The first 40 years of my life were spent being assured that I believed in God, being told what to believe in God, and being told that people who didn’t believe in the same God I was supposed to believe in were just wrong. Being born open-minded, none of that ever quite settled too well with me. It was shortly after my 40th birthday that I decided it was time to stop trying so hard to believe in something that was so counter-intuitive to logic, reason and basic common sense, that I would suspend the ruse and admit I was an Atheist.
I’ve never been what one would call a “rabid Atheist”, though I admit to never having come in contact with one. At the mere suggestion there is no such thing as a “higher power” or “Magical Sky Daddy”, I’ve been attacked plenty of times, though I’m always only speaking for myself. If you want to believe in a God, good for you. If God works for you, great. If you need to both love and fear something you can’t see in order to convince you to be a good person and do the right thing, that that’s what you should believe. You’ll get no argument from me. Why I can accept that you have the right to believe in a God and I don’t have the right not to believe in a God has always confounded me, what with being an American and growing up to believe that free thought and free speech was fundamental to being an American and all – but I get it every day. Just the other night, I was informed by a Christian that Atheism is an “oxymoron” since I can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. I told him to bring his God over for tea. I’d invite the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and we’d hash this out once and for all. He had no response. Maybe he was offended that Santa didn’t get an invite.
This week, someone sent me a link to a YouTube video of Oprah Winfrey interviewing swimmer Diana Nyad on her “Super Soul Sunday” edition of her program. I don’t have cable, so I didn’t see it but I was a little surprised at the tone and tenor of the conversation. Here’s the video:
I know it’s no longer cool to like Oprah, but like her I do. I admire a woman who came from nothing, overcame great adversity and has committed herself to empowering other women. There’s a lot to be said for that. What it doesn’t mean is that I always find her entertaining or right. That doesn’t make me like her less. I was, however, disappointed with her exchange with Nyad after the athlete admitted to being an Atheist. Somehow, being awed by beauty and nature and humanity means to Oprah that Nyad is somehow in denial of Oprah’s version of God but fails to either recognize it or admit it. Nyad handled the exchange with courage and grace and she did it better than I ever could have.
I find Oprah’s definition of God simplistic and meaningless. She essentially said that Nyad was in for a surprise when she died – like Steve Jobs. I’m still shaking my head over that one. I’m not sure how Oprah thinks she knows what Steve Jobs believed in the moment of death but I’m pretty sure she’s full of it. Oprah lives a life wearing God Goggles, enabling her only to see the world and others through them. I get that, but challenging the non-belief of another is just as offensive as challenging those who believe. I don’t do it because it’s rude and insensitive and I thought Oprah knew better. I’ve tried wearing God Goggles, but stopped because I realized they were the reason I was running into walls in my life. They kept me from seeing what was right in front of me.
“I’m an Atheist who’s in awe”, said Nyad. I get that.
As an avid nature photographer, I’m in awe all the time. I watch stunning sunrises on the way to work every day and sometimes I pull over to photograph them. I see stunning sunsets over Lake Hooterville when the weather permits and I photograph those. I see the beauty in my better half’s calloused hands, knowing what the fruits of his labor have produced and appreciating the gentleness with which he uses hands that are strong enough to bend steel – I’ve seen him do it. But it is when I see two living beings truly connect in surprising ways that I am most moved by my world.
I need to preface my story by telling you that the past few years have been rough for me. I’m educated, have more than one degree, have always been an honest and hard worker and always made plenty of money. That was all true until the Crash of ’08. Suddenly, money from everywhere dried up, the writing I had been doing lost all funding and I was a gray-haired, middle-aged woman with no prospects. People with more education than I had were working at McDonalds and no matter where I applied, there was nothing for me. Turns out there wasn’t a big market for folks 10 years from retirement who’d always made plenty of money. I couldn’t even get a minimum wage job. After three years, I’d been forced to sell off virtually everything I owned, move back to the Midwest, greatly simplify my life and start over. Not an easy thing for a 50-something. Job prospects here were no better than they were on the coast, but I finally landed a menial office job for minimum wage with the promise of better pay and sales commissions if I “worked out”. A year and a half later, this small businessman who had been on the brink of bankruptcy and had suffered a heart attack, saw his small business and his health doing very well – so well, he walked into my office the first week in May and told me he could do it without me and I should clean out my desk and go – immediately – without my promised commissions. I hadn’t been writing lately because survival was my primary focus. I have to tell you, without the help of some very good friends, the last of what I’d been able to hold on to would have been gone and I thank them for it. The last 8 weeks though, have been a whirlwind for me…
A man I worked with at the last job recommended me (without my knowledge) to someone in a related business. I did some hourly contract work for him and he liked my work, my writing and my computer skills so much, he suggested that I go to work for one of his colleagues in desperate need of someone with my skill set. I did just that and next thing I knew, two more related businesses contracted with me to build them websites and handle all of their social media and marketing. I’m now working 60+ hours, six days a week and I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll never complain about having to work hard or work lots of hours, I’m just grateful for the work. In the course of that work, I had to make a trip to perhaps the most affluent area of Kansas City for a conference at a mansion. (I didn’t say all my work was shoveling coal.) It was as I was leaving that meeting, standing on the front steps of that mansion that something caught my eye. This is exactly how I explained what happened to my friend. Please keep in mind that while I was there, this story is about the person I met. It’s really not about me.
“…there was a homeless man up the street, sitting in a wheelchair with a sign begging for money. I could see him from the front steps of the mansion and I counted a hundred cars pass him by without giving him a look. I left my car in the driveway and walked across the Brush Creek bridge to the homeless man. I had $30 in my pocket and never gave emptying my pockets into his hands a second thought.
He said, “God Bless you, Ma’am.”
I replied, “I’m an Atheist. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in you.”
Till the day I die I will never forget the look on his face. He looked to be Native American, and he had the most beautiful eyes I think I’ve ever seen.
He said, “I live under this bridge, and if you come by this way again, do you think you could spare a blanket? By the way, my name is Chief. They call me Chief.”
I said, “Chief, they call me Carol and I won’t be back this way for at least a week. But I always carry a blanket in the back of my car. It’s parked up the hill and when I come by, I’ll hand it out to you. Okay?”
He smiled the most beautiful smile and said, “I’m so grateful. It’s getting cold at night and I’m not doing so good, health-wise. You’re the first person who stopped for the last four hours and you’re the first person who ever took the time to, you know, talk to me. Are you sure you don’t believe in God?”
I smiled. “Yeah, I’m sure, Chief. I believe in you. And while a hundred Christians drove by without even seeing you, or pretended not to see you, it only took one non-believer to see what a beautiful person you are. I’ll be back in a minute with your blanket.”
I turned to leave, and I heard him say, “Carol?”
I turned. “Yes?”
He looked kind of sad and said, “Would it be okay if I hugged you? I’m not very clean.”
I walked the three steps back, knelt at his feet, reached up and got the sweetest hug from a homeless man that made me feel more loved than I have in a long time.
Fuck you, Oprah. I met a homeless man yesterday who gives lessons in awe – and I didn’t need God Goggles to see it.
This one’s for you, Steph.