The Prognosis

The words stunned me—something like a blow to the back or a terminal diagnosis. Yes—like a cancer diagnosis. And how fitting that they came from a doctor. I now understand a bit better what I’ve always heard—that the patient hears nothing after the words “You have cancer” escape your lips.

His words were not to me, and they weren’t about a medical condition at all. The words were delivered last night to my husband Russell by Pascal—his blogging companion and closest local friend. As he said them, the dining room closed in to the size of a hospital clinic room, and the warm walls turned a dull shade of gray. The table between us disappeared, and his dining chair turned into a black rolling stool in front of a computer. Pascal’s blue shirt faded into a white coat as he turned toward my husband and said “Honestly, I don’t think you’ll ever return to faith.”

“I’m not giving up on you, and we can still be friends,” he continued, much in the way I had once heard an oncologist reassure a glioblastoma patient after delivering the death sentence. I didn’t hear too much else after that. Tears stung my eyes, and I swallowed hard as if the force of the swallow could somehow suck them back behind my eyes. I didn’t swallow hard enough, and a few escaped. I swallowed hard again. I couldn’t cry there. I was sitting across from a wonderful, refreshingly honest new friend who doesn’t understand my struggle—“Just believe or don’t believe, and own it.” I was sitting next to two brand new acquaintances on my right, and this was not the first impression I wanted to make. My husband was to my left, and his hand found mine. He could sense the way my breathing changed, even if he couldn’t see my tears. Pascal was across the table and two seats down, and I couldn’t look at him. I wasn’t angry—I was devastated. And what was my husband feeling? I couldn’t look at him, either. But he didn’t argue with Pascal’s assessment.

It felt like there was a computer screen in the room with a list of abnormal labs. It felt like there was a blood smear demonstrating an army of invading cells or a CT scan revealing an overwhelming tumor burden. We had none of those things—just some convincing symptoms and one man’s prognosis. And isn’t it what we expected? Was it a shock at all? Somehow, yes. Sometimes you don’t realize what you had secretly, even foolishly wished for until someone tells you it won’t be yours.

I understand and in many ways share my husband’s disbelief. My heart has recently been more open to belief, but not the kind of belief I once held, and not in a way that gives me confidence—just in a way that gives me hope. And I suppose I had this fantasy that even I didn’t know I had—that my husband and I would return to faith together. I didn’t recognize that it was something I had looked toward until the fantasy left me with Pascal’s words. I don’t think about breathing until someone shoves my face underwater and I no longer can.

Was it right for him to say? Hadn’t I expected it—even thought it myself? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Would Russell be any more likely to return to faith if someone had hope enough to invest in him and to endure the wearying back and forth for a decade or more?—I think not. Will the friendship continue—was the bond between our families ever more than the fragile thread of this conversation? Oh I hope it was.

How is Russell doing? The prognosis was, after all, his. On one hand, he understands why Pascal came to this conclusion—it does seem unlikely that he will reason his way back into faith, although it’s certainly possible. On the other hand, he doesn’t think that anyone is equipped to draw such a conclusion about someone else. It seems that someone’s confidence in the possibility of God bringing a friend out of disbelief might be correlated with their faith that such a God exists and is willing and able to do so. Wouldn’t it only take a small intervention like Russell mentioned here? He is very open to that. Doesn’t Pascal’s God do miracles? Isn’t a miracle what brought Pascal out of insanity? Russell primarily took the prognosis hard because of my tears, and I hate that this is somehow about me.

Does this change anything? Our friend who has walked patiently with us for almost two and a half years came to my most feared conclusion about my husband—perhaps one I should have admitted to myself long ago. What do we do now that reality has confronted us so abruptly (doesn’t it usually “set in”)?

Nothing changes. We woke up the day after to an almost-five-year-old alarm clock with brown hair and blue eyes. Our hands found each other’s and our fingers intertwined before our eyes were even open. I’ll wake up next to him for the rest of our lives (or as long as he lets me), even if Pascal is right. And even if Pascal’s assessment is fair, I can do what so many do after devastating words. I can keep looking for a miracle. I can wish for an outcome against all odds. Some call it denial. We call it hope.

Image copyright Samuel Micut, dreamstime.com

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24 thoughts on “The Prognosis

  1. I’m rather sadden right now but not really surprised. Perhaps Pascal fears slipping back into “insanity” is a possibility if he begins to doubt, himself, and needs Russel to believe — enhancing the placebo effect. This is one of the tragedies of belief. People give their power away believing that the footprints in the sand were made by someone else, not their own.

    hug

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    • I actually don’t think he fears slipping back into anything from his past. I certainly don’t fear it for him. You would probably agree if you could meet him—I wish you could! Pascal did certainly want Russell to believe because he loves him—but I don’t think he needs him to for his own sake. I think Pascal just feels like he and Russell think very differently, and he knows it’s not really up to him to change Russell’s mind—he’s right about that. And perhaps the more he hears Russell speak and write, the more he believes that Russell might be too deeply grounded in a way of thinking that is incompatible with the faith and trust that Pascal is capable of.

      Thanks for the hugs! And I have no idea why your comments are being thrown to moderation…you’ve commented here before!

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      • J, thank you for the clarification. I was confused as to why such strong words were used. Saying someone has cancer, metaphorically, seems cruel to me. I guess it’s one of those things where you had to be there as Howie seems to agree with Pascal’s “diagnosis”. What am I missing here?

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        • I may not have been clear on the cancer metaphor—those were my words, not Pascal’s. I was just saying it felt to me like discussing the likely course of a cancer diagnosis when Pascal told Russell that he didn’t expect him to ever return to belief. It felt like I was hearing that he had a disease that he wouldn’t survive. Pascal wasn’t cruel—not even a little, and he followed his prediction with a promise of continued friendship and with encouragement for me to be confident in wherever I land in spite of my husband’s position. Maybe my reaction was much stronger than it should have been (it surprised even me, because I hadn’t realized how much hope I still held)—but if Pascal knows me, he expected some response. 😉

          Liked by 3 people

  2. I was really sad to see the train reck right as it happened and I knew the exact words that caused it and why they did as well. I actually was a bit surprised by it, but it made sense to me as I saw it. Your refreshingly honest new friend (my wife) saw it as well. We both tried to jump in and move the conversation somehow to ease things. I failed miserably, but luckily Mrs H’s smutty book joke at least got a laugh out of you, which was exactly what she was hoping for. 🙂

    J – given your reaction I am very sure that you really needed to hear what Pascal said. I felt awful as it happened, but it’s something I believe you need to think about. I agree with his prognosis. While Russell is correct that nobody is equipped to draw conclusions like that about others, I think it’s still possible to at least take some guess about what direction people may be headed after getting to know them. When others say they feel it’s unlikely I’ll ever return to a Christian worldview I feel that they’ve gotten to know me and if it’s a friend I actually feel good about that.

    Nobody knows the future, and I’m not telling you not to hope. I actually don’t know what to tell you. I’m just very sorry you’re both still going through this. Please let Mrs. H and I know if there’s anything we can do to help.

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    • “I agree with his prognosis.”

      Howie, my first comment is in moderation, and perhaps I misunderstood J’s post. There wasn’t much detail given. But I’m also confused as to why you would agree with Pascal’s prognosis, that metaphorically, Russel has cancer.

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      • Victoria,

        Sorry if I was vague! In case it needs clarification, I called it a “prognosis” because it was like a prediction of the likely outcome of our “diagnosis”—extreme doubt. In looking ahead, Pascal did not find it likely that my husband would ever resolve his doubt in any way that could result in belief. Is he right? Perhaps he is. But no words have ever been harder to hear. I don’t think Pascal did anything wrong or with intention to hurt. My broken heart was probably just an inevitable result of his honest words about such a difficult situation. Howie was there and is becoming a very close friend of my family’s, so I think it was easy for him to see where Pascal was coming from. He recognizes how hard it was for me, but he is also realistic like Pascal. It was just unexpected and I didn’t feel prepared for that last night. I still don’t. But Pascal (and Howie, and everyone else) did nothing wrong. This is all just my raw reaction to a very difficult night.

        I love Pascal, and I don’t want to paint a negative picture of him at all—he doesn’t deserve that, even a little. His words were honest and gentle. But no matter how gently you toss a bowling ball, it still has a hard landing. Maybe I did need to hear it, and maybe I’ll thank him some day.

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        • Forgive me for seeming thick-headed. Am I to conclude that you had hopes that Russel would become a believer again, and that this would help you in your decision about belief? That last night was the “nail in the coffin” so to speak?

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          • You’re not thick-headed at all, Victoria—and I appreciate your desire for clarification. I much prefer that to assumptions 🙂

            I had hoped that my husband and I would both believe again. It wasn’t really about him helping me in my decision to believe, because I am much closer at this point to belief in something than he is. It was more about being able to share something so meaningful with my husband and being united in raising our daughters with whatever we believe. I also very much desire his respect, and it’s hard for me to hear him argue with Pascal and accuse him of “motivated reasoning” when I so deeply long to believe things very much like what Pascal believes. I don’t want my husband to feel like I’m sacrificing my intellect.

            This was all easier to deal with when I felt like at least one other person had some hope that God could change our hearts and that we were simply in a “season” of doubt—not abandoning our faith or being abandoned. It just felt like years of reassurance dissolved in an instant—almost like he thought Russell was “too far gone,” although he never used those words. Does that make sense at all? I’m a mess, I know.

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            • Yes, J, it does make sense. You wrote: “It was more about being able to share something so meaningful with my husband and being united in raising our daughters with whatever we believe.”

              I understand. I believe that the love you two have together is strong and that Russell losing his religion, his belief in god, is not going to interfere with that bond you two have.

              Although I was a believer at the time I was raising my daughter, I always taught her to think for herself, and to find her own path. I never tried to impose my Christian beliefs on her. While she was away at college, and through much study, she came to the same conclusion as Russel. Ironically, I was going through a deconversion, myself, while she was away at college. Neither one of us wanted to share with the other…until one night we shared a bottle of wine after her graduation and return home. 😀 She was stunned that I had become an unbeliever, too. We had a good cry and then a good laugh. But, had I remained a believer and she an unbeliever, our bond, our love would still be very strong.

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    • Thank you, Howie. It’s okay to not always know what to say. I’m glad you and Mrs. H were there. She might have been the only person in the world who could make me laugh at that moment!

      I understand that you agree, and that’s okay. It was so very hard to hear from someone who has prayed promises for us for a while now—the promises God gave that we would find him when we seek him. I spend more time with Russell than anyone else—I can assure you he is seeking. So what about those precious promises?

      We love y’all. Thanks for being there.

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  3. I am really inclined to agree with your husband that no one is equipped to make that assessment. It is very likely that you will both come to a faith which is different and newer than what you had before or perhaps the same. I don’t know but I believe if you seek Him, you will find Him. It could be tomorrow or it could be several years. Don’t despair but in the meantime cling to each other and your children. Cling to what you know is true. Your love for your family is no small thing and here is real joy to be found every day. I will be praying too.

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    • Thank you for these words! I love the verse in 2 Chronicles 15 spoken to Asa: “The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you.” I’m hoping for a son someday, and I will name him Asa. We haven’t forsaken God—we are seeking. If he is true, does the promise not hold—despite how far we feel and seem from belief?

      We are indeed surrounded by joy. Thanks for your prayers.

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  4. Let me first off say just how sorry I am for any pain you are experiencing as a result of that “prognosis.” However, I agree with Howie that this is something you probably need to hear and consider. As you know, my own husband stepped away from the Christian faith almost six years ago. I did as well for several months, only to find myself eventually joining a different faith community without him. Granted, my Christian faith has shifted quite dramatically from what it used to be, which is why I found this new faith community to be so refreshing and welcoming. However, it was very difficult and quite painful for me to be part of something in which my husband was not. In the first couple of years after I started attending this church, I kept hoping and praying that he would decide to join me. After all, our shared beliefs were a major foundation for our relationship when we got married, and I did worry that somehow this would damage it. Honestly, early on I didn’t talk to him too much about my internal struggle. I knew he was in a fragile state at that time, and I did not want him in any way feel like he had somehow let me down or reneged on our marriage vows.

    In the last few years, however, we have been able to discuss this much, much more. My husband has been very open about his struggle with me but worried initially that his decision to step away from the Christian faith would make me want to leave him. Quite the opposite has happened. We have found our relationship to be stronger than ever, and we accept and love each other for who we were, who we are now, and who we will be. He has never once berated me for attending church and continuing along my faith journey; instead, he has encouraged me, and I have genuinely tried to do the same for him. Do I still hope that someday he may find his path returning him to the Christian faith? Absolutely! I’d be lying if I said otherwise. However, I can’t make or force him to believe what I believe, and I am fully aware of the fact that his own inward journey and quest for meaningfulness is quite personal and is something he must do alone. But much like the crowds on the sidelines cheering the marathon runners, I am here for him and will encourage and support him along this path.

    I apologize for this lengthy post. However, my heart goes out to you because I have been in a similar situation. Granted, I don’t have children, and I know that adds another layer that I simply cannot understand. Please know, though, that I am here for you. I don’t have the answers for you, nor do I necessarily know what to say, but I would be happy to be a listening ear and walk alongside you on this journey.

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  5. Pingback: What If You Don’t Come Back? | russell & pascal

  6. Hello J,

    I can’t tell you how much your honest reflections mean to me. You defended my intentions better than I ever could. You are less like a Chihuahua and more like a Labrador – – faithful. Howie reflected the feedback of a true friend. And Tammy can offer hope from an authentic perspective that I have not lived. I do have hope, ultimate hope. I just wanted you to imagine a world where our friend would reject Christ, but accept you. Please don’t worry about his intellect discounting yours. Russell is one of the most humble people I know. There is room in his philosophy for not just less intelligent people (most of us) but for people of different intelligence. Oliver Sacks describes the paradigmatic and the narrative mind as two beautiful ways of seeing the world. Russell shades toward the former, you and I the latter.

    I also very much appreciate the feedback from Victoria and others who have gone through a leaving and arriving from faith to secular compassion. Victoria and I have yet to discuss the placebo effect. The one video link that she left on R&P a while ago helped me to process much of my charismatic upbringing. She spends tens, probably hundreds, of hours in study and in support of people who are hurting. I frankly admire her and don’t want to be cruel in her eyes. Like you, the opinions of others probably mean too much to me – – an idol not yet dimmed by twilight.

    Home and Spirit said not to despair – – to cling to your husband, your children, and if I heard her right – – your God. I feel that she wrote it with compassion, and I’m so glad that she’s here. Russell and I will meet for breakfast tomorrow morning. I’m content to be his friend and to let my life be the apologetic. I’m thankful that you are willing to take this discussion to a public table. There are so many ways that such a painful journey can go wrong. One thing that is going right – – the Christ-follower, who accepts the authority of scripture, absolutely does not have liberty to leave an unbelieving spouse who loves her and her children. I’ve seen men and women leave spouses under the veil of “they aren’t spiritual enough”. That just isn’t right.

    If Russell does not return to faith, then you’ll have (get to) continue to build on a solid foundation of love, respect, and memories shared. Your marriage will be blessed for your sake, for your children’s sake, and for his – – all children of God. Although Russell’s intellect finds an impassable trail at this time, his spirit still bears the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self control. In any prognosis, any bad news delivered to heart unready, realism and hope form a vital yin and yang. One without the other is cruelty.

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    • You have been gracious to me, Pascal. I knew I was okay when my primary reaction to our readers was not to bask in their sympathy—but rather to ensure that your character and intentions were not in question. I think my defense of your intentions came before my understanding—and actually helped bring it about. You can know you really trust someone when you are willing to defend his heart before you understand it. You have earned my trust and the privilege of speaking openly. I know you said no apology was needed, but I’m still sorry if my original post failed to paint a clear picture of what you said and what you meant by it.

      Realism and hope…”One without the other is cruelty.” I agree. I do have hope, and I am realistic. Russell and I understand the odds. We have understood them without assigning words to them. The words you offered had not been spoken in our home—because words are powerful.

      But because you said them, we’ve had a new conversation in our home, and it’s an important one. “Maybe he’s right, and even then—I will never leave.” I’ve assured Russell for a while now that I am committed (regardless of my views of scripture), but that assurance has never come on the heels of a verbal acknowledgment of what is likely considering the current state of things (without God intervening in an obvious way to change the course). I had never before said to him “Even if I reach a place of belief and could see into our future and know with certainty that you will never believe, I will stay.” Now I have—even though this hypothetical situation is impossible (I could never know with certainty), it was important for him to hear my position. Words are powerful.

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