I wrote the essay in the first few months of my gap year, when my friends were off at school and I was still lost in the ‘dark wood’ I try to describe. Despite the somewhat clunky writing (it’s hard to sell yourself in 500 words or less), I treasure it now as a glimpse into where I was before I took my first steps in the direction my life has now taken.
I’d also like to thank, before I post this, my wonderful godmother and her husband, who each read the essay over and offered me suggestions and notes for improvement. More than that, I’d also like to thank my godmother for helping me out of that dark wood and supporting me every step of the way, from there to where I am now.
I hope you enjoy.
“Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.”
Heresy. Murder. Conspiracy. Elaine Pagels travels as she speaks, looking from one student to the next. Her words convey struggle, and her hands gesture swiftly through the air, conjuring images of discord and conflict between early religious sects. But this is not the story that brought me to her classroom.
Rather, it is the one I encountered in the early pages of her sixth book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. There I found her story; that of a woman lost, trying to come to terms with the terminal diagnosis of her young son. Already a renowned biblical scholar, she found herself looking to belief to give her the solace and answers she needed; but while she found comfort in her religious community, she could not identify with the traditional credo recited every week in church. This experience led her to write Beyond Belief, an exploration of what belief is, and how it developed to become virtually synonymous with the acceptance of a certain set of convictions.
The questions in her book resonated so strongly with me because I had come to them myself. For a year before discovering her story, I had watched my younger brother struggle with chronic pain, fatigue, and anxiety. The prospect of oblivion, in place of eternity, had always weighed on me; but in watching his distress, I experienced a greater fear than that of infinite nothingness. If everything ultimately proved to be ephemeral, then his suffering was potentially meaningless; not a test, just a struggle.
I sought answers where I was told I could find them, both in scholarship and in spirituality. But while I longed for the conviction that others seemed to have when I felt so lost, I found it impossible to assent to beliefs that I still questioned. I needed to find answers within myself, and yet, I felt lost braving such enormous questions on my own. It was somewhere in that dark wood that I discovered Beyond Belief.
Beyond Belief is not a memoir, but an academic work. Elaine Pagels’ personal story serves only as an introduction, but what inspired me was her ability to anchor an intellectual quest in personal experience and transcend it through the power of scholarship. It is what gave me the confidence to combine my own personal and intellectual journeys, what led me to audit her class at a university, and inspired me to venture down the unfamiliar paths of biblical scholarship and the study of belief.
Of course, I still question, and I remain as unsure of the purpose of the universe as most of my peers. But Elaine Pagels has shown me a way to seek this meaning, both in my life, even in its unavoidable brevity, and through the timeless lens of scholarly inquiry.
Yes, I remember the essay. You speak with such authenticity, there is such heartfelt passion about the things you say: this is the thing I always admire about your writing, that it has this soulful quality that is so inspiring to others.
The “dark wood,” is that an allusion to Dante’s “selva oscura”? If so, it’s nice to think that Dante, after losing the way in that dark wood in the first few cantos, did eventually reach Paradise.
I like your seriousness, your desire to find the purpose of the universe.
I always tell myself (and others) not to take life too serious.
But isn’t that the easy way out?