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My Spiritual Relationship With My Father

A Personal Perspective: Interactions of a theist and an agnostic.

Key points

  • A spiritual perspective can give meaning to life, and allows viewing difficult events with equanimity.
  • Finding meaning in life does not require a belief in a higher power.
Ricardo Esquivel/Pexels
Source: Ricardo Esquivel/Pexels

My father and I had a close relationship. He was a brilliant scientist and scholar with major interests in a broad range of subjects, including science, politics, art, music, history, Judaism, education, and computers. He was the author of many articles and books about all of these topics, with the exception of music.

My father traveled widely across the globe and enjoyed collecting wood carvings from artists all over the world. He maintained a major league library of more than 15,000 books. He was very devoted to his wife and children and joyfully shared his interests with all of us.

It is easier to list what my father was uninterested in. He did not like sports, popular culture, or modern music. He had little patience with bureaucracy. And he had little insight into his own emotions. For example, when my father listened to a moving musical composition, sometimes my mother noted tears on his face. But he would not acknowledge that he felt any emotion.

For much of his life, my father was agnostic. He grew up in Israel as a non-religious Jew, as were most Israelis of his generation. Many Jews lost faith in God because of their experiences with the Holocaust. Fortunately, my father’s parents left the free city of Danzig in 1933, before the start of World War II, and moved to Palestine (which became Israel in 1948).

Even though my father was not a religious Jew, he taught me a lot about the history and religion of Judaism. And even though he was agnostic, he enthusiastically helped me think up existential questions to ask my patients when I first encountered the opportunity to interview a subconscious, such as “Have you been to heaven or met God?”

We had many discussions regarding my growing spirituality and belief in God. For me, a spiritual perspective gave meaning to life and allowed me to view difficult events in my medical career with a measure of equanimity. I asked my father how he could find meaning in life and maintain a helpful perspective without a belief in a reason for our existence other than “chance.”

My father explained that his pride in the history and accomplishments of the Jewish people sustained him and gave him reason to be fully invested in improving the human condition. Unlike me, my father did not appear to have a need to believe in a greater force to help define his life mission.

That being said, I think that my father was quite spiritual but could not recognize this, similar to how he was detached from his emotional reaction to music. For example, he was fascinated by the answers given to me by the subconscious of my patients and said at times that he wished he could believe what they reported as true. He concluded that as a scientist, he could not believe what could not be proven but allowed for the possibility that he might find out otherwise someday.

The Toll of Dementia

In his 80s, my father, unfortunately, developed frontotemporal lobe dementia. This illness robbed him of his empathy, rational decision-making ability, and the ability to see the gray in life between white and black. Thus, when he was 85, he declared to me that he was certain there was no God.

My father’s last year of life was very difficult for him and my family. He became increasingly agitated because he could not understand why people disagreed with him. It was a true observation because the family was trying to explain to him why he was making wrong decisions. He could not comprehend that he was thinking incorrectly and instead concluded that it was we who were erroneous in our thinking. We learned to stop arguing with him or explaining our points of view because he could not comprehend us and would become agitated.

One interaction I had with him by telephone illustrates the problem. I called him at his home, where he received 24/7 support from a nursing aide. He said to me, “Tell them to take me home.”

“Tell who take you home?” I asked.

“Tell them.”

“Who are they?”

“My helpers. Tell them to take me home.”

“I’m confused, dad. Where are you?”

“I’m home.”

“OK. So what do you want me to do?”

“Tell them to take me home!”

“I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“Tell them to take me home!”

“But you are home,” I protested.

“Tell them to take me home!”

I sighed. “I think we need to end this conversation.”

He became agitated. “Why can’t you just do what I tell you? Tell them to take me home.”

“OK, dad,” I finally kind of understood. “I’ll tell them to take you home.”

“Great,” he said in apparent relief. “When?” he asked me slyly.

“When do you want?” I asked.

“Don’t play games with me!” he snapped. “When are they going to take me home?

“Tomorrow,” I offered.

“Good!” he said and calmed down.

By the next day, he had forgotten the whole discussion. I learned that even if he made an impossible request, I should go along with it as long as it was safe. Later, I learned that it is not uncommon for people dealing with dementia at home to request that they be taken home. Many people assume that this request is because the state of dementia causes confusion, and thus the affected person cannot recognize their location.

However, I wondered if my father’s request to take him home was related to his wish to go back to a previous home in his life. Or was it to take him to his spiritual home? As I thought of it, I remembered another conversation I had with him. He said to me, “Throw me over the fence.”

“What do you mean?”

“Over the fence, to the other side.”

I wondered why my dad, who had declared there was no God, was implying that there was another side beyond this life.

I discussed with my mother what I thought was going on with my father’s soul during this difficult period of time. I told her that I thought his soul was intact but just could not express itself through a diseased brain. How did I know that? Since I learned from my patients that souls appear to pass from one life to another, it stands to reason that souls are not affected irreparably by life events.

In the next blog, I will describe what occurred at the last stage of my father’s life and beyond.