Here’s my second piece. I almost thought about taking these down off the blog, but I feel like sharing.
The night that I became an atheist was one of the most powerful nights that I’ve had so far in my life. It was also the night that I came closest to killing myself. Thankfully, atheism saved me.
I was seventeen years old and it was a clear and brutally cold night in the middle of Alaskan winter. While my family slept, and wearing only a t-shirt and jeans, I headed out to ride my unicycle—I had recently taught myself the skill and it had become almost meditative for me—across the snow and ice of my small town of Eagle River. I was not planning to return.
My teenage years so far had been really intense for me. Having abandoned past quests for conformity after moving to Alaska from Washington at fourteen, I was enmeshed in a process of self-discovery and self-expression in which I was redefining my beliefs and my identity on a constant basis. It was hard for me to keep up with who I was from one week to the next. I was a self-proclaimed revolutionary anarchist; an ex-Catholic aspiring to understand Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism; a fledgling poet and short-story writer; a voracious reader of critical educational literature and philosophy; and an iconoclastic dresser, with my black and white wingtips, my homemade t-shirts, my black suspenders, and my briefcase covered with political and philosophical stickers and quotes. In all honesty, I was just plain weird, and I was fiercely proud of that fact.
I was fiercely battling with my body as well, and carrying a deep shame about it that kept me from looking anyone in the eye for nearly two years. I had chronic acne that covered not only my face, but also my chest and back. I had to sleep with a towel wrapped around me, because every night all of the pimples on my back would burst and I didn’t want my sheets to get bloody. Skin and pus would wash off along with the soap bubbles in the shower, and my tears often drained away with them. I would wear layers of sweaters or even turtlenecks to cover up as much as possible at school. After I read Moby Dick I wrote a poem likening myself to the whales in the book, full of rich, thick oil that could be used to light lamps or fuel homes. Unfortunately what I had within me wasn’t so prized. When I finally got up the nerve to talk with my mom and go to a dermatologist, the doctor told me that it was level four acne, apparently the worst kind, as it also formed cysts underneath my skin. She put me on a drug called Accutane, at double the normal dose. Apparently, I was a special case.
It turned out later that Accutane was closely linked to teenage depression and some cases of suicide, but we didn’t know that then. And I didn’t actually feel depressed or suicidal. On the contrary, I was actually a very happy person, with nearly boundless enthusiasm about life. I did feel something, though, a certain sharp quality to my emotions, a certain clarity and force to them, and I now wonder whether that was the drug doing its work on me.
Regardless of my reasons, be they chemical, developmental, or even purely cerebral, my emotions about the world weighed heavily on me, and they often expressed themselves in relation to deep spiritual questions that I was exploring at that time. Was there a God? What was the meaning of life? What do life and death mean, and are we reborn in a cycle? Is the world all an illusion or even a dream? I would often go on walks or unicycling trips to think about these questions, to try and puzzle out who I was, who I could possibly be in the shadow of such massive confusions. I read books, and lots of them. The Bhagivad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, David Bohm and J. Krishnamurti, Frtizjoff Capra, the poet Rumi, Descartes, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut, and especially the philosopher Martin Buber, and his book, I and Thou. In all of this reading the essential question remained: What could I possibly amount to in a universe so large, and so what did my life signify?
On my bedroom ceiling, directly above my bed, I placed a strip of masking tape that said, “Mysticism or Activism?” This was another definitive question for me. Did I want to focus myself on the inner life, on trying to reconcile and harmonize myself with the deeper rhythms of the world in some kind of search for enlightenment or the dissolution of self into something greater, or did I want to maintain my sense of self and my grounding in the world in order try to change the world and make people’s lives better? Was the choice so stark, or could I do both? I pondered all of this daily, I fretted about it, I wrote about it. While I had friends, and had crushes, and played video games and ate junk food like other teenagers, these were the parts of myself that felt most real to me.
Perhaps it was not only because of the Accutane, but because of my overall skin condition that the inner life meant so much to me. I’m not sure. I do know that I broke up with both of my high school girlfriends as soon as we got to a point of intimacy in which we are on the verge of taking off our shirts. Perhaps this is why I found so much comfort in thinking about living a hermitic or monastic life. In such a life I wouldn’t have had to think about the painful contradictions between my desires and the condition of my body.
This was me at seventeen, and this was me on that night. Earlier in the day I had just read something by Sartre, in which he said that life has no meaning, that there is no God to watch us or care for us, and the universe doesn’t know or care about us either. This was a alarming to me. As a boy raised Catholic, I had always had a feeling of a presence watching me over my shoulder. I felt the buoyancy of that presence. Even as I began to doubt the Christian God, I still felt like life itself had some kind of conscious, guiding, loving quality, and this comforted me. But on that day Sartre had messed all of that up. For him, life was meaningless, unless we alone chose to infuse it with meaning. This disturbed me greatly, mostly because I had a hunch that he was right.
So I took my unicycle out that night, thinking seriously about dying. I wasn’t sad, really. I was just exhausted. For me at that time, it felt like I had spent my most recent, most conscious and lively years completely wasting my time. I had put so much of my energy and creativity into searching for some kind of deeper connection with life, with myself, with something greater than myself, and now it seemed pointless. I had spent years struggling with my body, searching for ways to transcend it, to overcome it, to completely deny its existence as pure worldly illusion, and yet, ultimately, it was all I really had. The futility of all my efforts absorbed me that night. With these tired thoughts, with this world-weariness, I headed into the Alaskan cold.
I pedaled slowly toward a nearby creek bridge, looking up at the clear, dark starry sky. If life was meaningless, then it seemed fittingly dramatic and poetic to punctuate my death with the sharp, pure pain of freezing water. All it would take was a leap from the bridge. As I pedaled closer, I sobbed.
It was the sobbing that was the turning point, as I arrived and stood on the bridge. I looked at the water, I gripped the railing, and I imagined the fall, but my crying got more intense. I started to think about that fact, and it started to crowd out my thoughts of death.
If I was crying about life, then this clearly showed that I cared about life, I thought. I didn’t just care, I was actually deeply passionate about life. I looked through my teary, blurry eyes at the snow around me, with its millions of crystals reflecting the light of the streetlamp back at me, and I started crying more forcefully because of its beauty. I looked up at the moon and I lunged at it with both arms as if to try at embracing it, and I let myself fall to my knees in the attempt. The things all around me we were so beautiful. Life was so beautiful. Death would erase all of these things for me. But life, life alone contained all of these colors and sensations. Life alone was so full and complex, while death was a monotone, a flat line, a complete void.
That was the moment when I embraced atheism. Facing a choice between the constant blackness of death and the endless variety of experiences of life, I chose life. For the first time, I chose life, consciously and ecstatically, for what life was in itself, not for what was promised in some afterlife, not for the sake of some outside force that I thought was watching, and not for the idea of transcending to some supposedly more enlightened kind of living. I chose life as it was, and thus I also chose myself as I was, as a humble, lucky participant in life. Even as an accident of the universe, even with a body that seemed at war with itself, I was lucky to be alive, I realized. Even more, I was lucky to have all of the privileges of family, economic security, education, and peace to be able to appreciate life so consciously and abstractly, and so the question of social justice became even more forceful in my mind at that moment. There, on my knees in the snow, on the verge of choosing death, I finally really connected with my own authentic spirituality, and it gave me the force to choose life instead.
I am still a proud and happy atheist. I also love life, and my body’s participation in it, as passionately as I did that night.
However, I have grown up in many ways, and I’m often so embarrassed of this story, of the heavy teenage angst that it portrays, that I rarely tell it to anyone. I’m especially embarrassed, even ashamed, because two years after that night happened, one of my good friends, Stephen, committed suicide. There was nothing poetic, romantic, or philosophically pure about it. There was just sadness and confusion. There were just tears and snot and constant questioning about why he left us. There were just scores of people who wondered why he didn’t love us enough to stay and share this life with us. I’m so thankful that I didn’t make the same mistake that he made, and I wish that I had told him my own story.
For me, ever since that winter night on the bridge, life has been a choice that I make daily. I choose to give meaning to my thoughts and my actions. I choose to love and care about the people I love. I choose to work for a world where more people can choose life passionately, rather than just struggling to scrape through it. I choose to appreciate the blades of grass, the old trees, the tumultuous cloudy skies, because they simply make me feel blessed to be here.
And I also choose to love myself, with each scar that I still carry on my chest and shoulders, and with each memory that I still hold of that younger boy who didn’t yet have the force to choose. Now I do have that force, and I try to carry enough passion and love within me for both of us.