I’ve Been Thinking … Regaining My Faith
Five months pregnant and on a flight to Seattle in 2015, Allison Pataki’s seemingly healthy, 30-year-old husband, Dave Levy, suffered a sudden and massive stroke. Following an emergency landing, Dave was rushed to the hospital. When he awoke, he had severe memory loss with brain damage and was never the same again. Within a few months, Allison found herself caring for both a newborn and a sick husband, struggling with the fear of what was to come. Below is an excerpt from her new book, “Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith, and Resilience.”
“Mom,” I said, clenching my teeth as I tried to swallow the tears. I had to get honest—with myself, with others. It was an early winter morning, faint light trickling through the windows, the kitchen smelling like coffee. “I just . . . I just feel complete and utter despair.”
It was a dark thought for me to admit to. Despair, I recalled from my time as an English major studying Dante, is considered a major spiritual offense. To despair is to commit a personal treachery against God; it’s a lack of faith, a denial of the gift of hope, an abandonment of one’s belief in grace. And yet here I was, confessing to my despair.
My mom stared at me a moment, her coffee poised in one hand. “Alli,” she said eventually, her voice forceful in the quiet kitchen. “This situation is not hopeless. What happened to your faith? You’ve always had this incredible faith in God. Well, now is the time to call on that. Lean on God.”
Those simple, frank words struck me. My mom had a point. What use was my faith if not for this precise moment, when I felt the suffocating grip of despair and doubt? What was faith, really, if not the thing I needed right then, when I had absolutely no proof that things would get better? Wasn’t that what faith was—the belief in something unseen, the belief in something whose very existence could be rationally and reasonably denied?
Sure, I could profess my faith and thank God when things were going well—when I had a great husband and a great job and a baby on the way and my health and close friends and a loving family. But that was not faith that God was good, really, was it? That was simply a matter of agreeing with the overwhelming and abundant evidence. I needed faith here, when the evidence seemed to point to the fact that life was hard and sad and scary, rather than good and smooth. I needed faith here when the doubt lurked in my mind that maybe God was not here with me, that maybe He had abandoned me—or worse, that He had never been beside me to begin with.
It’s like the difference between innocence and purity. Innocence is circumstantial; it is a state of being that stems from a lack of exposure or experience. It’s passive rather than active. Purity requires an active choice; it is attained only once the test has come and the test has been passed. Prior to this, I’d had the faith of the innocent. It had been, quite frankly, easy to keep my faith. Why not believe that God is good? Up until that point He had been, well, quite good.
Here, though, was a big old test. Could my faith live up to this test? I thought of the old proverb, “Through hottest fire is forged the strongest steel.” Could I maintain my faith through the heat of this fire; could I make it through the pain of these tests? Could I not only maintain my faith, but allow it to take a deeper foothold in me, to grow stronger—and to make me stronger in the process?
Here was my chance. I was being exposed to plenty of reason to doubt; I had days when I was angry and sad and confused. I did not understand why this stroke had happened or where we would be going from there, and I certainly did not feel like giving thanks for the trial of it all. I wanted no more of it—I wanted that burden to pass away from me. I wanted things to be good and predictable, like they had once been. I wanted Dave back, like he had once been. I wanted my old life back.
Ultimately, I realized, this was the moment when things between God and me finally got real. This was when I needed to live the faith that I had been thinking, for thirty-one years, that I had been living. I did not understand why the things that had happened had happened. But did I still—even in that place of not knowing or understanding, especially in that place of not knowing or understanding—believe that God was with me? Was He there beside me in my pain and brokenness, just as I had always believed Him to be beside me in my joy? Did I believe that God could take this heartbreak and this fear and this fatigue and somehow weave something beautiful from all of the frayed and feeble threads? That there was a divine plan at work here, a much larger picture than the one I could see, a framework that exceeded my capacity to understand?
Yes, I realized. I did. I did still believe that God was beside us. I did, because of so many reasons, so many bright spots that had already shone on us, piercing even some of the darkest places. I had felt God at work, already, in so many moments large and small since that terrible June night on the airplane. I had felt it in the steady hands of Dave’s doctors and nurses and therapists, in the peaceful moments while Dave slept in his hospital room, in the faith and friendship of Omar, in the pure and perfect joy of our daughter, in the gentle but immutable strength of my mother-in-law, in the unwavering support of our steadfast community of friends and family, in the ferocious love of my parents and siblings and in-laws and even complete strangers. It was especially in the times of the most unbearable pain that I had seen the most beautiful acts of grace and love, shining forth in sharp relief.
Allison Pataki is the New York Times bestselling author of THE TRAITOR’S WIFE, THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS, SISI: EMPRESS ON HER OWN, WHERE THE LIGHT FALLS, and the forthcoming nonfiction memoir BEAUTY IN THE BROKEN PLACES. Allison’s novels have been translated into more than a dozen languages. A former news writer and producer, Allison has written for The New York Times, ABC News, The Huffington Post, USA Today, Fox News and other outlets. She has appeared on The TODAY Show, Fox & Friends, Good Day New York, Good Day Chicago and MSNBC’s Morning Joe. To learn more and connect with Allison, please visit www.AllisonPataki.com or Twitter @AllisonPataki.
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