# # Nothing There - Pathways From Spirituality

Brother, I Can See Your Skull.

Brother, I Can See Your Skull. - The Coreyshead Blog

Nothing There –
Pathways From Spirituality

Pathways From Spirituality is an ongoing series exploring
the how and why of a life of religious and spiritual disbelief.

Nothing There

I’ve never believed in a god of any sort.

I wasn’t even aware that such a notion existed as a serious reality for most people until the second grade. Oh, I’d heard the word “god,” of course. Many around me were wont to say “goddamn,” “goddammit,” as well as just plain “damn,” so I understood that “god” was a modifier designed to increase the level of damning one was engaged in, even if I wasn’t sure how or why.

Likely my ignorance of religion flourished for the same reason other’s faith did: the household I lived in.

My parents were from, if not of, different faiths: Judaism and its successful progeny, Christianity. I’ve often wondered if they ever discussed what to tell us kids or just left it alone. If they harbored any beliefs, as it seems likely my father did, they kept them to themselves. Until I asked, I never heard a peep on the subject, granting me the protracted spiritual ignorance that was so instrumental in forming who I am and that I remain grateful for.

Of course, I was surrounded by believers in a culture whose foundations spring from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but I was ignorant of this despite soaking in it. Instead of realizing its apparent import, what little I saw struck me as just a different way of doing things. Like being allowed to go around in socks at your house while, in mine, such a thing was frowned upon; a simple case of preference and opinion. I had no idea that people would not be content – could not be content, if they payed attention to what they were working so hard to believe – until I and every other spiritual ignoramus in the world was inculcated with the proper respect, humility, and traditions their faith demanded.

A great example of me just not getting it involves an attempted introduction to the Old Testament by my elderly next door neighbor, Hazel, when I was just 3 or 4.

Hazel was an Iowa farm woman with beliefs deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. It never rested easy with her that my family didn’t go to church, what with children and all. Having acquired my mother’s grudging approval, Hazel took it upon herself to introduce me to the good book’s teachings in the form of stories we’d read together once a week on Sunday mornings. The little book included a sheet of stickers, one for each story, that we pasted in as we went.

I really enjoyed Hazel’s attention but ascribed no more veracity or importance to the stories than I did those my mother read to me – though A.A. Milne’s works proved more memorable. I still return to Winnie The Pooh on occasion but haven’t touched a bible since the Gideons invaded my school in 1978.

Maybe she hesitated to push too hard or maybe I was just too young and dim to catch it but something in the delivery failed to impress upon me that these stories were to be taken as true and were intended to form an overarching, personal and spiritual philosophy upon which I would order my life. Instead, the bulk of the content simply washed over me. Only the dramatic art on the stickers pulled me in. That was the part I enjoyed most. The illustrations in the book were black and white line drawings but the stickers were FULL COLOR and an activity: you got to tear them out and lick them before sticking them over the associated drawings – but even their effect was short lived. The only image I remember with any real clarity is one of a castle built on sand being destroyed by waves while another, on stone behind it, is left unharmed; a visual parable sufficiently cool enough to stay in my memory banks all these years – but that was it.

I remained spiritually ignorant until 1975 or so when, in Mrs. Funk’s second grade class, my friend Sean realized that I was a heathen doomed to hell.

Sean was a friendly guy. Dark haired, darker skinned, with bright eyes, and an ever-ready smile. He was in my immediate circle of friends, meaning he, along with the rest of us, was often in trouble for paying more attention to a classmate’s antics than the teacher’s lesson. How many recesses we spent in with our heads on the desk I don’t recall but it was often enough that I remark upon it. I always liked Mrs. Funk but I and my friends ran afoul of her displeasure often enough that I am not certain she would’ve said the same of me.

Anyway, Sean discovered I had no knowledge of religious matters and the fact alarmed him. We were good friends and here I was, destined for the fires of hell; he had to do something! His instruction to me was quite basic and matter of fact: there were things I needed to know and do and I needed to start as soon as possible.

First of all, there was God and God’s son, Jesus. I was instructed to actively respect them both, similar to the flag we recited to every morning before class, hands over hearts, the misunderstood phrases tumbling from our ignorant mouths. Further, these two mystical beings, whom I was to think of as both good, personal buddies and wrathful monsters with the power to destroy the universe with the mere blink of an eye, could be prevailed upon via “prayers” for help.
Prayers were private whisperings, usually made with eyes closed, head down, and hands held just so. Ask them anything and they could do it. Amen.
Amen? What did amen mean?
Now Sean was at somewhat of a loss.
“It’s what you say when you’re done,” he answered.
“But why? What does it mean?”
“It means you’re done,” he tried. “You say it so God knows you’re done and none of the other stuff you say after gets mixed in.”
“But how does he know I started?”
“You hold your hands like this,” he said, a little exasperated, showing me the clasped hand position again.
“Wouldn’t he know I stopped if I just quit holding my hands like that?”
“Yeah, but it would be rude, like not saying goodbye,” Sean explained.
Well, that made a little more sense to me: “amen” meant “goodbye” when talking to God. Okay.
It is a testament to my age that talking to an invisible person in the sky didn’t require deeper explanation but the mechanics of signing off with them did.

Sean went on to explain how truly screwed I was if I didn’t start praying right away. First there was bad luck, then there were all the people who wouldn’t be allowed to be friends with me, such as himself, and then there was hell, which sounded downright terrible with the fire and the screaming and the pain that went on forever even if you were just a little baby. Geez!

I went home that day full of questions for my mom: why hadn’t I been told about praying? About God?

My mother was raised in a Jewish household and, by Jewish, I mean they enjoyed bacon and had a Christmas tree during the holiday season. In other words, they weren’t so much Jewish as they were just plain old American with a lot of incidental Yiddish sprinkled over the top. Still, there was enough of a religious and cultural influence for them to consider themselves Jewish and my mother to be completely skeptical of the whole notion of spirituality by the time she was raising her own children.

Listening to my questions, she replied that, yes, people believed in many different gods. Some people, she went on, didn’t believe in any of it at all and others weren’t sure what to believe.
“It’s up to you to think about these things and decide for yourself,” she said.
I wanted to know what she believed. Was there a god?
She told me that was really none of my business, I believe because she wanted me to form my own opinions but then she relented and told me that the existence of a god seemed very unlikely to her for a number of reasons. Yet, she couldn’t be absolutely sure because she didn’t think *anyone* could be absolutely sure, not with the level of magic and mystery attributed to the gods we did hear about and the limitations of our own minds.

Her unspoken urgings towards agnosticism did not go unfelt by me and I was tempted to just accept this stance as my own, given how rarely mom’s wisdom turned out to be bunk, yet her words had not stopped there. She had been clear that I should make up my own mind; to think hard, considering all available evidence and my own feelings, and to not take statements about belief or disbelief from anyone at face value when determining my own position on the subject. Her suggestion that the discovery of truth was up to no one but myself held even greater influence upon me than the admission of her own conclusions.
Having a compassionate, intelligent teacher for a mother really is one of the best possible advantages a child can have.

I decided that I’d give this god thing a whirl. If it really existed and all I need do was to let it know I was aware of it, well then …

I don’t know what my first prayer was but I know I followed the ritual my friend Sean had revealed to me: eyes closed, head down, hands together. I thought, more than whispered, to this god and there, in the dark confines of my skull, I imagined my unspoken, fervent words of attempted contact flying skyward from the meat of my brain towards the mysterious entity in the sky who must be looking down upon me at that very moment. I introduced myself and apologized for not saying “Hi” earlier, pleading ignorance. I told the god that I wanted to be his friend and would love to hear from him in some way. Then I said “amen.”


I didn’t sense anything, I didn’t feel any different. No lightning, no sense of calm, nothing.

I tried prayer a few times in a few ways and still felt no sense of contact. Here was a fresh, young mind, ready to accept a god and I couldn’t even get a busy signal. The line was cold and dead.

In stark contrast, around this same age, I had constructed an intricate horror/fantasy game with myself involving Boris Karloff’s mummy: after a late night trip to the bathroom, if I wasn’t under the covers before the toilet bowl quit audibly filling, the mummy was going to come and get me. That’s it, very silly. Started with myself as a joke, probably because I was freezing and wanted back under the covers – yet, with each repetition, the strength of the game’s illusion would grow. I’d finish my business by the dim light of the bathroom’s night-light, then flush and make the mad dash down the hall to my bedroom, the hair on my neck standing up as I rushed to get my extremities under the covers before the valve shut off. The times I *didn’t* make it under in time were harrowing, as every creak of the house thereafter filled me with the cold certainty that I’d soon feel a dry, bandaged hand snaking across my ankle or throat. What started out as a simple game proceeded to blossom into something palpably real for me. The question is, given my obvious imagination, why wasn’t my attempt at contacting God as successful?  I really *wanted* to know this god, if he existed and I knew most of the world, believed in him – so why not? I doubted the veracity of prayer much less so than a toilet mummy, yet the latter proved a far more capable reality for me.

Please forgive the fact that the rest of this tale involves more time in the bathroom.

One of the things Sean stressed during his impromptu catechism was that his god would help – wanted to help, loved to help, lived to help – all you had to do was pray. Well, one day, while seated on the pot, I needed some help. This had happened to me before and I had been as horrified and embarrassed then as I was now: a poo was halfway out and not budging.

The first time this occurred, I had no knowledge of a god to turn to. When I realized there was an issue, I sat a good long while, unsure what to do. No amount of trying to get it to budge with my stomach muscles did a bit of good. I even tried raising myself up a bit and waggling my bottom in the hopes that it might break off but to no avail. The only answer left was: “Mawwwwwwwm!”
A few seconds passed and then her voice at the door: “What’s wrong, honey?”
“My poop’s stuck!”
“What? Stuck where?” Real alarm in her voice – what, exactly, was her youngest up to in there?
“Stuck coming out!”
A sigh was heard – exasperation? relief? – then: “Well, just use some tp.”
The idea of … putting my hand anywhere near poop was *not* one I liked and I balked: “Can’t you help?”
“You’re a big boy now. You can do it by yourself,” and she was gone.
Suffice it to say she was correct and the incident was never spoken of again.

Flash forward to a repeat of the same predicament a year or so later. Once again I am faced with the prospect of having to put my hand near something unsavory and wondering how the heck this happens in the first place. How do they get stuck? If it’s ready, why doesn’t it fall? If it’s not, why did it poke its head out in the first place? That a biological function should stall in such a way seems ridiculous and unfair to me. Sounds like I needed to drink more water.
Then I remember what Sean told me: “Just pray and God will help.”
Thus far, my attempts at raising God had borne no fruit but before I’d just been saying “Hi.” Now I had a real need. Alright then.
Closing my eyes, nodding my head, clasping my hands, I bring all my mental focus to bear on sending a plea to God: ‘Dear God, please help get this poop out of my butt.’
I really concentrate – I want this message to get out there! Lips pressed together, hands cramping, I beg for assistance from above, the simple request for peristalsis to finish what it started. Amen.

When I finish my prayer it feels like nothing’s changed so I go ahead and try another healthy push just in case I’m wrong: no dice. I sit a while longer, unhappy with my predicament and thinking over what I’ve just experienced. I reason that this god may, like my mother, have felt I needed no assistance, that I am a big boy and can handle this myself. Maybe it felt my prayer was a selfish, silly one, beneath a god’s notice – just a kid with a stuck poo – but, if He exists, what He apparently didn’t consider of import was that this was a crucial moment in my thinking about religion and spirituality. After a week or so of trying to elicit any kind of response from this god, I reach out and ask for it to help and once again am left to contemplate the nature of reality in silence. I’d’ve had as much luck asking the mummy to reach up out of the water and give a tug – and maybe that would’ve been even more effective, the very notion scaring the crap out of me.
Resigned, I reach for the toilet paper and the task at hand, the only thing falling from me of its own accord being the last vestiges of unreasoning belief.

Sean and I had a slow falling out thereafter. My lack of interest in his proselytizing and his own realization that he was probably getting in dutch with his god, as well as Mrs. Funk, by being friends with naughty boys undoubtedly played major roles in this. The final straw for all of us was the time we formulated a disruptive but otherwise harmless jape of some kind, only to have Sean, after eagerly conspiring with us, walk to the front of the room and reveal the plans to Mrs. Funk. I never could figure out why he hadn’t tried to dissuade us in the first place, if he felt it was such a bad idea? Maybe he thought his god gave rewards for entrapment?

These early experiences, these struggles to learn and grow in the culture that birthed me, were and remain instrumental in forming who I am. This should come as no surprise and seems, on the face, an unnecessary statement, yet the bare fact of it all helps to illustrate my point.

The concept of the pilgrim, the innocent actively seeking God, is a strong one in the Christianity I have come to know – in most religions – yet my own experiences seem to belie the relevance of the concept – at least for the pseudo Catholic god I was so blindly reaching out to from the toilet.

Where was this god when, in my innocence and real urge to know him, I reached out? I was ready then, as I have never been again due to that experience – why wasn’t the chance exploited? If, as some would suggest, I heard the voice of His messenger in the form of Sean, why was I made to feel there was nothing there when I tried to connect on my own?

If I am simply lacking the ability to sense Him, why was I created that way by Him? Further, why should I be punished for being created so? If this is the real setup – a deity that demands obeisance or an eternity of pain, yet creates potential worshipers too blind to be able to believe in him – then your god is a sadist and a fool. He had so many opportunities to reach me at this time – and many might be tempted to say that He did through my neighbor and my classmate – but if those are the attempts of an all-powerful being … I’d say a course in marketing is in order. I walked through the formative part of my childhood yearning for pre-sweetened breakfast cereal more than I ever did communion with a god.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply