I’ll read an article, talk to a friend, skim a forum. People want to share comfort with me, a sign of their love and care for their fellow human being going through a tough time; to share their strength. They tell me to stay faithful, that they will pray for me. But I am an atheist.
I am not an atheist because of my chronic pain or anything else that “happened,” as people sometimes ask when I tell them I’m an atheist. I was raised in a non-religious home and exposed to many ways of thinking — world religions and cultures, poverty, minority injustice, philosophy, history, empathy, books upon books upon books. At 12, I decided for myself that, personally, I did not believe in god. And that was OK. I could still be the hopeful, happy person I was, enthralled by the universe and existence, driven to help people to suffer less in this world. And I still feel this way, 11 years later, even after living the last two years in constant chronic pain.
Pain has changed what I thought my life would be. But it doesn’t diminish my worth as a person in this world, and it doesn’t change my goal of wanting to reduce suffering. That goal just needs to include reducing my own pain, too. And even though this is a different life than I thought I would live, it is still so utterly worthwhile.
So many people give me their love in the form of religion. And I accept, gratefully. I understand this is the way some people share their compassion. However, I also explain that, for me as a person who actually doesn’t share this religious connection, it might be better if — instead of praying or informing me that strength can only come from faith — if, instead, they gave me a hug. Or told me they love me. If they said that they don’t want me to hurt anymore, that it eats them up, that they don’t know what to say or how to make things better. If they met me on a human level and said, “I hear you are in pain, and I want to say that you are loved and worthwhile and important, and I want you to feel better. And if you can’t feel better, then I want to be here for you when you need me. Here is my shoulder, here is my hand. We can work together in this hard life, and you do not have to be alone.”
Personally, I still love living my life. There are books to read, adventures to be had, new things to learn and discover around every corner. This world and this universe we experience are so awe-inspiring. For a brief moment in the history of the universe, we get to open our eyes and experience everything we can, to drink in this amazing life we have to live.
I find strength and hope and happiness in the amazing people and the simple pleasures in my life. In my family. In my friends. In my kitty cat Pumpkin, and the beautiful boy I am seeing right now. In books and films and songs and games. In ice cream and strawberries and grilled cheese and delicious vegetarian meals. In cute baby animal videos, and musicals, and good coffee. In Harry Potter. In stargazing. In staying up to the wee hours of the night. In sci-fi and philosophy. In rainy days and holidays, Disneyland days and comfy recovery days. In scented baths and ice packs, ibuprophen and so many pillows. In learning. In laughter. In the promise of travel. In deep conversations. In kisses. In tight hugs, and gentle ones.
I find comfort and optimism in living in the modern era of medicine. In finding new pain solutions. In good doctors who want to help. In having access to medications and treatments that may help.
I find courage and gratefulness and love in myself. In my natural optimistic disposition, which I am so grateful for. In being able to have the autonomy I have. In feeling the full range of human emotion. In my sharp mind and my strong, incredible body, which hurts but doesn’t mean to, and does so much else for me.
I find wonder and inspiration in the world around me. In exploring, learning, creating, understanding. In mysteries and innovations. In getting swept up in passion for something I’m doing or seeing or going after. In the whole range of human experience, culture and life in every corner of this earth; geography, architecture, tradition, civilization, ways of life that highlight our similarities as well as our differences. In pondering the depths of mysterious, unexplored oceans and taking trips into tall, cavernous mountains surrounded by boundless forests of trees. In the wondrous reaches of outer space, which is both infinite and expanding, and all the journeys of scientific discovery we are embarking on through our step into this “final frontier.” In seeing people get the things they need to live better lives, or even just have better days. In this whole, big, beautiful world around us filled with wonder and possibilities.
If you find strength and hope and comfort in your religious beliefs, I am happy for you. Find it anywhere you can and cherish it, as long as those beliefs are not harmful to yourself or others. But don’t assume it is the only way, because it is not.
There are so many places to find hope and strength in this world, even when your world is painful. For me, religion isn’t one of them. And that’s OK.
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