Click to view artist's paintings
On May 1, 2006, Beliefnet user Neil B.Woodward, a 59-year-old painter from Vancouver, set out on a bicycle ride across Canada. He hoped it would change his life, renew his faith in God, and reinvigorate his creative inspiration. From the start he encountered challenges that tested his already troubled spirit but is determinedly pedaling around them and into his future. Beliefnet has asked Woodward to share the joys and tribulations of his sojourn. He's filing these reports in three parts. In Part 2, below, he talks about his struggles with hopelessness and anger and his determination to persevere for the sake of his loved ones. Click here to read part 1 of Woodward's journey.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia—It took me a couple of days to replace my stolen belongings. During this time I managed to clarify what I hoped to accomplish with this bike trip. I decided that my purpose was not necessarily to reach Halifax within any given time, or even at all.
The trip was to be more an exploration of possibilities.
|The Nicolum River, beside the campground I stayed at in Hope, B.C.
Even without my laptop I tried to update my weblog at Internet cafés and public libraries along the way. I stopped for a day or two whenever I felt the need, and I put my life in God’s hands and let Him show me the way. I wanted to learn to trust in God completely; and with this in mind, there was one item from my stolen things that I decided not to replace. In 1994, my doctor told me that I “almost certainly” suffered from clinical depression, caused by a serotonin imbalance in my brain. He had prescribed antidepressants which he said I should probably take for the rest of my life. But his diagnosis was based entirely on what I had told him about my personal history; it was a diagnosis I had always questioned. To me my recurring bouts of hopelessness, despair, and fear of life meant only one thing—that I didn’t have enough faith in God or myself or anything else.
This bike trip seemed a perfect opportunity to prove I didn’t need artificial medications. I would be getting plenty of fresh air and exercise, eating well, and having an adventure every day. I would be learning to trust God completely. Why would I need anti-depressants?
My preparations completed, I cycled out of Vancouver, again heading east into the mountains of British Columbia, where I soon encountered the first in a series of long, steep mountain passes. I confronted my first right outside of Hope, B.C. and continued for 42 kilometers to its summit in Manning Provincial Park. It was so unrelenting that I had to push my heavily laden bike and trailer all the way up. At several points I almost passed out from the strain and my anger at God flared up again as I pressed on.
|To me my recurring bouts of hopelessness, despair and fear of life meant only one thing—that I didn’t have enough faith in God or myself or anything else.
I did make it, barely, by the end of the day, and over the next several weeks I climbed many more such passes, becoming stronger at a remarkable rate. For one five-day period I rode in the rain every day, arriving at my destination completely drenched. A couple of times I even had to set up my tent in the rain and then mop the inside dry with towels and clothes from my laundry bag before unpacking my bedding. Then I had to wash and dry the towels and laundry at a laundromat before going to bed.
At the end of one day, as I sat in a coffee shop, I met a fellow artist named Michael who invited me to have dinner with him and his wife and offered me his guest room for the night. I accepted, and later that evening after an excellent meal our conversation turned to spiritual matters.
Although raised Catholic, Michael had actually been an atheist since he was very young. To him it seemed that throughout history great suffering had been caused by people who believed they were obeying some imaginary deity. When I asked him what he thought about a God whose only directives were to love one another and be as positive and constructive as we could with whatever we were given in life, he became thoughtful.
|A Presqu’ile sunset
Michael almost cried before he could finish the story. Then he apologized, saying that he always choked up when he told it, not because he believed it, but simply because it was such a beautiful story. The next day, after I said my goodbyes and went on my way, I thought about Michael’s reaction. How could a confirmed atheist be so moved by a simple story about the love of God? I wondered if he really wanted to believe, but somehow couldn’t. I also wondered if God was “carrying” me right now, and who I would have been angry at had I been an atheist like Michael.
Early in June I reached the province of Alberta and spent several days visiting friends and family in Calgary. They had all read my weblog and seemed puzzled at my focus on spirituality.
Click to view artist's paintings
But as I rode across the prairies I became increasingly aware that I hadn’t updated my weblog since I had left British Columbia, because nothing seemed to be happening with the “spiritual part” of this “Spiritual Journey.” I hadn’t come any closer to resolving the frustration and disappointment I felt about my relationship with God. I decided to try and write down concisely why I felt this way. I knew I couldn’t possibly be justified, but I thought that by writing it down, I would see clearly where I had gone wrong in my thinking and the problem would be resolved.
|In a few years all of us will be gone, I thought, and in a few more years no one will know that any of us ever even existed.
By the time I reached Manitoba I had compiled a list of grievances. I was angry with God for making me an artist—an ill-advised, insecure, dangerous thing to be. I was angry about the abundance of hardship and the scarcity of joy in the world. I was angry about God’s seemingly endless demands for more faith despite an apparent paucity of results from the faith already invested. And I was angry about God’s reclusiveness. Why did He require us to keep trusting and believing that He is really there without ever giving us any corroboration? And I was angry about my own insignificance, and that of the whole world I live in.
In a few years all of us will be gone, I thought, and in a few more years no one will know that any of us ever even existed. The world as we know it will be gone forever. What possible significance or meaning can our lives have, knowing that?
In the small town of Nipigon, Northern Ontario my trip took a turn for the worse. For several days I had felt tired. My throat felt scratchy and I was coughing up a lot of phlegm. I tried to ignore these symptoms and press on because I wanted to reach the Atlantic Coast by the end of summer and doubted I could make it. I had spent too much time thinking, writing, and trying to update my weblog, as well as stopping to visit people and explore places. But in Nipigon I came down with a serious flu/cold-type virus and was forced to lay in my tent, incapacitated by fever, chills and nausea for six days.
When I finally recovered and continued into southern Ontario, I still didn’t feel well mentally or spiritually. I had tried many times to continue my weblog but nothing I wrote seemed to make sense. My list of grievances seemed pointless and the spiritual part of my journey seemed to have gone nowhere.
I visited a friend in Toronto and continued east along the north shore of Lake Ontario, through the beautiful farmlands of Durham and Northumberland counties, finally reaching a campground just east of Prescott, Ontario.
There my journey came to a halt again. I couldn’t go on without resolving my spiritual dilemma. I found an Internet café and read everything I had posted on my weblog to date. I decided it was all a lot of rubbish, so I added a new post apologizing for everything I had written so far, and expressing my utter hopelessness and despair at having failed in my spiritual journey. I wrote about my bitter disillusionment with God, who seemed to have led me around in circles and abandoned me without the answers I had been seeking. I’m not sure why I wrote this, but I think I was hoping someone out there would have been where I was spiritually, and would be able to tell me where I had gone wrong and how to resolve my dilemma.
|I wrote about my bitter disillusionment with God, who seemed to have led me around in circles and abandoned me without any of the answers I had been seeking.
What actually happened was completely different. I received concerned e-mails from several members of my family reminding me that I had two wonderful children, three sisters, and an extended family and friends who loved me very much. I was shocked. Surely they didn’t think I had forgotten that. They were by far the most wonderful thing in my life.
Suddenly I began to see how self-absorbed I had become. I was blessed with a loving family and friends and I was worrying them with my behavior. I also realized that despite being physically strong and healthy, I had become depressed.
I knew then what I had to do. God had given me a condition to live with, and it was up to me to accept proper treatment for it.
Next day I rode north to Ottawa, found a walk-in clinic and renewed my prescription for anti-depressants. Then I e-mailed everyone in my family and told them what happened.
The spiritual part of my journey may have been over and thieves may have stolen my belongings, I assured everyone, but the ride would continue until I reached Halifax on the Atlantic Coast.
Two days later I crossed a bridge into the French-speaking province of Quebec. I was getting closer.
(to be continued…)