|Anjulie and Everett|
My husband and I were at a small gathering the other night, when the conversation turned in the direction that conversation turns, somewhere through a second bottle of wine, to God.
Our host had already mentioned once or twice (as atheists do, with or without wine) that she was an atheist, a signal to me that the question of where I stood on this matter was forthcoming.
I have pondered my answer to this question ever since my Catholic childhood friends informed me about how easy it was to do or not do something that would intentionally or unintentionally land me in hell. As a young child, I took that new intel to heart, and immediately sprouted a guilty conscience and a need to confess my sins to my father every night.
In my case, I confessed everything I had done or contemplated or suspected might be naughty to my own father, at bedtime. My father, an imposing and intimidating figure, but having a good heart, made an ideal confessor. (By contrast, my mom was a pushover.)
Incidentally, part of our good-night, tuck-in, save-my-soul ritual was that every night before closing the door to my room, my father would say,
"Sleep tight! Don't let the bedbugs bite."
Consistent with the weird and grotesque tales by Grimm and Aesops, (I would never forget the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson in which a young bird, unable to keep pace with the peloton, is skewered through the heart from behind), my father's nightly litany gave me one more thing to worry about: the threat of bedbugs.
Come to think, sometimes he said, instead, "Sleep as snug as a bug in a rug."
No wonder Millennials have more self-respect than previous generations: They were not indoctrinated with morality tales that concluded: If you're not fast enough, when the time comes, you will be murdered in mid-air by someone close to you, you will drop out of the sky, splat, onto the ground, and none of us will stop to mourn you; we'll all just keep flying south.
Instead of comparing their children to bugs, the Baby Boomers adopted a new bedtime litany, a benediction.
Do I have to say it? You know what it is:
"I love you to the moon and back."
I remember the first time I read, "To the Moon and Back." It had just been published. I read the whole thing standing up in a bookstore. It was really, really hard for me to not burst into heaving sobs, right out there in public.
Of course now, people are used to it. Most people can tell their kids, without crying, "I love you to the moon and back."
But, for those of us like me, raised with bedbugs and pestilence, this new party line was a hard one to articulate.
I tried to read TO THE MOON AND BACK to my son, but I could never get through it without crying, and that was a burden to my son, so I just didn't read it.
I told myself it was saccharine, instead of what it was, which was revolutionary.
What happens to a developing mind fed on such unalloyed outpourings of affection and deep regard? Untempered by the acidity of bedbugs? Unqualified by the threat of perfidy and extermination for the failure to keep up with the flock?
They're going to grow up thinking they're entitled to meaningful work and personal fulfillment. They won't put up with sexual harassment in the work place.
These kids are going to be a pain in the ass.
But what were we talking about?
So, I was waiting for my turn to answer the question: Did I believe in God?
So far, we had two waffling Agnostics and one strident atheist.
I had been waiting patiently my turn.
And wouldn't you know it? The conversation veered off into a completely different subject. Gah!
I really wanted to tell them that after thinking on this question for most of my life, I had come to the conclusion that God was how we explained human consciousness to ourselves. He was how we understood the enormous gulf between the smartest primate and what we, as human beings, are capable of imagining.
We can create multi-layered art that, labored over and imbued with genius, seems the very essence of God--evidence of consciousness that, one hopes, may yet expand in the aggregate and improve upon itself; as in, for example, the shift in bedtime rituals from one generation to the next.
Is it not enlightenment when we progress from sending a child to bed with mixed messages, (I love you. Don't let the bedbugs bite.) to a new gospel that takes the qualifiers and threat out of saying good-night?
By this simple act, I think we are closer in human consciousness to what God is: Ourselves.
And hell would be a projection all the effluence and failures of that same human consciousness: The failure to love. The failure to be mindful and caring. The regret that comes from acts of unkindness. The knowledge of our own moral corruption. The wringing of hands, the gnashing of teeth...all around us.
Does that make me an atheist?
But I can't be an atheist, you see, because I believe in the spirit of life. But that is another question entirely, and did not come up in conversation.