sake of money couldn’t fill the void. Obtaining professional credentials and titles couldn’t either. Hedonism was as hollow as a rotting log and Stoicism was pointless as well.
I looked everywhere and found nothing. My search for meaning was all for naught.
And then a small miracle of sorts occurred.
I converted to Catholicism when I was ten years old. My mother married a traditional Polish Catholic man and, seemingly overnight, I was immersed in the faith. Confirmed at thirteen, the experience was blurred by hormones and teenage angst. A few years later, I read Nietzsche and the blur itself was blotted out. I can’t visualize the ceremony to this day.
Years later I found myself living across from a Newman Center near a college campus. One day, I decided to go in. I don’t know why. I was afraid at first. I sat in the back and prayed.
That’s all it took.
I had never outgrown the need for God because the very notion of outgrowing God is absurd. A man without God is like a hawk without wings doomed to starvation.
The moment I stepped out of the Newman Center into the afternoon light, I felt as light as a bird on the wing.
That was well over a decade ago. Since then, I have become re-immersed in the faith. This time I remember everything.
But the doubt still surfaces now and then. Usually at night. I’m not alone.
Numerous Saints have endured profound bouts of doubt. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) is but one example.
Dying of tuberculosis, she passed through a “trial of faith.” In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she put it this way, “He (God) allowed my soul to be enveloped in utter darkness and the thought of Heaven, which had consoled me from my earliest childhood, now became a subject of conflict and torture.”
Thérèse fought back by practicing her faith during that last year of her life. “I try to practice my faith, even though it brings me no joy. I have made more acts of faith in the last year than during all the rest of my life.”
She went so far as to write out the Creed in her own blood. “Oh, if you knew what horrible thoughts constantly oppress me,” she wrote. “Whenever I find myself faced with the prospect of an attack by my enemy, I am most courageous; I turn my back on him, without so much as looking at him, and run to Jesus.”
One of the enemy’s favorite weapons is doubt. In a culture that promotes the notion that all is relative and there are no absolute truths, “What’s the point of it all?” has become a mantra.
Simply put, don’t fall for it. Take St. Thérèse as an example and run back to Jesus. Turning away from Him can only lead to despair.
When I wake up in the night and am hit with a surprise combination punch of doubt and apprehension, I pray. I keep praying until I fall back to sleep. I pray again upon waking. It works.
Remember, too, that Catholics all over the world are praying for you. Saints and angels are praying for you. I’m praying for you too.
So, don’t give in. You’re not alone.