“Do you pray?” I once asked a patient.
“No, I’ve never been able to for some reason” she paused. “Do you?”
“No,” I said. “Because I don’t know if anyone is listening.”
It has always struck me as inconceivable that someone is listening to prayer. How can people be sure of some divine force in their lives? Even such Christian luminaries such as Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa experienced their doubts about God. I am no different. God does not speak to me in tongues or voices. All I hear are silent ellipses where I sense holiness in the mundane, the awe-inspiring in the ordinary. God has always seemed like an inelegant, hollow solution to the problem of meaning and death.
Take today as I sit alone on Third Beach in Stanley Park. I write what I observe in this notebook: the cascade of waves smoothing the sand like a rolling pin; the hundreds of Mergansers, white-bellied and plump, drifting in the ocean; the dance of seagulls, their v-shaped footprints dotting the sand. The ordinariness of it all is easy to overlook. I am tempted to look at my phone, answer a couple of texts, google “birds in Stanley Park,” or just scroll through Twitter for the latest political headline. But instead, I observe and write because I want this moment to have importance.
I am without a doubt a sentimentalist. I want to believe those big important words like meaning and spirit and connection. I want to tell you that the waves and the Mergansers and the seagulls are just expressions of a God that I can catch a glimpse of now. I want to tell you that human nature is divine, and we, like Adam, have just fallen from grace, our innocence stolen by a world that is designed to break us. But I don’t know. In fact, I’ve come to suspect the opposite: the meaningless of those big important words like meaning and spirit and connection, the meaninglessness of our pain and suffering, the meaninglessness of not only life but our deaths.
I’ve contemplated spirituality throughout my life. As a boy, I often felt flummoxed by religion. My parents, immigrants from Nepal and Tibet, raised my brother and me as Hindu and Buddhist, and we dutifully performed the many rituals of faith in our homes without knowing the importance of them. But as we grew older, the ceremonies grew intimate and familiar. We might not have known what a Nepali tika signified, but we knew that it represented family and love. And what is intimate and familiar will inevitably feel safe and nurturing.
Buddhism and Hinduism would have given me enough to consider for the rest of my life, but I also studied Catholicism for the entirety of my adolescence, as I was educated at a Catholic School. To see a man nailed to a crucifix, blood dribbling from his hands and crown, unnerved my 10-year-old psyche. But I bought into what my religion teachers were selling. I was a sinner. I needed to repent. Only then could I go to heaven. The binaries of good versus evil, sin versus redemption were oddly soothing. I was born evil. But I could be good.
I long for that type of simplicity now. My world radiates greyness, the simple twosome of good and evil long gone in the complexity and tumult of daily experience. Whereas once I saw my life as a narrative that would assuredly culminate in a climax, I now see the folly in such ways of seeing the world. Narratives are digestible nuggets to make sense of what doesn’t really make sense: the chaos and absurdity of life. So maybe because of this chaos and the anxiety surrounding it, we create our stories and our Gods. Perhaps our narratives are our comfort in a painful terrifying world.
As I get older my personal narrative feels less imbued with my ego and need for power. The dark cast of human existence frightens me less. Death once bathed each moment of my existence, an omnipresent shadow lurking in the background. And death’s antecedent — anxiety — guided my life with its unseen hands. I was and have always been afraid. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of nonexistence. Afraid of loneliness. Afraid of it all. And I am still afraid.
But fear no longer reigns in my day-to-day. I am not sure how that happened, but I can let go a little easier and self-aware enough to see fear arising and face them with a bit more bravery. Death still frightens me. If we are honest, I think it frightens most of us. But an acceptance of death is closer at hand than it has ever been in my life. Perhaps it is because I am over 40 now, fully in middle age. Perhaps it is because many people I’ve known have passed on. In the past three months alone, my uncle and aunt have passed away. Perhaps it is the daily meditations that have calmed my mind. Or perhaps it is because death is so commonplace in today’s world where over a million people have passed away this year from one of the oldest absurdities of human existence — pestilence.
And while fear still rests in my unconscious, another emotion becomes more salient: gratefulness. As Camus and others have proclaimed, life is absurd. Trying to find meaning where there is none is its own form of madness. It is a constant struggle between what actually is and what we want it desperately to be. But this absurdity has transformed into its own miracle.
In the past, I have walked around New York City and felt alienated from everyone. The milling crowds of people, rushing to the jobs they probably don’t like to buy things that don’t make them happy seemed beyond absurd. But here we were doing it anyway. I have had the urge to shake passerby violently, saying “It is insane that we are here right now, isn’t it?” But no one else seemed to feel this so I put it out of my mind long ago. That others didn’t see this surprised me. But on another level, it was not shocking at all. We accept the reality we’re given. That much is apparent.
But what if we could live with this perspective daily? I try to. I remind myself each morning that it is unthinkable that I am here, that I am the endpoint of billions of years of evolution from the Big Bang to stars to cells to dinosaurs to mammals to me. That life is filled with suffering does not take away from this; in fact, it enhances it. Even the suffering becomes holy because I am alive for it. It is a miracle to feel heartbreak, just as it is a miracle to feel love.
This perspective may just be another sentimentality, creating emotion and meaning where there is only chaos and death. But it is the only one that makes sense to me. And I cannot help what I am: a sentient, feeling animal who is self-aware, who is grateful just to be. I can feel it now here on Third Beach on this effulgent Fall day. I can sense it now in the hundreds of Mergansers, drifting in the ocean in deep meditation like Buddhas aware of nothing but this moment.