Part 4 of 5.
Deaths and (Re)births Part 4: The Reckoning
At some point, stumbling around in the darkness, I had stopped even attempting to do homework. Some of my classes didn’t make attendance part of the final grade; I stopped attending these classes altogether. I initially told some of my professors about our plight but received no quarter. My Logic professor responded curtly, “Huh. My son and his wife had triplets.” Despite the round the clock assistance his son’s family was receiving from his extended family and his ward, having triplets was apparently much harder under any circumstances, so I had nothing to complain about.
On one particular evening I was on my way home from work. Rounding the point of the mountain I dozed off. I violently came to seconds later, realizing I had drifted into the opposite lane. Fortunately, the other lane was momentarily empty of vehicles and I quickly turned back to the left to re-enter my lane, greeted by not a few honking cars. That was it. This was probably the 7th or 8th time I had dozed off on I-15 and I was going to get myself killed. I pulled over at the Thanksgiving Point exit and parked my truck on the side of the road, determined to grab a 15-minute catnap. But I couldn’t sleep. The adrenaline produced from being snatched out of sleep was still coursing through my veins. Gazing out at the cars whizzing by on the freeway in the fading light, I shook my head, smiling a mirthless smile. It was hopeless. No really, it was, I thought. The lack of sleep was making me catatonic. I was in constant pain from head to toe and almost always wanted to cry. I had never experienced depression before and now wondered if this was what it felt like.
I didn’t care about anything. On some days I would come home half hoping to hear Amanda had had an affair so I could exit from the misery that was our marriage. I might have considered one myself if I even had the energy to desire any such thing. As if any woman could have even slightly desired my company. I knew that the abhorrence of life I had begun to carry around with me was revealed perfectly on my face. I couldn’t have been less attractive or appealing and I’m sure, now, that no one wanted to be around me. Amanda and I spoke to each other but rarely conversed (I discovered there was a big difference between speaking and conversing). We fought over everything. Both of us had become precision experts in tactically locating the other’s weak spots and mercilessly hacking one another to bits. We hated each other. I despised other people, whom I was sure had never experienced anything close to what we were going through. I hated life. When I wasn’t hoping something or someone besides myself would end my marriage I was hoping the babies would just die. They were the source of all this horrendous suffering. If they weren’t going to improve it would be better for them to just pass on to their Celestial state. To make matters worse for me, Amanda didn’t appear to feel that way about them. She would occasionally become frustrated with them but only rarely directed her negative thoughts and feelings toward them. Ironically, what was killing her was also providing her with the will to go on. I detested her for this. That she could love them—not that she loved them more than she loved me, so much as the fact that she could love the very source of her suffering when I could not—drove the wedge deeper between us.
I would find out later that most days she would cry all day until about an hour before I returned home. We didn’t know it at the time, but her postpartum depression was truly severe. It was winter, and with the additional threat of RSV (respiratory disease) striking the twins, she almost never left the house. Later she told me that on some days she would stand, wearing nothing but her garments, in the frame of the open front door, a baby in each arm, staring off into nothing. Sometimes people would pass by but she wouldn’t notice until they had moved past her. She would spend hours doing this.
Her pain was surely greater than mine. At least I would get an almost daily break from the hell residing in our home and have actual conversations with adults. Amanda was trapped, both in the physical confines of our small apartment, and in the prison of her own mind. She was often completely unresponsive to me, making our fights sometimes strangely welcome. I knew she was suffering more than I. But I was such a small, pathetic man because knowing this made things worse for me, and embittered me toward her. I never felt like I could say I had a hard day; her day was inevitably harder. I never felt like I could complain and rant and rave; she rarely complained. I wanted to suffer the most, to be the one that should be most pitied. I didn’t have any reserves left to help her, to go to work, to be a student; didn’t that count for something on the suffering scale?
My job was barely providing for the necessities of life and it wasn’t enough. I was probably going to fail my Logic class so I wouldn’t graduate this year, my primary responsibility unfulfilled. And what would I be graduating in? Philosophy. Philosophy. Of all the worthless majors to concentrate on I had chosen that one. Oh sure, I had had a “plan”. I was going to graduate school. I wanted to teach. What a joke. Even if I miraculously passed this class my middling GPA virtually guaranteed that no graduate school would ever accept me. Two months previously, I had written a trial letter of intent, seeing if I could adequately explain to a graduate program why my GPA was so low and how that shouldn’t be an obstacle in considering me for their program. Strangely, I just couldn’t find the right phrasing for explaining how I chose to help my wife with our twins instead of doing homework and concentrating on the studies that would prepare me for graduate school. That dream was destroyed.
And I didn’t feel like a father at all. Many days I felt like (what I imagined would be) a partial and failed mother. At work and school all day, not making enough money, studying for exams to get a degree that was almost totally resistant to employment. Up all night caring for children that didn’t seem to ever respond to my care. I couldn’t provide but I couldn’t mother either: “fathering” didn’t seem to be different from “mothering.” Or, perhaps, I was failing at fathering (being a provider) to the same degree I was failing at mothering (being a nurturer). Was I a human being anymore? Was I even a man? Whatever I was, it was a shell of what I had once been. I was in limbo, suspended painfully in midair. My world hadn’t crumbled to dust so much as it had become utterly meaningless.
In the midst of all this, the question finally overwhelmed me. I had resisted it in the Gethsemane of that birthing room, the day the twins were born and the day it seemed no divine or earthly mercy would be extended to my wife in her agony. The question had appeared on my door step each day since then and each day I ignored it and went resolutely about my suffering. With the slow passage of time, it grew larger in my field of vision, until it was everywhere I looked, on the periphery of my gaze, always unflaggingly present. And now, with no strength left, I could not resist anymore, and one day it came in, and calmly and silently sat down and took up residence in my heart. In the silence of my commute from Provo to Salt Lake I began to seriously question my religious beliefs. I fairly quickly (and surprisingly) came to realize that any sort of genuine acceptance of atheism was out of the question for me, not because it was ridiculous or misguided, but because I was ensnared and held captive by my religious world. Atheism wasn’t an option because, as a concept, it was too easy, easy to the point of impossibility. I could happily conceptually assent to it, but only superficially. It wasn’t that one was more rationally defensible and the other weak and faulty. I found that I was bound by ten thousand threads to an existence that I never primordially chose for myself, and thus a way of being that on a fundamental level I could not merely discard. I discovered this when I willfully and consciously began telling myself that God (at least the God of my understanding) did not exist. Classic response to the problem of evil: when the suffering get intense and prolonged enough you’ll eventually see that God (who is the God of intervention and deliverance) will not deliver you, just as he has not delivered millions upon millions from slow agonizing death, lives that endured far more than you, and then were snuffed out of existence. Once you realize this, you’ll stop believing. Unrelenting suffering is the funeral dirge of any so-called god. Good. Bring it on. What a welcome relief that will be.
I couldn’t make myself disbelieve. I could not do it, no matter how I willed it. Which wasn’t to say that many preconceptions and particularized beliefs were not pulverized and ground into dust. I was more confused than ever about the nature of God, his presence in my life, and how to reconcile my unrelentingly painful experience with what I had been taught about him. But I could not make myself believe he didn’t exist, or that his presence wasn’t more obvious and tangible during prior moments of my life. You see, converting from a religious worldview to an atheistic one is, in the long view, a fairly judicious and reasonable move, one that potentially solves a lot of cognitive dissonance, if it’s even possible for you at all. Though I could not do it myself, I discovered that for those who could, such a conversion could be quite freeing. The reason is because such a conversion will usually require one to alter and re-align one’s entire view of cosmology–of the place of the world and human beings within existence. Everything changes, yes–but everything changes together, simultaneously, in a kind of godless harmony. The fragments of of a broken world realign (perhaps over time) to form a different, yet even more logically feasible world, one that appears to be newly cohesive and coherent. As religious people, we don’t normally give the atheist worldview a whole lot of credence. But that’s not because the religious worldview is so overwhelmingly rationally superior, and atheism is irrational and pathetic. It is because our religion has seized us, called to us in such a way that we could not ignore it, captured our minds and our hearts with little effort on our part. There’s a little free will wriggling around in there. But not much. And it only exerts itself within that specific context. You are religious (and, more specifically, Christian, or Hindu, or Mormon) more because of the pious threads of religious life that created you, or the religious event or events that interrupted and broke open your previous world, and now give new meaning to the world it has created in its place. It’s shocking to the community of the former believer, of course, that thing that is worse than murder, to turn your back on religion and God. But the move itself is perfectly rational, if rationality is ultimately non-contradiction, and non-contradiction is all the pieces of the observable world fitting together somehow. How could that not be liberating?
In my case, however, I felt I could be afforded no such cognitive relief. Now, there was an error in the program, a tear in the painting, but the painting did not get replaced or substituted with a different painting, one that could be equally beautiful and understood, one with no major flaws. It just sat there in front of me, unmoving and glaringly, even gaudily (godily?), imperfect. Over and over again I wished there wasn’t a God. My desire for God to not exist was ironically intense and earnest enough to amount to being a prayer, a prayer that my prayers would be received by nothingness. Better to know that I was on my own and could only rely on myself and others than to know He was there and supposedly loved me, but that I was nevertheless alone in his presence. The loneliness of solitude under the gaze of an omni-benevolent and omnipotent God, a God who was everywhere at all times, was infinitely worse than the loneliness shared with an equally lonely universe. That kind of realization, to my broken mind, was truly, even absurdly, tragic. The seemingly easy way out would not be an option. I would have no choice but to somberly reckon with the religious world and the religious peoples who had made me what I was. There was no where else to look but up–at an invisible, silent, ever present God, gazing wordlessly down upon me.