I jog, walk, hike and anxiously pace to the tune of a good 20-30 miles a week. I make jokes and excuses to others that it’s all about keeping my 75 lb dog from going stir-crazy, or a half hearted attempt at looking better naked. I tell myself that it’s a vital part of keeping my nerves in check or making up for a few post college years spent waking up to coffee and falling asleep to whiskey. In truth though, I think I just love it.
Putting on a podcast and feeling connected to my city, liking the way I look in the mirror or even just the cheesy 8-bit fireworks display on my fitness tracker when I hit those goals all keep me going and make me feel like I’m achieving something. By that same token I stretch. I meditate, clearing my mind and then grinning guilelessly as the streak tracker roles over from day 10 to day 11, letting me know that I’m ‘on the right track’ or ‘doing a good job of taking care of myself.’ I brush my teeth. Put on lotion. Meticulously map out and manage my sleep schedule. All so that I can then feel like i’m hashtag livin my best life.
When I listen to a podcast or read a book, no matter how enthralling or enjoyable, I’m careful to chart my progress, to consider what I’ve learned and to pace myself as if preparing for the next test. Even when I sit down to watch a movie I challenge myself to see something new, to round out my experiences, to become some sort of expert or build up my watchlist through a dizzying array of spreadsheets that surely stand as evidence of some psychological disorder or another. Oftentimes I find myself secretly wishing that rather than enjoying these little pleasures that I could instead simply download them into my brain. So fixated on collecting experiences rather then having them I so often forget the point of fun, that the secret is in the telling.
In case I haven’t painted a clear enough picture it’s fair to say I’m a little bit neurotic, and there’s plenty of cause to believe that that was always going to be inevitable for me, at least by degrees. But how much life, how much joy, how many of my talents have been wasted, spent at war ‘battling the forces of satan’, or storing up treasures for the kingdom of god, piling up the fruits of my labors where there’s no moths or rust.
We wouldn’t, I think, most of us anyway, even be here reading an atheist magazine if we didn’t have many of these same hangups. The difference between atheism and apathy for most of us seems to center on the hurts and bad habits caused by the virus of belief that has hijacked so much of our culture, our policies, even our thinking. After working in therapy, my client’s and my own, I’m convinced that one of the pervasive artifacts of faith is the need to constantly, painstakingly, justify our actions. To, in all things, be working towards some cosmic goal.
From this standpoint a date isn’t just a date, it’s a search for a soulmate. A drink with friends isn’t just a good time, it’s building a fellowship. Exercise becomes a fitness objective and even watching a movie can become a failed attempt at developing a personality. After becoming habituated to the idea that life is a series of choices carefully recorded by an all seeing score keeper it’s hard to live just for the sake of living. Instead every selection requires examination, justification or just a hint of self-actualization.
Maybe it’s not fair to blame god for all of this but picture the Christian worldview this way- your every action is either god’s will or a violation of god’s will, a sin, and the reason Jesus was nailed to the cross. Not only that, but to sin in your heart is the same as to sin in real life and you are responsible for taking every thought captive. Now consider that only a small minority of people will come to know Christ and receive salvation, and so the vast majority of the people around you will be condemned to hell, forever, because you didn’t do enough to persuade them. Sprinkle in some garbage about buried minas and unfaithful servants and it’s no wonder there’s some neurotic anxiety haunting the thoughts of former christians.
What then is the cure? I’ll let you know when I find it, but every day I strive to live my life, like it’s my only chance to do so. Like there’s no heaven to save up for, no hell to avoid. Like it this is it, now or never. Call it ethical hedonism, call it logotherapy, call it irresponsible. All I know is that I’ve wasted enough of my life worrying about whether happiness was something I ‘deserve’. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Maybe I don’t really care about who’s keeping score, because there’s a life here for living and its not doing anybody any good to let it go to waste. So when you feel anxious, or unsure about what to do, forget about forever, what you deserve or how many points you have. Never mind the ‘right thing’ or what you ‘should’ do. I hope you’ll just do you, we’re all rooting for you.