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Faith in the Face of Failure: Well-being conversations at the University of Bristol Multifaith Chaplaincy.

After enjoying lunch at the Multifaith Chapliancy with fellow students, a recent feature on the Humans of Bristol University series, I entered into ‘Faith Conversations: Well-being and the University’ with staff and students. This perceptive conversation was led by Chaplains from different faith traditions, namely Sister JinHo (Buddhist Chaplain), Ed Davis (Coordinating Chaplain) and Jacqueling Conradie-Faul (International Student Chaplain).

(Ed opens the discussion)

When we talk about well-being, we are not only referring to the biomedical aspect. Universally, we all possess fundamental needs that must be met if we are to survive and thrive. We need hope, meaning, understanding, connection, belonging, and acceptance. We need some sense of balance and beauty, though these can appear like high and lofty concepts.

It’s not merely the absence of difficulties, but acknowledging the presence of love, acceptance, and belonging in spite of difficulties. This is where faith, by that I mean faith in a broad sense: nature, relationships, activities, or some higher deities can bring feelings of love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.

There is room for difficulty and suffering within well-being, as these feelings are what is part of being human. It is not merely the absence of things such as failure that will give rise to well-being. In the prospect of failure, there is adventure, there is thrill, I think we must also think about failure more holistically.

In light of all this, the faith tradition which I participate in tends to place the inevitability of suffering at the heart of the doctrine. I mean the image of the crucifix, the image of Christianity, represents the image of suffering. Some thinkers have interpreted life as knowing how to live with suffering, how to lessen our adverse response to suffering, and learning how to suffer well.

Should we accept institutional failures then? What does this acceptance of suffering mean for justice?

I don’t think we benefit from trying to repress and erase the prospect of pain and failure that we will inevitably encounter throughout our time at University and beyond. An acceptance of life’s contingency helps us to respond with ease to the unplanned events we must encounter throughout our life.  That is not to say we should never commit to social justice causes, campaigns, and virtuous actions on the basis of hope and faith – on the contrary. This acceptance should not prevent us from committing to some cause greater than ourselves.

Ed draws my attention to an extract from DH. Lawrence’s Shadows.

DH. Lawrence’s poem points out that even in the darkest shadows we can still find moments of well-being, his poetic thought reminds us that is possible to attain moments of well-being in the face of uncertainty, ambivalence, and impermanence.In the face of life’s uncertainty, we must maintain a certain ounce of faith in the more ephemeral moments of beauty and connection.

“And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown,
it is breaking me down to its own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”

Lawrence’s poem resonated with everyone in the room. We agreed the poem touched on something universal and beautiful: the resurrection of beauty in the face of darkness.

In thinking about this poem and the theme of Faith in the Face of Failure, I ask how would you reply to those who are sceptical of faith? Or console those who struggle to sustain a commitment to something a bit more self-transcendent?

Of course, some people worry that faith is too often used as a crutch – and sometimes it is. But I cannot jump to over-generalisations about the values of faith; I prefer to see the search for faith as akin to finding and putting on glasses to see the world with more clarity – this clarity will not always open up pleasurable experiences. But if we do not sustain a hopeful commitment to something: whether that be nature, science, justice or any valuable human endeavour, then how can we begin to orientate ourselves and find a way to push on in the face of inevitable disappointment?

Jacqueline: Also, we should point out the work of action groups when we think about how we can set our values and faith into practice. The Local Government Association worked with Faith Action to see how faith groups can promote health and well-being. Their work came across communities and groups that share their material and human resources generously, their buildings, and their social networks to secure well-being not only for their own community but the society at large. I found this to be quite useful. In Bristol, we have come across these examples of generous interfaith support quite often. The Bristol International Students Centre that is supported by a multitude of different faith networks contribute time, support at foodbanks and food waste prevention centres – it is truly remarkable to see how students benefit from this. There are so many avenues where people can learn to express and practice faith. It can be as big or as small as they deem fit.

Do you think practicing virtue on the basis of faith is conducive to good well-being then?

Sister JinHo: When someone acts out of kindness, whether that be a professor or a peer in your lectures, we have to remember that these kind acts are the fruit of something else. Something that required experience, growth, and cultivation prior to the fruit.

James: I also believe we need to have faith in our own abilities as well as faith in something larger than ourselves. We need faith when something does not go to plan, a faith that things will at some point get better. I have been practicing meditation each morning for about five days in a row, I have seen the positive outset of this practice, even though it might not be a direct result. Initially, I found it quite tough and I am sure I was not practicing as much as Sister JinHo would expect, but I am now feeling the benefit.

Elizabeth: Holding a faith in yourself is so important. Finding this faith and maintaining a sense of self-compassion can be so difficult. We grow up in educational settings which are so result-driven. The pressures to score the top grades from GCSE to A-Level are brought forth into University. We expect so much from ourselves now. When we focus solely on the results of our assessment, and work only with these in minds, we often neglect the other valuable parts of ourselves that we derive energy from in order to thrive. I think we need to look more holistically at our university experience so we can grow as people as well as academics.

As the Faith and Well-being conversation draws to a close and we all take a moment to appreciate the discovery of new illuminating perspectives on how to maintain reasonable levels of well-being both inside and outside University.

BILT Student Fellow, Owen Barlow

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