|"Lust for life. His was a life truly lived." - Palash Dave
||[Dec. 16th, 2011|10:31 pm]
from the door comes Satan's daughter
I go back to that story every time.
It was an early schoolday morning. Our knees were pressed against each other as we sat on the common room floor, waiting for the class adviser to administer the ritual morning prayers.
Like good Catholics, morning prayers always began with the sign of the cross. But being what I was working to become, I didn't lift a finger. Billie did. She sat across the room from me and she did everything they asked because she was smarter. She didn't want any trouble. There were lots of time for that: in the corridors, in the letters we passed to one another between classes. But not here, not in their prayer hall.
If she was the sly one who followed the rules, she did so for the both of us and left majority of the mischief up to me. I wasn't reckless, I was just precocious. I didn't have the patience to lie for longer than necessary, so when we were asked us to bow our heads, I kept mine raised high and proud watching over the dark crowns that prostrated towards the holy book in Mrs. Jose's hands.
Most of my classmates wrote it off as a quirk. They knew Billie and I weren't believers, but we were nice people, allies to both saints and sinners. Billie was a liar and I was an asshole. But we were good friends and good people. Surely there was a footnote in the Bible for people like us.
But do what we, well, I did long enough and the cordialities eventually give way for the disquieting curiosity to unfurl.
Bo-o used to sit right next to me. That day, she turned her head when I didn't make the sign of the cross. Leaning over, she whispered, "So, who do you pray to?"
I looked at her and then at Mrs. Jose, to see if she was watching. She wasn't, her old, weary face pensive and buried in the gospel she was reading.
"What do you mean 'pray to'?" I whispered back.
Bo-o shrugged. "You know, like Jesus. Who's your god? Who do you lean on when you're in trouble? Who do you talk to?"
She searched my face quietly. Then without a word, she bowed her head again and pulled her clasped hands closer to her body.
I didn't know what to think or feel after that. I probably didn't give Bo-o much to think about as she did me. Most atheists who I knew back then could affix an easy answer to her question. Like, well, we liked to believe god's inexistence narrowed down the responsibility and moral decisions into our own hands. Accountability, humanism, reason.
But suppose our troubles couldn't be solved by pure logic alone. Where did we non-believers get the sense of moral propriety that we needed to make decisions? A universal guideline? Historical deductions? Intuition?
Through the years, I began to look into a massive collection of other people's thoughts and feelings, their anecdotes and their histories, their wisdom and follies. This gambit was rooted in the philosophy that the best clue we had in learning to understand the world was not god, but each other.
A higher power, a compassionate overseer of souls and secrets, was a fine thing to imagine. Men can be so disappointing, after all, and we seemed to give one another a good reason to need the input of Jesus Christ and his friends.
Still, my best friend and I stayed the non-believing course, finding neither comfort nor trepidation in the absence of god.
"We make it up as we go along." It seemed like a good plan when Billie said it. We used to talk all night about the misgoings of the world and how we thought we fit right in.
I never felt comfortable with consulting other people's thoughts and feelings to complete myself, but I eventually learned to let go of the underlying self-absorbed ambition. I began to understand that there could be no concept of self without the other. Billie and I, Bo-o and the believers, and the whole wide world - it didn't matter really where we thought we found our guidance. At the end of the day, I figured, we were all in this together.
This year has been legendary for breaking a lot of hearts. Today Christopher Hitchens passed away after a long fight with cancer. VF must be swarmed with grief. They lost Tim Hetherington earlier this year. He and Hitchens died doing what they believed in, Tim capturing truths about war and Christopher being a man of mad reason.
I'm not going to write a eulogy. I only know these men via their profession and their philosophies - which are not, mind you, short of moving and life changing. I was profoundly saddened by Hitchens' death. He was a huge and inspiring contributor to the atheist community. I first heard the word 'polemic' from him and he was describing himself.
Up until very recently, the stride of atheism has always been a lonely one, a position true polemicists took, many scientists, some radical philosophers. Hitchens, Harris, Daniels and Sir Dawkins dramatically changed this, along with the dawn of the Information Age and a world community founded on values of secular humanism was suddenly emergent.
I spent my whole high school life being a skeptic - on the much lesser, immature end. Billie and I, and Janine, always out to rile against popular opinion - which was mostly the opinion of passivity. I used to call God 'her' in freshman year because I didn't know what I was doing and Miss Grace never corrected me because the subject was moot. And we were a girls school, after all. Then Janine and I started asking questions, why can't gay people get married? Why can't people just love each other and be allowed to love each other? Miss Grace cut my report and declared the word of God final, It's not allowed, it's wrong.
I knew then at the moment, standing in front of my classmates, in front of people who were in relationships with one another or with a girl from another class - people who were my friends - that I didn't want to be a Catholic anymore. I just wanted to be a good person, loving, open and primed to withhold judgement on others. I didn't know the word for the philosophy - humanism - until college. My first two years will always be the most enlightening and integrating time of my life: being introduced to these thinkers who place their faith on a common humanity, an inherent empathy with the rest of the world regardless of race or faith.
It's almost a purpose, if you think about it. It's not an easy one either. And this is the life I want to live. I want to be a hopeful non-believer - I want to be active, to honor those who came before me, like Hitchens and Hetherington and many others, in envisaging a better world and working and fighting endlessly to give those who have yet to come a reason to believe that someone has been well and truly looking out for them, in so that they might continue and become better people themselves and to each other.
RIP Christopher Hitchens
and Tim Hetherington