The Agony of Belief, Or How to Keep Hope on Life Support

Audacity is helpful, but so is a stubborn inability to accept reality.

Illustration by Peter Oumanski


Having recently gated my garden to keep out the deer, I decide to plant something just beyond the gate so the landscape doesn’t look so bare.

Liven it up a bit, I say to myself. Give it some color.

I go to the nursery. The tag on a large purple astilbe has a picture of a deer with a red circle/slash across it.

“Deer don’t like these?” I ask the nursery employee.

He looks at the tag.

“Nope,” he says, pointing to the picture of a deer with a red circle/slash across it.

I take three of them, along with a bottle of Critter-Ridder deer repellent, just to be safe. I plant the astilbes that afternoon and give them a good dousing.

“Those look good, Dad,” says my son.

“They do,” I reply.


I learn that I am going to Italy on business. It will require a week’s stay, and so we decide to make a family trip of it.

“Guess what, kids?” I tell my kids that night at dinner. “We’re going to Italy!”

They cheer.

“We,” I say, “are going to have so much fun.”


I get an email from Michelle Obama.

Hello, Shalom, she writes.

Michelle doesn’t seem her usual upbeat self.

Do I know, she asks, that Barack is being outspent?

I do.

Do I want Barack, she inquires, to continue to advance his progressive agenda?

I do.

Do I want the Republicans, she begs, to undo all the hard work we have accomplished?

I do not.

Will I donate $75 right now, she wonders, to help us achieve victory?

I will.

Click here, she says.

I do.


I am a believer. I believe. It is the thing I hate most about myself, second only to my stubborn post-40 abdominal fat (but I believe these new fat burners I bought will get rid of that).

I drink SuperGreens in the morning because I believe it will protect me from death.

I take fish oil because I believe it will do whatever it is fish oil is supposed to do.

I bought a Penis Master because I believed it would make my penis bigger.

I wonder if maybe this tendency toward irrational belief is a vestige of my religious upbringing; having been raised to believe in An Answer, I can’t, even now, even as an adult, give up on the idea of one. Or perhaps it is just reaction against that upbringing—not just a rejection of the Savior I was promised, but a replacement of Him with innumerable quasi-substitutes. Or maybe—yes, this is probably it: maybe it’s just a weakness in me, a character flaw, an inability to face the reality that life is brutal and short, a gauntlet we have no choice but to walk through, unsaved, one day at a time?

I call my shrink to discuss it.

He can see me next Wednesday.

I believe he will help.


Michelle emails me to thank me for my contribution.

Thanks, Shalom, she writes. She seems happy again.

Will I take a moment and sign the President’s birthday card?

I will.

And will I donate another $75 to help us win in November?

Goddamn it.


We leave for Italy the following Wednesday afternoon. That morning, before heading off to JFK, I notice that the astilbes have been chewed.

It may have been deer. It may have been rabbits. It may have been something else.

“Those flowers don’t look so good,” says my son.

“No,” I reply. “They do not.”

Apply to dry foliage, says the Critter-Ridder bottle.

The foliage is dry.

Apply until saturated, it continues.

I apply until saturated.

“That spray,” says my son, “smells like pee-pee.”

“It does,” I reply.


The flight to Venice, announces the gate attendant, is delayed.

Goddamn it, I think.

Minor delays like this don’t usually annoy me so much, but what makes this delay so unbearable are the airport TV screens—they are everywhere, inescapable, and they are all tuned to CNN. And so for another interminable, suicide-inducing sixty minutes, I will be subjected, against my will, to the Republican National Convention. It’s almost as if they want me to blow up a plane.

I spend the next hour watching the convention, and watching the people around me watching the convention.

Fools, I think. Pawns. They’re buying it, buying all the promises, bowing down before their new lords and masters, hoping for the slightest bit of mercy and blessing.

At last the plane is ready for boarding. I find our seats, fasten my safety belt, listen to the cheerful directions in the event of a horrific crash, look down at my two wide-eyed children seated beside me, and silently pray to God.

Please let us land safely, Oh Lord, I pray.

I’ll do whatever You want.


Italy. La Penisola. La bel Paese.

The kids are jet-lagged and cranky. The streets here are impossible to navigate. Nobody in this whole damned country knows how to make a decent fucking martini. There’s nothing to eat but bread and pasta and I’m severely gluten intolerant; I packed two boxes of Immodium, and I’m already through both of them. My colon hates me. My rectum will never be the same.

“I want to go home,” says my son.

Me, too, says my asshole.


We get home a week later, and the astilbes are no more. The flowering stems have been completely chewed off, and the remaining flowers have dried up and turned brown.

“Those flowers,” says my son, “look dead.”

“They are,” I reply.


Barack emails me.

Hey Shalom, he writes.

We’re beyond Michelle now. Michelle can no longer help. Let’s leave Michelle out of this. It must be serious.

Do I know, Barack wonders, that the recent Citizens United ruling has opened up the floodgates of anonymous corporate contributions?

I do.

Am I aware, he asks, that the other side is planning on spending over a billion dollars to defeat him?

I do.

Do I want my children, he inquires, to grow up in a better America, a fairer America, a stronger America?

I do.

Will I, he wonders, contribute $169 before midnight to make sure that happens?

I will.

Click here, he says.

And I do. The Agony of Belief, Or How to Keep Hope on Life Support