Saturday, November 16, 2013



                         Let us then begin
                         to walk toward infinity.

                         ~ Chuang-Tzu, The True Book of the Southern Flower

I slipped into my body’s warmth
as into a snug glove,
closed my eyes,
tucked in the blanket’s soft dark.

Suddenly a blackness
blacker than the night,
blackness like black lightning,
the edge of a scream:

my death.

I sat up, mouth open –
poured out of my throat.

Then far away I saw
a light brighter than any star.
Stepping on nothing
I began to walk
toward it until I fell sleep.

It was not a white fire
on the other shore,
pointing to something else.
There was nothing else.
I didn’t believe in God.

But a question had been asked.
My answer was blackness,
and that light
seemed another answer.

A friend once asked
why I didn’t commit suicide.

There was no need to.
In death I’d seen my life:
a pathless way across darkness
and the calm, inexhaustible light.

~ Oriana © 2013

The event described here took place when I was 25. I didn’t write the poem until I some ten years later. And even then I didn’t have the complete clarity I have now: this vision was produced by my brain in order to soothe me. It was effective at that moment. Later I thought a lot about it -- unforgettable!  But I never equated it with external reality.

Years later I read Jung on salvation being a journey toward the star within. I wouldn’t  use the word “salvation,” but I did experience something of this journey. Knowing which way to go meant everything.

If someone wants to call my “cosmic vision” a hallucination, I have no problem with that. Extreme emotions can cause hallucinations, often very interesting ones. The human brain has its amazing ways. 


Yesterday I entered a cloud bank enveloping the Coronado Bridge. The fog was thick enough to require headlights. And the city of Coronado was in fog too. With events of my life making me think of limbo, I thought, “I’ve entered the cloud of unknowing.”

Twenty minutes later, Coronado basked in the beautiful November sunlight, warm, almost coppery. You can’t be completely unhappy in light like that.


Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial. ~ Nietzsche

It still takes Nietzsche to say something as politically incorrect as this, and as exhilarating. Do we need “mystical” explanations of the universe? I think we can enjoy the mysterious without multiplying useless metaphysics.

I am thrilled that it's finally OK to reject mysticism and not provoke a storm by saying there is no soul nor the "beyond." When someone dies, he remains in the memory of others -- and that to me is an awe-inspiring neurobiological mystery. The underworld of our dreams is stranger and more fascinating than any idea of the afterlife. 


I remember a TV interview with Ayn Rand, a public atheist. I’m not a fan of most of Rand’s ideas, but I admit I was impressed with her intelligence and her courage not to hide in agnosticism. “Now that you’ve become a widow,” the host began, “now that you’ve lost your husband, do you understand why people believe in god?” I admit I don’t remember Rand’s exact reply, and realize that I’m using her striking statement because that’s the one that engraved itself in my memory: “I define god as that which is the highest, and you don’t lose that.”

“That which is the highest” will of course differ from person to person. I’m also reminded of Ezra Pound’s

That which thou lovest best
that which thou lovest best
shall not be reft from thee.

~ After becoming disabled in an accident I did wish there was a consciousness -- or whatever you want to call a god -- to bargain with. That was a stressful, life altering event, but it did not change my beliefs that stem from logical reasoning and education.

I am an atheist in a fox hole.

~ I'm sorry to hear of your accident and subsequent disability. I was diagnosed with stage III/IV cancer two weeks ago (I'm 47 years old, the cancer will be better staged tomorrow when I have major surgery) -- and as an atheist I also didn't have even the teensiest tiniest little bit of epiphany or conversion or repentance or whatever it is that these people think I was supposed to have. I'm not in a foxhole although I am facing my own mortality in a very real way. I definitely have fears (mostly about how my death would affect my wife's life), but I'm still rational. To your good health (and mine too) -- cheers.

~ I live marginally above the poverty level on disability income due to an organ transplant. I have a number of health problems resulting from the illness that caused me to need a transplant including brittle bones which have resulted in my spine slowly collapsing upon itself leading to chronic pain. I have to take very expensive medications and that leads to anxiety over losing medical benefits through budget cuts, bureaucratic whim, or other things. I have problems with hernias from the transplant operation that need to be surgically corrected every few years. My partner does not have health insurance and is a cancer survivor. That leads to a lot of anxiety because we can't afford to pay out of pocket for the yearly screenings he needs to be sure his cancer is not returning.
So, I'd say my life isn't very "comfortable." I have a lot of stress both physical and mental to deal with and yet, I do not run to a god praying. I rely on my own wits, the help of family and friends when necessary. I'll leave the begging and pleading to imaginary friends up to charlatans like [name omitted]

~ I don't know about anyone else but when I'm under severe amounts of stress, religion and God are the last things that I think about. Then people use the phrase with you that “God never gives a person more than they can handle.” To which I always replied “God's pushing their luck then.” To appease them. The whole time thinking that God's not the one giving me all this stress. My boss is giving me these piles and emails. Bills are taking all my money. Time is breaking down my home so it needs repairs. It’s not God. It’s people, weather, and time. Medicine and science makes me better, not God. Praying for God to help me doesn't do anything. Asking my family and friends to help me does. I believe in karma not God. I believe in being a good person & helping others less fortunate. That will make me stronger, not praying for strength. I have a hard time understanding, sympathizing, or empathizing with my family of religious driven people.

~ readers’ comments following an article rebutting the idea that under severe stress non-believers rush to religion (the old “No atheists in foxholes” argument)

an abandoned church (St. Boniface in Chicago)

Is suffering a test of atheism? Yes, this is a deliberate play on the old phrase that suffering is a test of faith (cf the story of Job). Studies indicate that the more suffering (poverty, illness, job insecurity), the more religiosity, and the more contentment in one’s life, the less interest in the supernatural. Atheism has been called the ultimate white privilege and a luxury stemming from a comfortable, secure life. The idea of “no atheists in foxholes” has been questioned; not so the finding that, aside from the rich districts of Johannesburg, there are virtually no atheists in sub-Saharan Africa.

Study after study has found religiosity correlated with hardship. Among the comfortable no one seems to miss the missing god. Who needs god when you are happy? You’re too busy being happy to think about metaphysics. If you have a strong need to express gratitude, you can always thank the universe and the people you love.

Happiness makes god as unnecessary as Stephen Hawking says he is. No new lovers wish to put Jesus at the center of their relationship (Jesus, let’s not forget, advised people to leave their spouses and children and follow him, since the end of the world was about to begin). But the argument as old as that of Satan in the Book of Job insists: just something take away your happiness and security, and we’ll see what happens to your faith (or atheism).

In the case of Job, however, Satan’s logic was the opposite of modern thinking: the Adversary (introduced as one of the sons of god) pointed out to Yahweh as the latter boasted of his faithful servant Job, that Job had every reason to be pious: he’d been blessed in every way. But take away his blessings, and he’ll CURSE god to his face. Not beg for mercy, but CURSE.

But Job’s response turned out to be quite complex. He continued to protest his innocence, which, his friends warned him, was to accuse god of injustice. Eventually he cursed the day he was born -- a milder form of cursing god, who presumably willed it that Job be born. And then, receiving no rational answer about the true cause of his suffering but only a narcissistic rant boasting particularly of the leviathan the behemoth as supreme marvels of creation, Job realized that he’s dealing with a dangerous lunatic who needs to be appeased with praise.

In a milder, modern version of Job, popularized by Rabbi Kushner, when bad things happen to good people, those good people who have enough remnant belief can turn to a new concept of god for comfort. Not for physical help -- this god will not break the laws of nature -- but for emotional solace of knowing that god cares and suffers with you (the idea of a happy, serene god is Eastern, not Western -- not counting the old pagan gods enjoying themselves to the hilt).

Making god suffer with me is the last thing I’d want. So I turn to music instead. In fact, my brain does it automatically, playing its own selections. Recently I was hit with major stress. I was startled to hear the International in my head, in Polish. I always loved the tune. Then I heard the Ode to Joy. And the Marseillaise. A Chopin impromptu. And on and on, until only Happy Birthday to You was left, which I quickly dismissed in favor of more Ode to Joy, all the time marveling at my brain’s attempts to soothe me. I don’t feel alone: I have myself. 


My own experience of suffering has had a convoluted history. It’s not even been entirely about suffering versus contentment, but about ideas versus ideas.

I suffered most during my twenties. I cried a lot (daily) and thought about suicide a lot (daily). Still, I never prayed. It simply didn’t occur to me. I don’t remember ever thinking of god during those years. There is some possibility that maybe I did, but later forgot. If so, I probably asked, “Why have you abandoned me?” (But I don’t remember asking that; I had real abandonments to come to terms with.)

The theist temptation emerged later, when I was in my thirties and my suffering lessened from acute to chronic. Thinking about religion was a luxury stemming from easier life. In my late twenties, I was too busy suffering to think about religion. Only later, when I was less desperate, I had enough leisure and material security to indulge in a “spiritual quest.”

Equally important, or possibly most important, the New Age movement was exploding. We were deluged with books on astrology, Tarot, synchronicity, intuitive healing, visualization as a tool for accomplishing “anything you want in life,” chanting for prosperity, and the “course in miracles.” You want a miracle? Scores of authors presented their recipes for “manifesting” a miracle.

How seductive those ideas were! Relax: life should be effortless and magical. “How to Live a Magical Life” was an actual book title, typical of the mentality of those years. It's enough to think about something and you'll “attract it” into your life. Suddenly I heard and read the opposite of what I had in childhood: not condemnation for being sinful, but "You are wonderful! You are magnificent! You have unlimited potential! You can be anything you want to be!” And of course the enormously seductive idea that what we are REALLY afraid of is our greatness.

And those books and magazines, even though I was browsing in them “just for fun,” smuggled in a new concept of god (sometimes called the Source or the Universe, which made it a lot more palatable): a totally benevolent deity (or universe) that wants you to be happy. Not the vengeful archaic deity, not the angry god. This was a friendly, happy, serene god, vaguely having something to do with quantum physics (or whose existence could allegedly be proved if only we understood quantum physics). The door of theist doubt was creaking open. Possibly the “real god” was somehow inherent in the universe, a friendly “ground of being” -- all you needed to know was the “laws of life” such as the Law of Attraction.

The priests and nuns of my childhood never suggested that god wants us to be happy. On the contrary, “God sends suffering to those he loves.” Suffering was holy; it was good for you. If Jesus suffered, then you should be glad you are suffering also. And the more you suffer in this life, the less time in Purgatory, since you have already “pre-suffered.” When I left the church, I thought this embrace of suffering went by the wayside, along with seeing myself as a wretched sinner and the rest of the masochistic nonsense.

But did it? True, I never saw suffering as redemptive. I knew it too well to think of it as ennobling. Did a bad knee ever make anyone a better person? Or a headache raise anyone’s thoughts to a higher plane? Or chronic depression lead to altruism?


Hangs by a thread --
Whatever it is. Stripped naked.
Shivering. Human. Mortal.
On a thread thinner than starlight.

By a power of a feeling
Hangs, impossible, unthinkable,
Between the earth and the sky.
I, it says. I. I.

And how it boasts
That everything that is to be known
About the wind
Is being revealed to is as it hangs.

~ Charles Simic, section I of “Two Riddles”

Yes, that boasting about how suffering imparts insight and knowledge. As if insight and knowledge never came from positive experiences.


Yet how come I had no interest in happiness, and in fact despised it? Why was the image of a fasting nun a lot more attractive than the image of a foodie enjoying dessert? The ascetic/heroic ideal always had more appeal. When a friend said, “My number one goal is to enjoy life,” I quickly turned away to hide my bottomless contempt.

And yet, strange to say, the same friend, who happened to have asthma, said she didn’t want to see a cure for asthma. Science should not try to find cures for diseases, she said. “Suffering is good for us. It makes us more spiritual.” Otherwise, I guess, we’d just enjoy life, which was supposedly her greatest desire. Of course all of us are bundles of contradictions, but in some that condition is more blatant.

I think there are two opposite currents in the modern culture, though they have less and less to do with religion.


Whatever the hidden influences, the short answer to the question of whether my atheism was tested by suffering is no. Intense suffering did not “lead me to god.” Would even more intense suffering had done so? No, it would have simply killed me. Instead of walking out of the hospital, I would have been rolled into the morgue.

(And there is no “mystery of death.” When a pet dies, no matter how beloved -- no matter how much we acknowledge the animal’s consciousness, feelings, and unique personality -- do we ever speak of the mystery of a dog’s death?)

New Age concepts had much more impact, I blush to confess. Ah, the joy of seeing of signs and wonders everywhere, the sweet feeling of being “guided by the universe”! Who wants to let go of that? And how sweet it was to hear that I was not a worthless sinner, but a magnificent being! Again, it wasn’t a matter of what I wanted. As before, with time new ideas entered my psyche, and the wishful thinking of my borderline New Age phase fell to pieces. 

Spiritual no more! The surprise was that hard-core atheism was not a bleak desert. An increased appreciation of life has followed my second “de-conversion.” A mellowing, yes, in the sense of greater affection for myself and loving my quiet life -- all this after decades of thinking that my life went wrong, that I made a fatal wrong turn into nowhere instead of the rich life I so much desired and had the intelligence and education to lead. Me, loving my life and interested in enjoying that quiet? Not desiring the noise of fame? It still shocks me to realize that I have reached a Yes on that.


It's amazing how much follows from accepting that this life is it: it's now or never. For Dante and for Dostoyevsky, heresy did not mean saying there is no god; the real heresy was saying that there is NO AFTERLIFE. Once you accept this "heresy," you don't want to waste time! Or opportunities for rich, memorable experiences. I had to reinvent myself once I truly accepted that "this is it."

Gustave DorĂ©: The Circle of the Heretics: Farinata in a flaming tomb. Farinata did not believe that the soul was immortal. 


Another important thing that follows from the insight that this life is all there is is what could be called "the culture of empathy." It's not just our earthly life that becomes infinitely precious to us. Others also become more dear. We are in this together, so the only thing is to help one another and be as affectionate as possible. War makes no sense. Not building flood protection makes no sense, and a lot of other things that now imply we don't fully value human life.

I’ve lost the attractive promises of Catholicism, and the even more attractive lies of New Age. But “that which is the highest” has remained.


All of us at a long school desk.
We’re told to tilt back our heads 

and slowly say, “Ouch, mother.”

A capsule is dropped down our throats

sometime during the vowels.

I fade out. Yet soon I walk, I love
the ash trees silver after rain.
The downtown hovers, half-cloud,
the bridge across the bay
spun with beams of light.

This is my world, my pearl,
my kingdom within and without.
And dying in the night, what is it
but a new self being born
to help us carry the questions.

I wake up refreshed 

in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Since childhood I have climbed
mountains; my sinews and bones
know that going downhill is the killer,

not the drunkenness of heights.
I have died more than once,
and look: I walk, I dream.
Siehe, ich lebe, “See, I live,”
I repeat after Rilke,

in the exquisite, horrifying tongue

of those who were executioners.
How close leben sounds to
lieben, the long liquid notes
of the same song:

Siehe, ich liebe
See, I love: it’s the story
of my life, of many lives.

~ Oriana © 2013


Wittgenstein: Don’t think. Look!