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 Stockdale, 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.

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