Blog Archives

When the Atheist Went to Church

Small white wooden church at sunset.  Barren trees to the left, traces of snow on the ground,

Once a native, now a stranger. Photo by keeva999 via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1FPtg14

I am presently on vacation in a delightful corner of Pennsylvania, staying with two dear friends, Jason and Allen. Yesterday I joined them at their church, my first Christian service since 2008 and first service of any religion since 2012. I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home, and my friends wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But my friends are important to me, and I wanted to participate in something that was important to them.

We arrived at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ several minutes before the beginning of the second service, and as we stood about in the foyer, I was hit suddenly with an anxiety attack. Read the rest of this entry

When the Aints Came Marching In

Photo courtesy of Pete Miller via Flickr.com. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pmillera4/

Photo courtesy of Pete Miller via Flickr.com. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pmillera4/

I like baseball. I can’t say I’m the perfect fan – I don’t follow it the best in the world, and I don’t understand the finer points of the game. But I enjoy watching a game, especially live. As an American of a certain age, I think  it was unavoidable that I would have some connection to baseball. I remember when I was two or three, my mom bought me a little plastic Baltimore Orioles helmet (although I thought the logo was of Chilly Willy).

When I was older, I watched baseball on TV. Indiana doesn’t have its own major-league ball club, so we split our loyalties among the closest teams: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, and the Cincinnati Reds. Our local TV station aired the Reds, so that’s who I followed. Later, the station switched affiliations to the Cubs, and though Harry Caray was fun to listen to, I couldn’t really get into the Cubs. Read the rest of this entry

Gratitude

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Thanksgiving. On one side, as many do, I have an issue with celebrating part of one of the dark parts of human history in the European decimation of Native America. But on the flipside, I have warm associations with Thanksgiving. It was usually the holiday my family celebrated the most. I remember visits to my grandma’s tiny two-bedroom house (my uncle lived with her), and twenty, twenty-five people cramming in–none of it planned, all spontaneous, just, everyone decided to drive over to Grandma’s and bring something to eat. I remember watching football with my brother, or later, my friends. I remember that there was always an element of reflection and thoughtfulness involved, as our culture encouraged you to take a brief moment to consider whatever good fortune you had.
The trick now, of course, is that I’m not thankful. The word “thanks” implies that I’m thankful to someone, to a power bigger than me who gave me everything I have, and I don’t believe in such a being. But I’m certainly grateful for so many things. Perhaps I’m mincing words, but the distinction has a redemptive power for me in my process of reconstructing my worldview post-God.
So I want to take a minute to do what millions of other bloggers are doing today and share what I’m thankful grateful for:
  • I am grateful for my friends. My sanity, my strength, my joy–I am where I am because of you.
  • I am grateful for my family. I am fortunate that the people I was born into love me and look out for me. A mother who has been the model of unconditional love and maternal sacrifice, a sister who has been my biggest cheerleader, a brother who somehow manages to look up to me despite my screw-ups (and who has been taller than me most of our lives), and a brother to whom (I am confident) I will one day be restored.
  • I am grateful for the state of Minnesota. I may pick on you for your (in my view) weird culture sometimes, but so many of the good things in my life have come as a direct result of living here. Whether the grad-school gods keep me here or take me elsewhere, this great place will always occupy a sizable part of my heart. Donchano.
  • I am grateful that I am always warm and well-fed. Three-and-a-half years ago, I was dangerously close to becoming homeless. A bit of determination and a lot of luck kept me from that fate. There are few things I want more than to save every man, woman, and child across the world from that same fate. I work for a world where we will do that. And I remember every day that I am fortunate to have what I have.
  • I am grateful for music. It is my heartbeat, almost literally, as there is always a song in my head. I am grateful that I know how to sing and can play a few musical instruments, so that, in my awkward little way, I can share this most wonderful of human creations.
  • I am grateful for art. I am grateful for the artists who train and work tirelessly, often with little real reward, to share the most intimate parts of their minds and hearts with the world.
  • I am grateful for literature. I am grateful for every book that is on my shelf and the million more that are not. I marvel at the infinite power of the written word, and am humbled by the fact that I’ve had a little bit of training to wield this tool.
  • I am grateful for every second I have to be alive.

Fending Off the Black Dog

I can feel it coming on. Most years, it comes around the end of September. I fall into even poorer dietary habits than usual, and pizza, cereal, and ice cream become my mainstays. I have to push myself more to socialize. I run out of energy even if I feel like I’m in a good mood.

And there’s the trick. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can think I’m in a good mood when I’m not. I can be happy with some of the more peripheral things in my life–like school or chorus–but still have a deep-seated discontent.

And right now there’s plenty of reason for deep-seated discontent. It really all began a couple of months ago, when I turned 39. Now, I don’t buy into this silly game of being ashamed of how old you are. You should be proud to be a survivor. But, as my hair falls out more and my joints betray me more often and my metabolism disappears, I’m acutely aware that I am middle-aged, and that, unlike in my twenties, I cannot take anything about my future for granted.

It was right around my birthday that I got word that a friend of mine had died. We weren’t really close but we weren’t just nodding acquaintances either. Her death has haunted me these past two months. I don’t think I’m thinking about her any more often than I did before, but now I have to stop and remind myself that she is no longer alive. All the good things I’d hoped to see her do will never come to pass. My next time to see her in class or on the bus or what have you will never come.

All of this transpired not long after I had come to the realization that I am now an atheist. It was a long time coming. For most of my Christian experience I had grave doubts about the existence of God, but I could not express or explore those doubts because of the culture I found myself in. It all came about bit by bit. I left evangelicalism because I was expected to do the impossible and punished when I was unable to do so. I left Christianity when I realized that the narrative of Jesus didn’t make much sense. But the exit from theism was more gradual. When I identified as an agnostic, I explained that it wasn’t really that I wasn’t sure about the existence of God. It was more that there were days I believed there was a God and days that I didn’t. And as time wore on, the days I didn’t grew more common, when one day I realized that I couldn’t remember when exactly was the last day I believed in God.

So I’ve been adjusting to a new paradigm, which is never easy for anyone–even and especially if they tell you otherwise. And, as my thoughts, for all the reasons above, have drifted to the nature of mortality, I’ve had to understand what that looks like, in a very literal sense. In the past, I could picture what existence after death looked like. And that picture changed over time, but it was always there. Now, it is like a friend of mine who was born without eyes. The best that I can imagine what the world is like for him is that he sees nothing but black. But this is not the case at all. My friend sees nothing, and this is impossible for me to grasp. So it is now with death.

Now, this is not to say it’s an impossible concept. The majority of people can assent to the idea that the world existed before they became conscious of themselves and the world around them, that there was a time and place that there was no “me”. And of the remainder who do believe they existed before they were conceived, most will still state that there is no way for them to mentally access a perception of the world before their present existence. And so, I can conceive that existence after I die is just like existence before I was conceived (or was born, or became self-conscious, take your pick).

But just because I can conceptualize this idea, however abstractly, doesn’t mean it is at all comfortable. In fact, I find the whole affair depressing. And I’m learning to cope. And I’m arranging some therapy.

But this round of depression isn’t solely influenced by such morbidity. There is also the sorry state of American politics. Right now, the House of Representatives is quite willing to throw most of us under the truck because it best suits their own interests. And the lower you are in the socioeconomic pile, the more screwed you’re going to get. And I’m pretty low in the pile.

We’re facing a federal-government shutdown come October 1. Now, I remember going through a government shutdown once or twice in my life (I’m not bothering to Google for the dates). And the shutdowns were just for a few days, and the only thing you really noticed was that you didn’t get any mail for three or four days. Then Congress resolved their issues and it was back to business as usual. But the two parties (oh, don’t even get me started on the impracticality of a two-party system) are much further apart now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. I anticipate that this shutdown is going to last a long time. Even as it is, the current sequestration is seriously damaging the United States. Our research labs are having to lay off scientists. Wildfires rage as the fire service can’t provide adequate containment. Preschoolers have lost educational enrichment at a crucial point in their lives. And that’s just for starters.

I’m having to scramble, coming up with alternative plans for finishing my degree, for work and for housing. Twice I’ve had to leave my undergraduate studies because of financial issues outside my control, and I will not allow that to happen a third time. I tire of always scrambling, yet it’s almost all I’ve known.

And so comes the black dog (what Winston Churchill called depression), not because of some quirk in our orbit around the sun (for the record, I’m not diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but with major depression), but because of factors outside my control.

Sit! Stay! From Cynr via Flickr.

Now I have to soldier on. I have to keep appointments and visit friends and keep up on chores and so many other things, regardless of how little energy I have, regardless of how much it physically hurts to do these things. Because if I don’t, I could fall into a deep vortex. I have been at the bottom of that vortex before, though it’s been awhile. I’ve worked really hard to stay out of it, and I will not allow myself to go there again.

Edited 17 Dec 13: I inadvertently attributed a quote of Winston Churchill to C.S. Lewis. My apologies for not double-checking.

Life and Death

Yesterday I celebrated my thirty-ninth trip around the sun. I enjoyed various celebrations for a couple of days, spent with friends old and new. It was a time of merriment and gratitude and laughter (with just a hint of debauchery–hey, I’m no angel). Yesterday began my fortieth trip.

Today I found out about the death of a friend. She was not a close friend, but I had wanted to be closer. Though she died nearly a month ago, many of her friends are only now finding out. This reminds me of how the modern age leaves us less connected than we like to think we are. She was intelligent and talented and beautiful, with a biting wit and a great laugh. She was a gifted actress, and I had longed to write a piece especially for her.

Today people are writing on her Facebook wall, wishing “Rest in Peace”. I’m not going to interfere with others’ grieving process. I will say, however, that I don’t believe she’s “resting”. I believe that the part of her beyond her flesh and bones, the part that we cherished as “Monica”, is no more. This is the sort of thing for which religious people often think that the nonreligious are cold and heartless, with such a grim and bleak view of the world.

I do, however, believe in immortality–it’s just not immortality as portrayed in religious texts. Monica has left an indelible print on all who knew her. Many times she entertained, encouraged, and comforted us, and that impact will not be lost just because she is no longer with us. And those good, beautiful things about her influence us, even in the subtlest ways. And then we pass that influence on to the others around us in our lives. And so that influence passes even after I and everyone I know will be dead and gone as well.

She left behind two sons, nearly adults, who, though I don’t know them personally, are by all accounts good kids. And I hope they continue to be good kids. I hope they carry with them all the good things about Monica and pass them on as well.

And as I look 364 days in the future, at which point I would unarguably be middle-aged, I reflect on my own mortality. And I recognize that I might not even see 40. Life is so very fragile, and so unpredictable. Which is why, each day, I must commit myself to living my life such that, upon my passing, I have left behind good things.

So today, I live with joy and sorrow, with comedy and tragedy, with triumph and pain. I carry the loss of my friend and the spark she left inside my soul.

Today I live.