“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau
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I watched a news story the other morning about a 69 year old man that climbed Mt. Everest recently. He was asked by Matt Lauer, the Today Show host, why he did it at his age, what did he get out of it? He replied “Because I love to live in the present” or something to that effect. He went on to explain that when he was on the climb, which took from 4 to 6 weeks, he was always in the present, always savoring the moment, something he did not do, for such an extended period of time when he was back home, working, living his life. It got me to thinking…
…thinking about my past life, pre-deconversion. Way back when I was a little kid, a nice Catholic boy, attending parochial school, listening to what the nuns told me about growing up, my place in the world. There will probably be some ex-Catholics out there nodding their heads as I reminisce. Bear with me.
We were sinners. Get that straight right now, we were bad kids. Not that our mothers thought so, but the nuns knew it. There was very little that was good about us, except our potential, and that was provisional. But we were sinners, and not only on our own account, but on account of our ancestors, Adam and Eve (especially Eve, the hussy) who didn’t listen to God when he told them not to partake of the fruit of the apple tree.
Apple tree? That’s what we thought it was, because that’s what all the pictures showed. They called it the tree of knowledge, but really, it looked just like an apple tree. Eve was crunching on an apple. And then she gave one to Adam, and he took a bite. Then they looked at each other and said together “Holy, hell, you’re naked! What’s going on?” Naturism lost a lot with that apple.
So that sin was passed onto us, and when we were born, our account was already opened, and had a negative balance. A very large negative balance. Original Sin, the nuns called it, and it was a doozy. But fortunately for us, God fixed it so that we could wipe out that negative balance, when he sent his son down to be tortured and killed for us. All we had to do was eat all our vegetables, always tell the truth to our parents and teachers, and keep bad thoughts from intruding into our haloed heads (though that last one got harder and harder as we aged. And besides, how do you know it’s a bad thought until it’s in your head, by which time you’ve already sinned? It was soooo confusing.)
My point here is that we were not being taught to live for the moment, to live in the present, to enjoy our life. We were being taught to live in the past, and to worry about the future, by always minding Adam and Eve’s first sin, what God, and his son Jesus, did for us to fix the problem, and what we had to continually keep in mind in order to avoid a future that would not be pleasant, indeed downright hellish. The process was stultifying, very distracting, and I’ve come to resent it.
And then there was the GUILT. Good old Catholic guilt. Jesus was watching everything you did, and monitoring everything you thought. He knew everything. So he knew when you were bad or good, probably more so than Santa Claus. The nature of guilt causes one to constantly dwell on the past, and to a certain extent, the future. You are always mulling over past actions, and measuring them against the standards the nuns told you God demanded. Was that quick peek up Mary’s dress via her patent leather shoes noticeable? God knew. When you told your mom your homework was done, but you still had two math problems, did that count as a lie? You were going to finish them in a few minutes. God said it was. Even white lies were venial sins.
All this gut wrenching guilt interfered with my ability to enjoy the moment. I was too busy worrying about getting caught by God, and being punished when I died, simultaneously looking backward and forward. I needed to go to confession to tell the priest about my past sins, and say plenty of Hail Marys and Our Fathers in order to insure my passage through the pearly gates.
Well, I grew up, but continued this preoccupation with the past and the future, while living in the present. And then next thing I knew, 40 years slipped by. I had long since stopped going to church and confession, finally figuring out that they were a waste of time, but the guilt was always there, constantly forcing me to reassess my past conduct. Why? Out of habit, I suppose.
Finally, after a lot of reading, discussing and soul (sic) searching, I shed God. Or god, as I now call him. The sense of freedom when I finally admitted this to myself was palpable. It felt like a massive weight had been removed from my back. I was free to enjoy the moment, and not dwell on the past, or worry about the future. What I did yesterday was done. If it was in error, I’d have to live with it, or work around it. As for my future, I was going to die, and when I was dead, it would be the same as before I was born, and there was nothing I could do about it. Most important, what I did today would not be judged in some other world, some other lifetime, nor would it affect me for all eternity. It might have a temporal effect, here, in this life, but I could deal with that. I might have regrets about my conduct, but they were now opportunities to learn from my mistakes, not reasons to beat myself up over guilt.
My whole outlook on life changed. My sense of reality transformed before my eyes. Science was no longer just another boring subject. What used to be an oak tree, was now a very distant ancestor, one with much of the same DNA as I had in my own chemical makeup. Thinking like that makes you really appreciate the vicissitudes of life. It also opens your eyes to possibilities you never thought about. I stopped looking at the stars in the sky and thinking that they could not exist without a designer. I now look to the night sky and marvel at the sheer depth of the universe, and my place in it. The overwhelming profundity of the idea of hundreds of billions of celestial bodies floating out there in space is mind boggling. Just the concept of the light year evokes jaw dropping awe. The universe doesn’t revolve around me, but it does revolve, by immutable laws of nature that are far more wondrous and far more mystical than any bearded old man who lives in the clouds.
Part of this newfound freedom is that for the first time in my life I feel that my life is mine, not someone else’s, not god’s, not the church’s, not society’s – mine. It’s hard to describe the sense of freedom inherent in that feeling. Some might say that it sounds suspiciously selfish. Where does the rest of the world fit into my life? This freedom does not imply an abnegation of my responsibilities to others. I still have a wife, children, a job, people who rely on me. I am still responsible for the commitments I’ve made to them. It’s just that now I do it for the sake of the commitment, for the pure joy of completing a task that sustains others, because I’m part of a world where interdependence is necessary to the smooth operation of society. I fulfill my responsibility, someone benefits. It happens now. And I gain satisfaction now.
There is an eternity in every moment, but if we cannot enjoy it now, it is fleeting, it has passed, it is gone before we get to enjoy it. Being able to live that eternity now, always in the present , savoring it before it’s gone, is something I’ve come to appreciate more than anything else about atheism.
I’m able to ride the wave, not watch it go by.