I don't remember ever seeing this picture before last week, and without turning it over to look for a caption or thinking too hard about where it might have been taken or when, my first reaction was to think about the concept of faith, about inner peace and how I find mine without believing in, well, anything. Once I was able to place it, it seemed all the more fitting of a line of thinking.
There's nothing in handwriting, but a digital stamp on the back of the photograph tells me that it was developed at a one-hour photo in October of 2001. We had just returned from our Cancun vacation, the trip that Mike earned as part of his Jeopardy spoils the previous fall, and we were so excited to see the pictures we took that week, we had them developed post haste. That was what passed for instant gratification in 2001, hard to imagine. Some people did have digital cameras back then, but we were still years away from that and the onslaught of social media.
There are many things I remember clearly about this vacation, how much fun it was, how beautiful the weather, how spoiled we felt as we lay in the sun drinking frozen mudslides and pretending there was no other thing to be doing in the world. But the strongest part of the memory was that we all of us in American society, whether we were in New York that day or not, were still shell shocked from 9/11. If we had not already had this trip scheduled a long time in advance, there's no way that Mike and I would have booked it less than a month after the tragedy. Who, honestly, was getting on planes and traveling out of the country then for any reason? Going ahead with the vacation was our way of making life go on, but we were both uneasy about it. Perhaps nothing crystallizes the moment in time for me better than the flight attendant's announcement that the in-flight movie would be "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" Everyone on the plane, including the flight attendants (and probably the pilots), burst out in hysterical gallows laughter. It was all done, all so fucked up, and what else could you do but laugh? It felt like breathing out after holding it in for so long.
There's nothing like a national tragedy to shake your foundations, and for a non-believer--and I'm only speaking to my own experience in this instance-- it hits in a couple of points. 1) Envy. I truly envy people's faith in difficult times, and the comfort it can bring. 2) Bitterness. When senseless acts like this occur, it activates some of the reasoning integral to my losing faith in the first place. What benevolent god would allow this to happen? What plan is this a part of, and how can I excuse myself from it? 3) Righteous indignation. How could any sane person's idea of religious devotion justify slaughtering innocent people? That's just three off the top of my head.
I'm not trying to make a case for atheism or bash religion in any way. It's no secret that I don't identify as a person of faith, and I have nothing against anyone who does. Religion or any kind of unspoken or unformed belief system is totally cool with me, so long as it is not used to hurt or exploit or oppress. That's religious freedom, it goes both ways and I take it seriously. What I'm saying is that seeing this picture, which I must have seen before but don't remember, triggered this reaction in me. That how I look there, floating under the sky, is the closest thing that I have to finding god. For all I know I was looking up because I was waiting for my turn in water volleyball, but it doesn't matter what was actually happening. It doesn't change what it represents. I do think that nature, that people and the world and space is all a miracle and a gorgeous mystery. I can't say with any certainty that there's nothing or nobody out there. I don't thinks this makes me intellectually superior. I don't know much of anything with absolute certainty. But I can't help what I feel, and what I believe. I don't believe in much beyond the physical world and the people inhabiting it, for better or worse. In the wake of devastation, I have myself, and my loved ones, and sometimes the ability to let the waves take my problems. An afterlife would be nice, but I'm not betting on it. There's no awards ceremony for being a good person, everyone gets screwed over at some point despite their best efforts, but I'm satisfied with the belief that we should be kind and community-centered for its own sake. That's just decency. It's not mutually exclusive from spirituality. The people I know with spiritual beliefs don't behave the way they do just because they're holding out for heaven. I do believe that most people are generally good, and that's where I place my faith. Everyone trying to do the right thing as much as possible, because it's the right thing. That and an occasional week at the beach keep me afloat.