By Isaac Butler
The other day, a friend of mine told me that she had started shopping around her novel this week. She and I met through the coffee shop we both write from, so I've watched her working on this thing for a couple of hours every day for about four years, trying to sandwich it between raising her son and editing a well-trafficked website. It is, in other words, a major labor of love, something she's worked very hard on. I wanted to wish her well and let her know I was in her corner.
When you're an atheist, when, in particular, you don't think of yourself as spiritual, a lot of colloquial phrases seem strange. What, exactly, is the value of praying for someone when you don't think prayer works? What does it really mean to keep someone in your thoughts when you think that thought has no power in the world on its own?
What we mean when we say these things, of course, is simply I care about you. I want you to know that. I doubt everyone on facebook who says they're praying for someone is actually sitting there with their hands all here-is-the-churched actively beseeching the almight for some quickee results. Heck, many of the people I know who would say they're praying for a particular thing would not, when they had a moment to think about it, say they actually believe in an interventionist deity. It's simply that saying you're praying for someone is what you do, what one does.
But language, of course, has meanin; these phrases contain a worldview. We're told the problem with clichés is that they don't meaning anything. They're Orwell's Dead Language, an image or phrase devoid of meaning. The eye scans it, the ear hears it, and it moves on, unaffected. That's true, up to a point. For the cliché at some point meant something. It meant something so well, did such a good job of conveying an idea that everyone used it, and via using it, drained it of its signifiance. So much so, that we can use these phrases now and not really think about what they mean, even when it means that we're essentially showing an inauthentic version of ourselves to the world.
Of course, in the moment when a friend just wants some good vibes sent their way, only a pedant or a jackass would post an exegesis about why they are not, in fact, going to keep the person in their thoughts on their facebook wall or whateveer. My point is simply that one of the things belonging to an out-group allows you to do is see more clearly the assumptions embeddded in the everyday clichés we use to communicate with one another.
My atheism was born in the midst of an excoriating tragedy, a friend's death and my own cowardice in the face of it. Since then, I have experienced, as one does in life, other trials, other sadnesses. A terrorist attack on the city I lived in and the city I was born in on the same day. The death of a mentor. The collapse of a first marriage into contempt and silence. The suicide of my childhood babysittyer. The near-death of one of my parents. These are the moments when those who believe in the divine reach for it. In each of these moments, and the others I've been through, I've had to find something else.
I'd love to say-- it'd be so great, so comforting, so right-- to say that something was Art. But this is not true, and the nonfictioneer in my won't let me grasp for this easy, comforting answer. For while I believe in the power of art, in none of the above circumstances was there some moment, redemptive and cathartic both, as I listened to a piece of music or gazed on a painting. That, like Jesus saying Arise, and Walk, I pressed play on, say, Music for 18 Musicians and was healed.
Someone, I am sure, has actually had this experience, but I am not that person. For me, comfort has come from being with other people and, perhaps as a negative side effect of all of this, the healing that other people speak so highly of has never fully come. I don't walk around grieving all the time, but some there's some grit of those experiences that refuses to pass fully through the sieve.
I don't think you can choose whether you believe in God or not. You do or you don't. Your experience has lead you towards the divine or away. But, given the choice, I think I'd take my way, gritty sieve and constant tingling in the spine when I think about death an all. I like the urgency it gives me and the demand that I make my meaning every day with the people I am with. I don't believe in God. But I do believe in other people. And that's why, dear friend, of course I'll keep you in my thoughts. Of course I'll tell you that I am. Not because I think it will change the actual outcome of your day, but instead, because you asked me to, because it means something to you, and you are what matters, after all, after all.