Faith, Existentialism, and Worthy Ways to Spend Time

By Rob Shaul

I’ve never been a “faithful person” in the traditional, religious sense. And in my life, while I’ve know many “religious” people, I’ve known just a handful who carry strength from true faith. I envy them.

Strong faith can be a difference maker in horrible situations.

In his book, Confessions of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, Medal-of-Honor Winner, and senior officer at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War, James Stockade, writes that his fellow prisoners who had strong Christian Faith, understood that life is not fair. The Bible’s Book of Job articulates this clearly –  that God permits evil in this world, and with it, unmerited suffering.

This understanding, writes Stockdale, allowed those faithful prisoners to avoid the destructive self-pitying and circular “why me” internal dialogue, and helped them endure the torture from their Vietnamese captors.

Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, similarly described how his fellow faithful concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz were able to endure that terrible, dehumanizing experience by having faith that God was allowing this for a reason – even though they could not explain it.

Other prisoners, without the strength from strong faith, could easily fall into the  soul-crushing thinking that what was happing to them was random and meaningless – leaving them powerless.

I can clearly remember when my own belief about a higher power crystalized. It was during the midnight watch as the deck officer on a Coast Guard Buoy Tender when I was 23 years old.

The mysteries and perfection I observe in nature and the universe cause me to believe in some type of Divine, creative “force.” The closest I’ve read that best matches my believe is the Stoic’s idea of “Nature.”

However, I don’t believe Nature has a plan for me. Rather, I believe Nature is indifferent to my existence or well-being. Nature’s going to do it’s own thing, and it’s up to me to make the best of it.

If I was adrift in a lifeboat, Nature may send a storm that could doom me, or a strong breeze and school of fish which could save me … but whatever Nature chooses to do has nothing to do with me or my well being. Nature does its own thing.

Rather, it’s up to me to use the supplies I have in my small lifeboat, and my own grit and resourcefulness, to make the best of what Nature sends my way.

Similarly, I’m not sure there’s a Heaven or Hell, or any kind of afterlife. There might be, and that would be great if so, but I’m okay with the idea that there isn’t. I’m at rest with the notion that when I die, I’ll be gone forever.

For this reason, I’ve always had trouble with the coercive foundation of organized religion – the belief that in order to reach the afterlife, I must behave in a certain way during my time on Earth.

However, I’m also not fully an existentialist. I’m no authority on Existentialism, but from what I understand, Existentialism purports that human life was not planned, but was rather the result of chance or accident. Therefore, taken to the extreme, what we do with our time on Earth does not matter.

I believe it does matter, and feel deep guilt if I think I’m not using my time well. And to be clear, until recently, “using my time well” meant working.

The Stoics don’t help here. Epictetus writes in his handbook, Enchiridion, “Don’t get too far from your purpose.” Clearly to me this means don’t get too far from your work, craft, and/or professional career.

I work everyday, mind you … partly out of guilt, partly out of love, and partly out of fear. I’ve founded several businesses, and being a business owner means being scared all the time – because you know how fragile your baby is. Businesses fail every day, and even thought MTI is going on 16 years old now, 17 years is not guaranteed. Business survival means constant diligence and constant worry.

All of this brings me to the examination of Worthy Ways to Spend Time.

This Summer, I’ve been doing quite a bit of fishing. More specifically, I’ve been driven to fish. It’s become a second job.

Part of the reason is equipment. There’s natural evolution of a self-taught trout fisherman: first is bait fishing (worms); next comes lure fishing (spinners); finally comes fly fishing. I’ve been fly fishing for 30 years now.

Until this Summer, my fly fishing was condensed to the first two weeks in July when the rivers and creeks near my home clear up after the Spring runoff, and the fish are hungry and easy to catch.

Over the years I’ve worked to make my fly fishing as simple and minimalist as possible – I’ve fished with a cheap, light, 1-weight fly rod, cheap reel, and just two flies – a dry fly attractor pattern, and a black wooly bugger.

I wade-fish only, wearing shorts, t-shirt, and old approach shoes soled with sticky rubber. My small fly box, tippet and floatant are stored in my shorts pocket.

In early July, I brought out and rigged up a Tenkara rod I bought on a whim last year, but have never used.

Tenkara is a Japanese style of fly fishing and is even more simple than the fly fishing I’ve done for years.. There’s no reel on a Tenkara rod. The line is simply tied to the end of the rod, and the fly to the end of the line. It’s super simple, easy to cast, one-handed and minimalist.

So this day in early July I tied on one of my buggy attractor patterns to the end of the Tenkara line, and drove 10 minutes to a small creek to test it out. Within minutes I’d caught my first cutthroat – an small 8-incher – and was giggling like a little boy after I’d landed him.. There’s really not a whole lot of difference between a Tenkara rod an a traditional fly rod, but for whatever reason, that Tenkara rod changed fishing for me.

Speaking of little boy, my 6-year old son, Colt, is a fishing fanatic and natural talent.

I skipped bait fishing and went right to spinner fishing with him, and he’ll often fly fish with his own Tenkara rod.

Colt eagerly soaks up all my knowledge of how to read the water, where to find the fish, how to cover the promising trout water with lure or fly. He’s learning how to cast and reel downstream without snagging the spinner, and how to cast and mend the Tenkara line for a perfect drift.

His enthusiasm has rubbed off on me and I find myself sneaking off without him to fish new water, fish old water in new ways and otherwise increase my own knowledge to share with him.

Together we’ve taken a few overnight “fishing adventures” to some of the famous trout fisheries near our Wyoming home. We can fish for hours together.

A lot of  “fishing together” is actually Colt who is fishing – while my time is spent unsnagging his rod or untangling his line while he uses my rod. Often, by the time I have his rod unsnagged or untangled ,he will have my rod snagged up or tangled  …. you can see the pattern.

When I do happen to catch a fish and he’s nearby, Colt will drop his rod, snatch mine out of my hand, land the fish and claim it as his!

Often he’ll get distracted and forget fishing to catch snakes, frogs, bugs and minnows. Which is okay with me. I like snakes, frogs, bugs, and minnows too.

Colt’s super competitive, trash talks with the best of them, and tells Mom fish stories about catching “river monsters.” At night, before bed when he gets iPad time, Colt watches YouTube fishing videos of rednecks in Florida catching Goliath grouper, peacock bass, sharks and catfish.

My own father was killed in a plane crash when I was four, and his father, my grandfather, died of liver failure when my father was twelve. My uncle once described my grandfather as a “great outdoorsman” and that’s always stuck with me.

Fishing with my son today, I thought about this, and how I would like to be described to my grandchildren as a “great outsdoorsman” someday as well.

The problem is, being a “great outdoorsman” doesn’t just happen. It takes effort, and more importantly, time.

As well, I’ve written before about the “wind in my face” of my looming death. The average lifespan of an American man is currently 78 years old. I’m 54, and given the current state of my ankles (one fusion already), knees, low back, and hips (one replacement already) I’m thinking I’ve got at most 10, and more likely, 5-7 years left to really  hammer it in the outdoors.

I could only have five bow hunting seasons left, five more years of wade fishing, etc. So I feel distressing urgency to spend time outdoors learning all I can.

Pushing back is my guilt over missing work.

Today was Monday and I got up early, worked all morning, and took Colt fishing in the afternoon. I missed the afternoon work session.

It’s cliche to respond that fishing with Colt is being a “great Dad” and an obvious Worthy Way to Spend Time.

But in truth, I went fishing today just as much for my own recreation and the to build my outdoorsman knowledge and craftsmanship.

My first role as “Dad” is to provide a solid financial base, safe home, and future for my children – which means work. My own father left my Mom widowed with four little kids and a mountain of debt that took her decades to dig out from. This haunts me and I won’t do the same.

Spending time with my son aside, I wonder: Is working to become a “great outdoorsman” a Worthy Way to Spend Time? Is working on a craft outside your profession worth time away from work? Am I drifting too far from my “purpose”?

I sure want it to be.

6 thoughts on “Faith, Existentialism, and Worthy Ways to Spend Time

  1. Awesome write up. I’m challenged by this as I’m on my second marriage. My first didn’t outlast Iraq. My child from my first marriage is grown and out on her own now. We fortunately have a wonderful relationship. I have a second chance at all of this (family) with my wife and young kids. She has endured child birth and stuck by me through 3 trips to Afghanistan. I’m 42 with toddlers. A girl and a boy. I just restarted the On Ramp program and my goal is to go all the way through the Greek Hero series. I want to stay fit with them until they graduate. At that time I’ll be 60. I definitely want to be climbing and fishing and hiking with them the whole way. Thanks for putting this to paper.

  2. Friend, I hope you come to know Jesus Christ as the Logos; the Creator of Nature. Jesus commands the wind to be still and it obeys him. Sleeping Posideon cannot even keep his own waters tame when Juno convinces Aeolus to release the winds.

    The World was created to bring Glory to God. He calls himself a Father and his breadth of Fatherhood is expansive. He crowned his Son as ruler of it all, he crushed his Son and expected him to give his own life for his people, he gave his Son deep deep friendships, he allowed his son to experience the most personal betrayals, he publicly announced how pleased he was with his son, he let his son expieience the harshest of shame, his son ate good food, drank good drink, laughed with his friends, loved children, helped people, healed people, and also worked very hard. He grew up as a craftsmen, he know how to work with his hands and his first three disciples were fishermen.

    I truly ask you to read the book of Ecclesiastes, I think you would enjoy it very much. My favorite verse in the bible comes from it “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God”. Ecclesiastes is written from a human perspective. It is like Job, but it is not poetry, it is contemplative philosophy. Ecclesiastes is what we see, but when we know that there is a perfect God who is guiding history towards the Summum Bonum, we can work hard, work well, come home, and enjoy Sabbath.

    Keep loving your son well.

  3. Rob, been a fan of your work for the last five years or so. A note on that at the end.

    Perhaps another way to approach the question, to borrow from the Christian perspective, is ask what has ‘Eternal Value’? Even if you don’t presuppose there is a God who rewards us for deeds on earth, it’s easy to see that many of our accomplishments and endeavors die with us. If work pays the bills and produces a quality product, there is honor in that. But more so, showing love to and helping others has a wholesomenss that transcends the moment it is shown in. Since you mention Colt, showing love to him . . . Well he only gets one dad.

    Thinking about the outdoors. I like what you say this Nature as the creative force behind the universe. If this Nature wasn’t apathetic towards us, but rather created the world for us, then spending time out in the world and thanking/appreciating it/him for it would have eternal value too.

    Back to fitness, I found your work through an article on another website (the article was titled “How to work out like a tier 1 operator”). I loved it partly because it sucked but more so because I felt it was effective. I was particularly tickled that a fitness plan would be named “Humility.” However, it was the intellectual link in analyzing the tactical athlete’s fitness demands that I think really launched my passion for fitness now. I had been in the Army 8 years then and I’m at 13 now, and I’m greatful for the way my fitness has allowed me to do my job and how my job justifies and fuels my passion/enjoyment of fitness.

  4. Indeed the mysteries and perfections seen in nature and the universe seem to showcase eternal power and a divine nature leaving us to wonder where did this all come from and ask why is there something rather than nothing? Is there really any meaning to life? If blind evolutionary materialism is true then we are part of a cosmic accident. There is no meaning, no morality. Purpose and morality only make sense if there is a Creator. Objective moral values and duties do not exist if God does not exist. Our moral intuition tells us that moral values do exist. There is a difference between helping an old lady across the street and pushing her into the street in front of a bus. There is a difference between the morality of Mother Teresa and that of the Nazi doctors. If these moral intuitions are true then God exists.

  5. I’m 70–relearning freestyle, lifting regularly, fighting on….and my son, Matt, who used to be a USCG rescue swimmer, now 42, is going to be a Dad in January; keeping my family tree alive. Your wonderful essay was a poignant reminder of the importance of time, your son. Thank you Rob.
    …..and maybe you’ll tell us more about that experience on that Coast Guard Buoy Tender.

  6. Solid writing. Good thoughts.
    In short my reply and or primary reaction is simple
    Jesus is the way the truth and the life. I’am thankful that my actions here on earth l, in this life will not and cannot “save me” or “make me good and right”. Jesus did all that was needed for my salvation. That is where my peace is.
    As for my work, recreation, family time. Always will be balancing struggle. I work harder than I should. I love less than I should. I emphatically seek opportunities to spend time with my friends and family outdoors. There is no greater joy that I have seen in this life. I thank God I experienced this early in life, thank you Grandpa, Dad, Mom.
    I will expose this joy to all that I can with my ‘extracurricular time’.
    Jason Eastin

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