Swimming in Unbelief

Words by: Emma Ussing
Art by: Naiyanat Sornratanachai 

When I left land that day, I felt sure — I am fine, that looks so easy — but when I finished swimming out and turned around, the shore seemed impossibly far away. I was unable to see and unable to swim. In the cove where I entered the lagoon the water was completely still, but out here at the navigation buoy it’s deep, choppy, and the tide is pulling me away from the shore. 

Before almost drowning in the Mexican lagoon, I had spent most of my young life not realising I was angry that there was no God, no justice, no mercy, and certainly no salvation. It seemed that everyone who believed in a higher power was deluded and gullible; that those like me who tried to embrace logic, science and political fairness were doomed to face the problems and misery of the world alone. 

In my Lutheran primary school, it seemed that there was no escaping the terrible nature of all humanity. The constant condemnation of people and their actions, the impossibility of being without sin, and the need to ask for forgiveness seemed at odds with the guiding message: be a good person and do good things. 

I became more confused when I attended Sunday church services that seemed never to mention this awfulness. The Uniting Church didn’t seem to know that everyone is so sinful. 

It didn’t seem that anyone could have deserved the tragic fates that befell them. I still cannot accept the platitude that ‘God must have needed someone in heaven’ as truth — it’s not comforting while mourning all those lives not lived.  

As I got older and began learning about the atrocities committed in the name of religion — overt massacres, insidious persecution and the silencing of abuse, to name just a few — I wondered how people could believe in and support these institutions. In a world with so much injustice, poverty, disease and conflict, surely people realise that if there is a God, he does not care about us.

Why do people believe in a God? 

Why is there so much suffering?

Why can’t we, as humans, get it right for each other?

If you just look hard enough surely there must be answers.

If I keep wading through all of the knowledge and information and reach the navigation buoy, I must be able to see enough, to understand enough and have a wide enough gaze to figure it all out.   

I’ve been asking these questions for over a decade and am still no closer to figuring it out.


I got to the buoy, and for a moment, I could hold all of the answers to all of the questions I hadn’t realised were driving me. In a single moment connected with God, I could understand and feel the truth of everything.

But then, the journey back to land. 

I lived in a dangerous part of a dangerous city, in a dangerous country. Three adults to a one-bedroom apartment. After months of travel and long Covid, when we were awake we argued. A son trying to care for his disabled mother, both carrying heavy emotional baggage from long before I arrived. One would fall into a trance stance but never really sleep. The other slept all the time. 

Beside myself with fear that the flight back to Australia would be cancelled or delayed again or that my bank account would finally hit zero and I would never make it home, I almost never slept. 

The nights I was most isolated, seemingly unable to swim at all, I longed with a desperation that I had never felt before to see the stars as they are from my southern-hemisphere bedroom. In these moments, there was the realisation that a higher power would deliver me to where I needed to go. 

The obvious struggles of grinding through the pandemic don’t seem like the sexiest way to return to thinking about God. I still have my qualms about the contradictions in the Christian understanding of a God that grants eternal life to those sinners who ask for forgiveness. 

Being back on solid ground, I am grateful to whatever force delivered me to safety. Back in my real life when anxiety, doubt and cynicism creep forward in my mind, I am able to remember and appreciate my moment of clarity on the buoy. 

Believing with complete certainty that everyone wants a peaceful existence and good things for their loved ones, I am filled with hope that, despite the horrific fracturing of society, humanity has a common goal. Everyone is in some way contributing to all of the institutions that keep society more or less together. Finding this hope and trust lets me retire the anxiety that I need to find all of the solutions to all of the problems.

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