Deaths and (Re)births Part 4: The Reckoning

Part 4 of 5.

Part 1 here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here

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.

But no.

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.

§

Part 5: The Ascent

Comments

  1. KerBearRN says:

    “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. ”
    You have put into words one of the most challenging questions of all time. I believe we will all ultimately face this exact question. Thank you for sharing all of this, despite the pain you have suffered.

  2. 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.

    !Yes! It is hard to express to people how knowing that God is there, but you are experiencing pain and loss anyway, makes things so much harder.

    Yes. Even more so when he is not quite silent, but still is not offering an escape yet.

  3. BTW, I’m all the more impressed you are in the doctoral program at the Claremont colleges. Did you ever meet Pistas3 there (one of the founders of FAIR)?

  4. Wow this is raw and brutal. Band-aids don’t work on this gaping hole.

    Supposedly this line was found scrawled on a cellar wall where Jews had hidden during WWII, although documentation is hard to find…. “I believe in God even when He is silent.” Similar to your thoughts as you were in the throes of your Gethsemane.

  5. I remember that feeling. To believe that God is, but is not what you hoped is worse than being alone and knowing it. Jesus said, “The truth shall make you free,” and I always believed that implicitly, believed that knowing the truth was always preferable to believing a lie, no matter what the truth might be, until I was faced with just such a feeling as you describe. Then the possibility occurred to me that I might be fundamentally incompatible with the truth, that it could be so intrinsically horrible to my very nature that a naive belief in a good God was the only shield against complete oblivion and I had been a fool for piercing it, for looking behind the curtain and forever spoiling any possibility of enjoying the magic now that I’d seen the trick. I honestly don’t know if it’s comforting or not that someone else has felt this way. Maybe if I still felt that way I’d be simultaneously annoyed that I couldn’t be special even in my despondence and smug that others were finally starting to wise up their foolishness. That is a road I am stronger for having traveled and one I hope to never set foot on again.

  6. Adam Miller says:

    Jacob.

  7. Jacob,

    You’re obviously coming to a climax here; the power of this essay is building and building, and I’m not sure how much more of your honesty I can take–though I want to take it! But I’m going to side-step that, and ask a question, perhaps theological, perhaps psychological, that now you perhaps have enough distance to answer.

    Over and over again I wished there wasn’t a God. 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.

    Did it never strike you that this is a strange, and not necessarily logical feeling? I suspect it seems intuitively obvious to many of your readers, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t to me, and I’m not sure it ever has. Why can’t God love us and simultaneously not be at all interested in our welfare at any particular moment, perhaps be willing to let dash ourselves against the rocks, or even do that dashing for us? Sure, we, in our mortal parameters, might say “Oh, that’s not humane, that’s not actually loving, that’s inconsistent”–but is it? If we take the Biblical God seriously (and in this post you confess that, try as you might, you apparently couldn’t not take the Biblical God seriously), then we’re taking seriously a God who is, on occasionally, spectacularly monstrous. He floods the earth and kills everybody. He commands prophets and kings to slaughter men and women and farm animals. He sends plagues. He sends a missionary to the Lamanites and, just for the sake of damn first contact, he empowers him to render a whole bunch of pathetic misguided robbers a bunch of armless cripples. There’s a lot of nice words that come out Jesus’s mouth, but if He’s actually Jehovah, then even Jesus seems to be the sort who would literally, and not just metaphorically, send His faithful a sword.

    I’m a Job reader, if you can’t tell. I think it the most spiritually insightful book of scripture we have, with the possible exception of some of the epistles of Paul and the book of Jacob in the BoM. Maybe it all comes down to temperament, to genetics, to those thousand chords you mention. But for me, at some point, perhaps very early on, it seemed perfectly possible that God loved me as His child, but at the same time may not actually like me very much. Could it be that the tear in the painting you confronted was actually your own mortal definition of “omnibenevolence,” a definition that perhaps He never agreed with, but was just (wrongly?) attributed to Him? I await Part 5, and an answer. (Or not?)

  8. “But for me, at some point, perhaps very early on, it seemed perfectly possible that God loved me as His child, but at the same time may not actually like me very much. ”

    This has been my experience, or that he liked other people/found them more worthwhile than me. It is a keen sense of the nothingness of man.

    Jacob, I love this series.

  9. Hey Jacob,

    I liked you fine before. I like you much better now. Good on ya,

  10. Jacob,

    You describe so well the betrayal and foresakeness I felt as a teenager after the death of my father. At some point I decided there must be no such thing as God, for no God could watch my suffering and not deliver me from it. But after a time I realized that even that thought was simply a way of trying to manipulate God into helping me. As if my threats of disbelief would scare him into action. No, I couldn’t not relate to God. Even my desire to disbelieve was in direct relation to him. Realizing this, I felt as you describe. The answer that there was in fact a God and that he knew full well my suffering was a worse proposition than there being no God at all to turn to. Now, instead of the hope of deliverance by a benevolent father, I was faced with what I was convinced was a cruel ruler who hated me personally. I could not turn to him for peace, so I decided I would hate him in return. And I did, for a very, very long time. And what a journey it was.

  11. My goodness, I felt the spirit so strongly while reading this and the comments. I have no children, I have no twins, but here was something I could relate to! I have PTSD and in my darkest hours I have alternately wished for, and feared Atheism. I too thought maybe I am just not good enough and God doesn’t love me. How I have struggled, and how I still do. It is moments like these though where the spirit is so strong that it is palpable and can move a robot like me to tears that I know it has all been worth it and that I can keep going after all. Bless you all.

  12. Russell, I want to answer your question at some length, and I think Part 5 will partially do that. However, I’m traveling across country today, and might not have time today to fully respond (I think I might be lucky to get Part 5 up by tonight, unfortunately).

    KerBearRN, Stephen, kc, Brian, mmiles, Thomas, EOR, thank you for commenting. Sincerely. I’ve received as much and probably more from people’s comments on these posts than I’ve given in return. Your stories and responses of gratitude have been vitalizing and encouraging.

    Sunny, your words are sacred. It is a hallowed (though not joyful, wanted, or immediately appreciated and appraised) experience to go through what you did. As I’ll mention in the last post, the words “Oh God where art thou?” are the words of the disciple, not the atheist. We have not yet grasped what it ultimately means to live as the religious person until we understand the critical significance of that kind of experience.

  13. Russell, I think there is a time when the pain gets very great. I know it started to catch up with me before I met my wife.
    How could God let me go through so much pain?

    I knew he was there …. but, the pain did not have much purpose. That entire experience gave me hope when I was in a new job a year after burying my third child in five years. The job was terrible, and things would get worse. God was driving my wife through graduate school (but for the constant spiritual pressure I am certain she would have walked away), we had a new born and additional stress.

    But I can and could remember prior pain and escape.

    It is one thing to dash against the rocks of mortality and quite another to be swallowed up in individual pain.

    It also gets harder when you are in a rinse and repeat cycle. Ok, we had a child die. There is a community of people who have had that happen. Then, eleven months later it happened again. Then it happened again.

    I was in a place where I had published a bit in ADR and it was taking off. Things I wrote are still cited in the CFRs. A training last year for the Shanghai High Court on ADR used materials.

    There was a time I was being asked by law schools to interview for tenured positions. My life made that impossible. Can you guess how many times that has happened in the last ten years, now that I could make the transition?

    Zero would be the answer.

    Now, I have a much better concept of what a “brief moment” means than I did. But if I had not been prepared (and forewarned in one case) I would have been overwhelmed.

    I very much appreciate the feeling.

  14. it's a series of tubes says:

    Jacob, I think this series may be the best thing ever posted on BCC. Thank you for it, and for the raw, honest look at the extremity of “ordinary” suffering.

    You’ve dredged up the fear and trauma from my similar experience, at a similar time, at a similar place. Perhaps we passed each other as ghosts on campus. I’m looking forward to the remaining portions of this series and to see how the path forward evolved for you, because while some of the issues arising from that time have been resolved for me, others have not. I hope to learn more from your experiences.

  15. Very affecting. I’ve not been through anything so intense involving the happiness of both myself and those I loved (that involvement of others surely amplifies the pain and limits one’s options for coping with the pain), but I know the feeling you describe in some measure. The god figure in Chesterton’s comic religious novel The Man Who Was Thursday [**spoiler alert**] takes this discovery process in reverse–He is seen first as a devil figure, fought fiercely by the earthly forces of good and order, and only later revealed to be the source of true goodness. I read the book after a time of struggle with my faith which turned into a struggle with anger, as I felt God had allowed or consciously created great unresolvable moral conflicts and then sat silently for a long time watching me while I struggled with them. I wished in my lowest moments that it would somehow be revealed to me that my faith system was all untrue–as painful as that would be–so that I wouldn’t have to try to piece the universe together and hold such tension inside of me. Much later, discussing the Chesterton book with friends, I was surprised to find that most were not great fans–at least one of them rejected the possibility of a god whose expression of love included the promotion of grotesque anarchy and (seemingly?) arbitrary distribution of pain. I loved the book because it portrayed the God I had begun to discover in my struggles, and I rarely heard that God spoken of in Mormon church meetings–though He’s in the scriptures, of course, including Mormon scripture.

  16. I’ve been pondering my response to this most of the day. One of my brothers became an atheist at around age 16. Looking at him now, his life seems more straightforward, free from angst. He seems to have more freedom to choose the direction of his life. He’s a great guy, with a great family, and happy. And where am I? I’m happy about my husband and my children, but otherwise? It’s something I have been thinking about seriously. This view we have that life is a test to see whether we’ll do ALL things God commands of us… This view we have that the gospel should be making us happy… (Just how many of us really enjoy a test afterall?) Too be an atheist has its many attractions, but I can’t do it either… Just a small fraction of my thoughts…

  17. I’m not really inclined to comment on the latter half of this post – it’s interesting in a philosophical way, but I don’t know that I can really relate. Instead, what really resonated with me were the early despair feelings where you wished you had an escape option. I feel very ashamed to have had these feelings myself. Pride wouldn’t let me walk out on her, but I wished that she would give me a compelling reason, like an affair. I had dreams of car accidents, where they would die, or I would. I didn’t have thoughts of suicide, but more of a desire to not exist, or to go into Witness Protection and have a different life. It’s terrible looking back at those days, when I’m now climbing out of the pit. I do understand and wish you happiness now. =)

  18. Can anyone rescue my prior comment from the spam filter? I hit post from my iphone and when it refreshed there was nothing there. I don’t have the heart to try to retype it all. Thanks.

  19. “Oh God where art thou?” are the words of the disciple, not the atheist. We have not yet grasped what it ultimately means to live as the religious person until we understand the critical significance of that kind of experience.

    Oh Jacob… yes. Unfathomably, yes. I attempted to write about this place before, but do so much less adequately than you have. I found that darkness in the midst of losing everything to my husband’s drug addiction…

    Not everything that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger- sometimes things just hurt like hell for no reason. You get used to the dark, to the howling wind, to hard sharp edges that cut and tear as you tumble by, wondering in desperation where God went…

    That’s the most terrifying part. The utter and abject desolation of feeling abandoned by God. Lost. Forgotten. Forsaken. In the prolonged absence of light, with nothing to reflect back who you might be, you forget your own edges and question where the darkness ends and you begin. This is the place where your heart cleaves, the contents within spill into the deep darkness, you balk in terror at what seems like the end of the world.

    It is, in it’s very essence, being human. Being broken. Howling at God. Thank you for sharing your story.

  20. Thank you, Jacob. I can relate.

  21. Reading this series has been like not being able to turn away from a train wreck because you just “have to watch”. I both palpably feel your pain and at the same time don’t want to read because it brings me back to my own dark times…Jacob, you have helped me to “see” the struggles in my own family that brought us down. I think we have had our nadir, at least for the present, but still worry about the long-term affects on all involved. Your thoughts on His existence and involvement in our day-to-day lives is spot on…I believe.

    Thank you for this series, I don’t commonly write, as those who post on BCC are much more eloquent than I could ever hope to be but…thank you again.

  22. Jacob, I can’t really say that I have enjoyed this series, because it is just too painful. Your honesty is not just refreshing, it is cathartic. I’ve never had to deal with anything even remotely this painful (yet). However, I have a son who has been inhabiting his own particular wasteland for the past several years, and reading this has helped me to understand just a little more the particular hell he has been going through. Please let me know it gets better. So far, it is almost like reading a Cormac McCarthy novel, where things just go from bad to worse, then take an extremely awful turn at the end, dashing all hope. I am hanging on the hope that this all ends well (even though I assume it must, as you are posting this here for all the world to see).

  23. cayblood says:

    Russell Arben Fox, all we have on which to base our conception of benevolence is our individual and shared human experience. We necessarily extrapolate godlike benevolence to be a more superlative degree of that which we have experienced here. While this extrapolation may be completely off-base, we simply have nothing else to go on. I deliberately reject some of these biblical depictions of godliness because all my human experience tells me that they are inferior to the benevolence that we now are capable of conceiving.

    The much more likely explanation for the apparent capriciousness of the biblical god is that he is a mosaic of human conceptions of goodness, some of which remain current and others of which have been superseded by far more compelling conceptions.

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