Life with hope

August 2, 2007 | Atheism | 4 comments

I’ve had a bad day. It was all great, actually, until I took a couple minutes to read news and blogs this morning. I thought I was on a site that would be mostly light reading, and accidentally came across one of those news stories that told of someone doing something to another person that was so vile and unthinkable that it literally turns the stomach. I was so grief-stricken after reading it that I had to think about whether I needed to go into the bathroom in case I was going to throw up.

I won’t burden you with the details or a link, and I’m sure I don’t need to since I think we’ve all come across stories like that at one time or another. I only bother to mention the experience at all because it brought into relief how very different my life is now than it was a few years ago.

I don’t think I realized until today how difficult it was to live without hope. When I was an atheist, I had hope in a certain sense — I was optimistic about how certain events might play out in my life or in the world in general — but there was no greater hope with a source higher than this world, no opportunity for happy endings outside of humanity and the material universe.

And when I would come across sickening stories like the one I heard today, it was crushing. First of all, it felt somehow unfair that I was thrust into a state of such extreme discomfort. I would find myself gripped with feelings in my heart that were powerful to the point of defying description…yet have to remind myself that my species had simply evolved in such a way that this type of stimulus triggered certain chemicals in my brain that led to feelings of psychological discomfort. It was unpleasant, hard work to suppress these kinds of feelings, and I really wished that our species would hurry up and evolve away such painful reactions to events that one can’t do anything about. (This is sort of the atheist version of shaking your fist at God). 🙂

But, mostly, these situations were crushing for their sheer hopelessness. I would sometimes throw out statements in frustration like, Why don’t we all just kill ourselves right now?!…and though I meant the question to be exaggerated and rhetorical, it was an expression of the sinking feeling I had in my heart. Especially in cases where the perpetrators of such crimes got away with it, the lack of justice in human existence repulsed the mind. People could commit atrocities with no repercussions. They could tell themselves that what they did wasn’t even wrong. They could live out happy lives without so much as a ripple in their consciences.

At those moments, life felt so dreary. The world was full of evil; there was no justice other than what limited, flawed human institutions could try to provide; there was no satisfying explanation or validation for the extreme feelings that boiled in my heart; and on top of that, there was no clear definition of what acts were “evil” or “wrong”, allowing people to do terrible things and go along their merry way, simply telling themselves that they didn’t even do anything wrong in the first place.

The meaning of life, as I had come to understand it through my worldview, involved optimizing on the human experience here on earth. But at times like this it was clear that the human experience was fraught with unfairness and suffering beyond our control. If this world around us is all there is, I’d think, if existence goes no deeper and no further than this cesspool we call the material world, then……I usually didn’t finish the thought. It was just too depressing to think about.

So, today, when I read the news story, it was no more or less horrifying to me than it would have been when I was an atheist. But today I had hope. As many horrible things as happen in the world, at least there is a realm beyond earthly life where all is put right, where there is peace for the innocents, and justice for wicked deeds. At least there is something I can do, that my prayers make a difference; that as a member of the interconnected Mystical Body of Christ, making myself a little bit better, a little bit less sinful, helps everyone. At least I know that even if this act of cruelty goes unnoticed by everyone else in the world, that I am not the only one to care, for God mourns too.

And, finally, at least today those emotions that raged within me made sense. I understand now, to my great satisfaction and relief, that though the feelings that boiled within me were carried out through chemical reactions in my brain, their ultimate source was my eternal soul, which felt lost, distraught and out of place for a reason — because this is not its true home.

4 Comments

  1. Literacy-chic

    Thanks for this post. I never described myself as an atheist–I was more the type who rationalized my own beliefs apart from God with the justification that God was so unknowable that what I thought of Him didn’t matter anyway, but certainly all of the churches that taught about Him were wrong by virtue of the fact that they were composed of fallible human beings and because they dared to try to pin Him down. Better not to know you’re persisting in sin, right? But one of the turning points in my conversion process was a similar realization that I had no hope, and that I was in a kind of despair about the horrific events in the world. For a long time, the “what if the Church is right” about things like the necessity of Baptism had been in the back of my head, but I must have begun to answer the “what if” with “then there is hope after all.” I realized that conclusion fully when we started attending Mass as a family and the very words of the Mass made that realization clear: “as we wait in joyful hope” and “look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church” and “protect us from all anxiety.” At first, I even saw the first phrase as a kind of morbid wish for the end of the world, but that soon changed. It’s a profound realization. Thanks again for bringing this back to me.

  2. wifeofaddict

    This is truly beautiful. You are my daily grounding in reality. Praise God for you!!

  3. Kristen Laurence

    Beautiful, Jen. I love learning more about you!

  4. lyrl

    Jen – I’m sorry you felt the need to suppress and rationalize away your emotions for much of your life. I’m really glad you’ve found a more fulfilling world view.

    Just to put a word in for agnostics, though, I’ve never felt any need to rationalize away any of my emotions and find humanity just as full of hopeful actions as horrifying ones. There’s more than one way to live a fulfilling life.

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