I did not elaborate on my romantic encounters with Helen earlier for they were too sparse and infrequent to remember accurately. Suffice to say she broke up with her lame boyfriend in Georgia and for a time we could have been going out but it never really happened. She just wanted to be my friend.
I found that out one evening as we lay in my bed (clothes on) and I was rubbing her shoulders. Like the sap I am I asked a meaningful question: “So what are we?”
“Just friends,” she said. My heart stopped for a full second but I did not indicate my disappointment.
That said I still took her to prom and we kissed occasionally though it never escalated to making out. We missed each other for most of the summer. I sent her a postcard the third day we were in Africa. It arrived the day I came back. I was actually at her parents’ house when it finally did arrive.
Long had I dreamed of a day when things could finally culminate between us and whatever bug had crawled up her ass about me would finally die. Though it had taken 30 hours of travel to reach home I set out to see her as soon as I could. We kissed and cuddled, I held her on the swing in their backyard near the Magnolia tree. I told her that I loved her and she said “I love you too, Seth”
But when I leaned over to kiss her again she stopped me. This was the moment I would later define as the pinnacle from which my heart would tumble onto the dirty rocks below. Things did not sour out promptly. I saw her the next day though the sweetness and urgency were suspiciously one sided.
Our connection, once a massive serial bus, was now interdicted by a diode. If that doesn’t make sense to you I mean the current only flows in one direction. I was puzzled but not defeated in my resolve. That came soon enough.
While I saw our moment on the swing a prelude to deeper affections Helen saw it simply as a happy day with her friend. This killed me. Worse, every day I did not tell her that my faith was hanging on by threads felt like a day of lies. Eventually I did tell her, the conversation went poorly. We crashed and burned on the phone.
Me: Helen, I need to tell you something and I know it’s going to upset you.
Her: Ok. You know you can tell me anything.
Me: I have been doing a lot of thinking lately and certain things have become very clear. Try not to freak out but I need you to know that I don’t think I believe in god anymore.
Me: But listen, I still love you and I really care about our friendship. I don’t want this to be the end . . .
Her: This is terrible!
Oh but as I lowered the phone I already felt like smacking Helen with her bible. What a selfish reaction! I was baring a piece of my tender young soul and without even asking how it happened or why I was suddenly faithless she just centered it right back on herself. I hated her for a time, really and truly wished her ill for treating me so unkindly.
Now the smart thing to do would be to just cut my losses, focus on my upcoming college days and commit myself to reason rather than superstition. That might have made the summer’s final days a bit easier to manage.
Instead I relapsed.
At least I did it in style. I kept going to church, did about 12 hours worth of one on one bible time with her father, the pastor. I read apologetics, studied the bible and kept trying to smash the sensible parts of my brain back into the tiny box from whence they sprung. Legion and Subcon made this hellish, pitting my reasonable parts against my longing for peace and love (of Helen.)
I got to hear the tired arguments about ‘nothing’ exploding into everything and how given enough time random explosions could never create a watch, much less life. Therefore gawd had to dun’ it!
Gorging myself on Christian propaganda made me sick with cognitive dissonance. Being absented from a close friend, really wanting nothing more than a mutual understanding, made things all the more miserable. One of the last true conversations I had with Helen touched on this. Then she was gone and any hope or prayer I once had of being with her sublimed into the atmosphere like so much frozen CO2.
Me: It’s hard for me to understand how we can’t even be friends anymore. I get that you don’t love me like I love you, I hate it but I can’t fault you for it. But as soon as I told you I don’t believe in god it was like everything we ever shared just became worthless.
Her: Life is worthless without god, Seth. Don’t you see that I can’t be a part of your life if you can’t accept jesus. Promise me you won’t give up and I know that someday you’ll find HIM.
Me: Even if I do, I just don’t think we will ever be the same. I’ve seen the way you look at me and it breaks my heart.
Her: You shouldn’t be looking for god as a way to find me. You should be able to find god, and should want that first and me second.
Her: I know you do. I know. But listen, without god even love is pointless. Once you get rid of your pride and just surrender to god then we can be friends again. I think you’ll figure that out someday.
That’s where I left it. ‘I just did’ is exactly what I said. I remember because it was such a bold faced fucking lie. Instead what I figured out is that no matter what I did or tried to foist upon myself I would never ever have a fucking chance with Helen. So I quit her. Yes I missed her for over a year and still wonder if things had gone differently what might have become of us. I like to think that in some alternate reality we did get together and I hopefully managed to worry some reason through the chinks in her ‘spiritual’ armor.
Now I need to draw a strong perpendicular line through the loss of love versus the loss of faith. Losing a single person, though Helen is not the only casualty suffered, hurt me so much deeper than losing my brittle faith. Let me tell you why. A person is a real and tangible thing, more nuanced and special than the entire infrastructure of any faith, any scripture and any set of superstitious ritual.
An actual person is so much more valuable than a hierarchy of fables and pretension we are all subjected to suffer. While I would gladly see the world rid of religion I would not sacrifice a single person for that end. Actually I probably would because that would save many more lives lost to oppression and wickedness of the multitude of ‘one true faiths.’
What sank in the deepest about the whole experience was a sense of freedom and relief. I have often had to answer the question, ‘Well if there’s like no god, why do you even get out of bed in the morning?’
Pitiful, right? I get out of bed because I only have a finite number of days to do so and I would much rather spend them enjoying life in the here and now than fretting over the nightmarish conjurations of some goat herds millennia past. There’s no freedom like freedom from religion. And whatever may transpire I am thankful for every day that I can stand erect and upright without the burden of ritual or arbitrary restriction placed on my back.
Ridding myself of christianity was nothing more than clearing the weeds out of my mental garden, allowing the desirable plants to blossom and flourish. I would not truly be myself without snapping off that leash. Now freed my imagination if free to roam to every corner of the world and to the deepest reaches of space without a care for the imaginary crosshairs lined up against my skull.
Kathy Griffin got in a lot of trouble for saying ‘suck it, jesus.’ I don’t see why so many people got cranky about a fictional character. I can joke but in seriousness I never underestimate the gravity of faith and how people ensnared by it cling to their beliefs like a battered woman hiding behind the abusive piece of shit ruining her life.
My experiment with faith does not end with Helen. Instead it ends with a quiet moment in the male locker room of Carmichael Gymnasium at NC State University some months later. I had been swimming after something of a hiatus.
Around February of 2000 I stopped swimming fanatically. I still swam 2 times a week, tried out jogging and helped my friend Mike get ready for his year at the Naval Academy. But without that constant struggle, the ever present burden on my physical resources I could pay a lot more attention to the world around me.
Naturally my physical condition declined and over the next three years decayed back into general chubbiness.
Without some drive or motivation I had no reason to kill myself day in and day out in the pool, so I didn’t. Freshman year I started to get pudgy again so I launched a blitzkrieg against entroy. Over several months I managed to score some multi-mile workouts. I was also the only student that year to take Swim Conditioning for a grade and get an A.
So one remarkably unremarkable day, I was walking to the pool wearing nothing but trunks, flip flops and goggles I just paused. My water bottle sloshed and then stilled. That was it.
All the torment, fear and doubt was gone. It didn’t just vanish I just hadn’t noticed that it was leaving me until it was all but gone. That was the first day I called myself an atheist. My convictions have not wavered in the interim.
I like to think that college was the mental analog to my swimming phase and that all the stuff I should have been cramming during senior year got dragged along with my novel intake. I found Legion a welcome ally for gathering, filtering and processing information. I devoured history, science and literature until it was time to leave.
Though my grades slipped into mediocrity I siphoned the wisdom of hundreds of books, even wrote my first novel “Fair Coin” though it will likely accompany me to the grave unseen. Yes it’s that awful. But it was a good learning experience!
Now the only time Legion and I get to hang out is during my writing times, quiet moments where it’s just me and the keyboard. No longer a hungry lion I like to think of Legion as a trusty old dog that I can count on when all else fails in this world.
Among the treasures gleaned from life and library I hold this ideal close to my heart: not believing in the impossible does not make you close minded. Often I have been accused of being dogmatic or overly rigid for not abandoning reason to accommodate a competing world view. Listen, fuck that. Talk to me all you want about homeopathy, psychic powers and UFO visitation. It’s all nonsensical bullshit and I don’t have to tolerate or respect anyone dumb enough to side with bullshit and bullshitters.
My mind is hard but not impenetrable. It’s like the blood brain barrier, only admitting that which is vital and nothing else voluntarily. I don’t shut ideas out when they deserve due consideration. Nor do I invite parasites to leech off my brain. Why would I? Better yet, dear reader, why would you tolerate the notion of miracles or supernatural intervention?
My flirtation with swimming was escalated by hormonally charged fury. My mental fitness program is very different. It’s not hate, nor revenge nor anything so mammalian leaning on the gas. Rather it’s the never ending search for good and useful information. I used to dread learning because of what it might mean for me.
Now I relish the chance to crack open my preconceptions and see what comes spilling out. Sometimes the truth is ugly and absurd. Other times it is insanely elegant.
Whatever faults the world may have and whatever evils people do to each other I would not trade my clarity for any amount of faith. Though imperfect it is always reassuring to know that I can see the world just a little more clearly than most of my peers. Given the choice I would choose to be an atheist any day over any quantum of comfort.
Trying to force religion into your world view is like cramming a horse shoe into a beehive. The bees don’t like it, they get angry and loud. Do so and you will find yourself under the wrath of tiny little killers full of sound and fury. And venom. Bees are not to be trifled with, for they are many.