Whose Hand Can I Hold Right Now; or, What Does An Atheist Do For Comfort?

I used to run to my mother a lot. With questions of theology, with a broken heart, or just for some good old fashioned physical comfort — she was the rounded concrete edge of the pool that my wet hand grabbed onto whenever it started to feel like I was about to drown in life.

Looking back now I wonder, for this and a few other reasons, if I was dealing with a disordered attachment issue. Don’t get me wrong; my mother is a wise, compassionate, and selfless person from whom I’ve learned so much. But it did take me until the far end of my mid-twenties to learn how to self-sooth in a way that didn’t require the daily dialing of her number.

God played a similar role, though I couldn’t cuddle with him or get any truly pertinent advice. Through decades of devotion, prayer became a coping mechanism. A relatively healthy one compared to my other dabblings, sure, but an externally-oriented way of making my way through thoughts and emotions I didn’t know how to handle on my own nonetheless. My faith in God gave me a reason to not have to care about things to the point of personal paralyzation; I believed He was in charge and that, despite my worries, things would work out in the end.

Today I sit on the gray Ikea couch in my living room as an atheist. Today Donald Trump is President, and he signed an Executive Order to advance the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Yesterday, he demanded his Press Secretary lie about how many people attended his (very public and easily documentable) inauguration. Who knows what will happen tomorrow.

And who knows, even more than that, how we’re supposed to cope. Especially those of us who have had the luxury of being safe from the oppressive hands of this capitalist, white supremacist, xenophobic, Christianist nation up until now.

We must steel ourselves, and hunker down with our weapons of choice. We cannot be truly overwhelmed, in any permanent sense, or we will make ourselves sick or numb or both. Ten years ago I would have dealt with this government-led assault on the citizens and the land by turning to God. Today, it is in the name of that God that the assault is taking place. And today, like all days, God doesn’t argue the point.

God is gone. Yes, a part of me in this moment longs for the comfort He used to offer, but the rest of me wouldn’t take it if I could. There is no God, and I am a grown woman; so whose hand am I supposed to hold right now, at the end of the world?

In CPR training, they teach you that before you begin compressions on a victim you should point to someone nearby and say, “You! Call 911!” That way the necessary tasks can happen quickly, simultaneously, and with all required focus. Today, my heart wants to point in a million different directions and say “God! Syria!”, “God! North Dakota!”, “God! Jacqueline Craig!” Meanwhile I will do what I can with my hands, which will not be enough. But ‘not enough’ is okay when you’re talking about God. ‘Not enough’ is actually great, they say, because it keeps you humble. If I believed in God, I would be at peace with ‘not enough’. If you know the paramedics are coming, your arms hold out a little longer.

How do the godless sustain both hope and action? Where does a love come from that’s accessible no matter where or when you are? I used to pray and feel love, read the Bible and feel love, go to church and feel love. If God doesn’t exist, where was that love coming from? Did I splinter my own capacity for self-compassion and adoration off into a personality I perceived as being outside of myself so that I could feel as though someone other than myself cared about me?

Was that me up on that cross?

When do I stop believing the world can be saved?

Like what you read? Give Grete Howland a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.