Piggyback Belief



I have always lacked faith, believing instead in life’s shrewd certainties. When I went to the Bronx for in-patient drug treatment, I felt my chances were slim. I had been using heroin for ten years in my small hometown in Pennsylvania, and New York City seemed like exactly the wrong place to kick a heroin habit. But I found a challenge and urgency in the Bronx that pulled me through treatment.

Despite my success, I didn’t think I would last long outside treatment. I didn’t want to feel ambivalent, but I was trying to be realistic: I had no family ties to New York City, no job skills, and no education.

I got assigned an AA sponsor, who I eventually went to meet at a busy downtown diner in Manhattan. I told him what I was thinking. Wiping fried chicken from his fingers and mouth, he leaned forward. “Do you believe that I believe you can stay sober?” As soon as he said it, he waved his hand in my face and added, “Now listen here! I’m not asking if you believe any of this. I’m asking, if you believe that I believe it.” He jerked his thumb into his chest.

This wasn’t a hard question. Bob was a successful professional, who had been cheerfully taking nightly phone calls from me for over two months. I knew he believed.

“You?” I said. “Sure.”

His fist came sailing down and hit the Formica table, jangling all the flatware and water glasses. “You, my friend, are going to make it!” He said this with so much gravity and conviction it made me gasp.

People at nearby tables raised their heads, but Bob ignored them. He explained that all you needed was a tiny bit of belief to get by. I leaned back and chuckled. I don’t know that I felt any better about my circumstances, but I was certain of this: Bob believed I would make it. And I did.

Five years later I was working on a BA at Hunter College. My mother called to say that my oldest brother had cancer. His chances sounded grim. Mom, an ardent Christian, was holding out hope. I wanted to be realistic. I told Mom we ought to prepare ourselves for the worst.

“Nope,” Mom said. “Huh-uh.”

She said this with so much gravity and conviction, I knew I had said the wrong thing. I let it go, got off the phone. Months later, Mom called to report my brother was in complete remission. She didn’t gloat, but she let me know I was wrong.

And I was.

When it comes to belief, there isn’t much I can do about my lack of conviction: I am who I am. Mom believes in the power of faith and prayer. If a little belief is truly all you need (and I believe it is), then I believe that my belief, in my mother’s belief, ought to be enough belief, to get me by.

One thought on “Piggyback Belief

  1. Tim Elhajj says:

    This essay is part of the This I Believe project.

    These short statements of belief are archived on the ThisIBelieve.org website, heard on public radio, and featured in weekly podcasts. The project is based on the popular 1950s radio series hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

    You can find Piggyback Belief on the ThisIBelieve.org website.

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