A jailhouse tattoo on the forearm of a San Quentin inmate: that’s when I first saw the word. We were in a visiting room, seated under harsh fluorescent light as I interviewed him for an article.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s the Chinese character for crisis,” he said, “but it’s made up of two symbols, one meaning danger, the other opportunity.”
“Why did you put it there?” I asked.
His smile said, I was hoping you’d ask.
“Because the events that led to my incarceration, along with the danger in a place like this, actually gave me the opportunity to turn my life around.”
Since then I’ve learned that this translation of 危机, wēijī, is incorrect. But the cultural trope remains, especially in America, popularized in speeches by John F. Kennedy, Condoleeza Rice, Al Gore, and scores of motivational speakers.
On New Year’s Eve, 2017, I thought of wēijī as a loved one said to me, “Krin, I want to talk with you about my crisis of faith.”
Nothing stirs me more than discussing spiritual matters. These are messages from the deepest fronts of our Selves, struggles that reflect the essence of why we are created. I was all ears.
She told me that she is increasingly skeptical of her traditional Christianity. It began with simple questions about other religions. How could she claim that hers was the only valid path, especially when she saw that happenstance of birth and culture clearly mold our beliefs?
Her thinking crystallized after she saw The Book of Mormon. She considered the fantasies of that faith: a soothsayer translating golden plates, Jesus appearing to Mesoamericans after his resurrection, a lost tribe of Israel that flourished in North America but left no shred of archaeological evidence.
“How can people believe such bizarre events?” she said with a laugh. “Then I thought about my own tradition with Jesus: a virgin birth, miracles like walking on water, the supposed need for blood shedding, resurrection from the dead.”
When I asked why she used the word crisis, she talked about the shifting ground beneath her feet, the potential judgement of others, her anxiety about the future. Would faith remain in any form at all?
When she was finished, I recalled some words from the late James Fowler: “When we are grasped by the vision of a center of value and power more luminous, more inclusive and truer than that to which we are devoted, we initially experience the new as the enemy or the slayer—that which destroys our ‘god.’”
Then I shared my journey, one human being to another. I talked about my grasp of Fowler’s Stages of Faith, especially the movement from 3 to 4. It’s a time to emerge from the spoon-fed acculturation of family and nation. A time to step outside our boxes and see the beauty of other beliefs. A time of both/and, not either/or. A time of release from the creeds and doctrines that too often calcify our brains and spiritual development. A time to join the pilgrimage of all people in our common humanity. This is the ancient way mentioned in Psalm 139:24 of the Hebrews.
“I deeply admire your courage,” I told her. “And I believe that what you label a crisis is actually a beautiful opportunity. It’s a calling to experience the universal love that lights the path of all our journeys. Let’s keep talking. I, and countless others, are with you!”
On the cusp of a new year, what a joy to be part of this birthing!