At fifteen years old, I decided that everything I had been taught about the world was wrong.
I had just freed myself from a depression – a three-year ordeal in which nightmares had jolted me from my sleep. I had a collection of tear-stained pillowcases, dampened by years of agonizing religious confusion.
A Bible teacher at my Christian school in South Carolina had done the confusing by warning my class that God heard our every thought. He further declared that God would someday broadcast these thoughts to the angels and everyone who had ever lived. “There will be tears in heaven, folks, even for the saved,” he had said. “Tears and remorse beyond anything you can imagine. Be careful what you think.”
At thirteen, I became convinced that my thoughts were offensive to God and that afterlife humiliation awaited me. I tried in vain to impede my “impure” thoughts; instead, I became neurotic and depressed.
My fear of my own mind began a three-year journey, starting when I was in seventh grade, of guilt, religious doubt, and tortured prayers. The summer after leaving ninth grade, my belief in God shattered.
I would have expected the loss of my belief system to fuel my despair. Instead, I was suddenly free of it – leaving me to wonder about the world in a way I never had.
If there is no God, I thought, how is anything here?
I entered my new public school the following fall bright-eyed with curiosity. Until that year, I had dozed through my science classes. But my new school encouraged critical thinking, a practice that my previous teachers would have deemed as sinful as stealing tithes to buy porn. The “new” educational philosophy dovetailed with my new habit of questioning everything. Nothing was too sacred for scrutiny anymore.
I fell in love with biology. Before taking the class, I had known that I was made of cells but I had never cared. Now I knew that I was cells, and suddenly they mattered. Was I actually a just colony of cells that mistakenly thought it was a single self? How did cells produce my consciousness?
I became so caught up in studying, I made no effort to make friends at my new school. My solitude led me to another realization: I could be happy with just my own company.
As a previously bullied kid, I had absorbed the message that hordes of friends were essential for happiness. That was untrue.
Although I had enjoyed some good friendships in my life, I could do without them. I missed least of all the gaggle of back-stabbing frenemies that had stampeded through my childhood.
Alone, burrowing down in my beanbag as I studied, I could follow my own interests without worrying about seeming weird.
But I did feel weird. I felt like an extraterrestrial that had been shipwrecked in my home town in South Carolina. Everything felt new, even my English literature classes. I had always read novels, but mainly for escapism. Suddenly fiction was about discovering who I was and even what it meant to be human.
Without a soul, I no longer knew what “human” meant. Were we really just animals with inflated opinions of ourselves?
I had once seen humans as soulful creatures supervised by an authoritarian yet loving father God. Now I saw the world as a planet of confused aliens desperately searching for their origins – which was how I felt personally.
Whenever, I studied, I felt like I was doing something more than homework. I was searching for some sort of cohesive world view to replace the religious one I had lost. The more I learned the more ignorant I felt, yet for the first time ever, I made straight A’s.
I gave up watching television. Suddenly, real life interested me more than fake people on a screen. I was made of tiny cells, I had a simian ancestral past, and I lived on a rock that was whirling around a star. Who needed sit coms?
I liked books better than television anyway. Books let me read minds, but because I was increasing my reading, I was also spending more time alone.
My mom, noticing this, said, “All you ever do is study. You need to go out more. Have some real experiences. Don’t you ever want to go shopping for new clothes?”
I answered by sinking deeper into my beanbag, peering at my novel through my curtain of long bangs, and wondering what it meant to have a “real” experience.
On one night, I wandered down the hall past the blaring television in the living room where my mom and brother were watching it. I entered the den, savoring its silence–-a welcome contrast to the clamor of the television.
Seeking further solace, I was drawn to a framed photographic print that had been hanging on the living room wall for years. It showed a canoe floating on a lake that was rendered orange by a sunset. I thought about what my mom had said, wondering why she thought shopping for clothes was a “real” experience but not reading about alleles in a beanbag or gazing at a photograph.
I conjectured that simply staring at a photograph of a place could be as satisfying as really being there if I fully absorbed the sight—instead of zoning out the way I usually did when I went places.
To test my theory, I meditated on the photograph and even tried to creatively project myself into the scene. I imagined myself floating on the orange lake with the boat rocking beneath me and a breeze stroking my nose.
I tried to summon the contemplative mood lakes sometimes engendered in me. Before long I felt so much like I was there that a feeling of euphoria settled over me.
I felt triumphant. Ever since letting go of dogma, I had felt like I was traveling without physically going anywhere–-a journey I had begun not in a boat or a car, but in my mind.
I had once assumed what my mom did—that to legitimately “experience” anything, I had to leave home and go someplace like a circus, a party, or a beach. But that was untrue. Every moment I took a breath was an experience.
I reviewed my bizarre year in my mind. I had spent it letting go of what I had been told all my life by adults, and my loss had turned out to be priceless.
By ejecting my childhood beliefs, I seemed to have entered an upside-down dimension—one in which looking at a photograph could be an adventure, where not having friends could free me to be myself, and where disbelief in God could be the most spiritual experience I had ever had.
Staring at my boat, I knew I would always remember that quiet, seemingly unimportant moment. Alone, unmoored, uncertain, and insecure, I was the happiest I had ever been.