Why this blog?

Yonah Biers-Ariel refused to have a Bar Mitzvah. His parents insisted on an alternative rite of passage. In order to avoid leading a half-dozen prayers and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, Yonah pedaled a bicycle 3,804 miles—San Francisco to Washington DC—joined by his parents and little brother. Along the way, the family collected thousands of signatures on a global warming petition calling for the United States to undergo an energy rite of passage moving from our dependence on oil to a non-carbon energy future.

99 GALLONS OF GATORADE is the father’s memoir of this ordinary family’s extraordinary journey.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chapter 22 - An Atheist Covers His Bases

A good omen at dawn: the campground flags snapped in a stiff west wind. The map indicated a 2,000-foot descent to look forward to. Because of that same law about life being a zero-sum game, yesterday’s arduous ride needed to be evened out; today we would ride like Lance.

Either the gods didn’t log onto Djina’s blog to learn of our trying day or we had inadvertently upset them, because by the time we ate, broke camp, and mounted our steeds, the good west wind had pivoted into the Wicked Wind of the East.

I was perplexed. “We gave the Family Dining waitress a decent tip, were friendly to the campground owner, and the people camping next to us signed the petition. What did we do wrong?”

“Do you think God changed the wind because he was mad?” Yonah asked.

“Of course not,” I laughed. “I was joking.”

Yes, I am a rational man and know that God doesn’t change weather based on a person’s or a nation’s merits or faults. I know that the righteous suffer and the wicked thrive. And prayer goes unheeded. Yet I pray to God on a regular basis, for better weather, for better health, for better everything. Even though this kind of prayer is delusional, I still do it. Many of us do. Why? We want to believe that there is something bigger than us who is in charge. We want to believe that there is an omnipotent entity that cares. Yonah, on the other hand, has the guts to say the universe is an impromptu accident.

“Do you think the universe or life has any meaning?” I asked.


“That’s what the existentialists say. Their answer to a meaningless universe is for individuals to create their own meanings. Whether existentialist or true believer, they both have the same goal, to imbue life with meaning. What do you think gives your life meaning?”


I asked differently. “What is your life about?”

“Finding happiness.”

I mulled this over and thought about Rabbi Hillel’s famous answer to a heathen who 2,000 years ago challenged, “I will convert if you can explain Judaism while standing on one foot.”

Hillel lifted one foot and replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” The Golden Rule. Perhaps Yonah’s answer to the meaning of life implied the Golden Rule’s twin, “What brings happiness to you, give to others.”

Rather than being the championship team breezing through Paris on the last day of the Tour de France, we were an exhausted family of four struggling against a wind carrying the combined smelters of US Steel on its back.

It was moments like this with the wind pounding my ears like an incessant bass drum and myriads of tiny sweat wasps stinging my eyes that I struggled with my inner Zen. The truth is that I know nothing about Zen except for the adage, "eat when hungry, sleep when tired." The bicycling equivalent must be, “pedal when going.” The idea is to focus on the pedaling and let all other thoughts wash over like water over the proverbial duck's back. That seems to be Zen. But—alas—hopes for a wind change were the only neural pathways firing, and more bitterness piled on with each new gust. My mantra was, "When is this damn wind going to shift!" Hoping for change that you have no control over leads to disappointment. I tried recalling my friend Chris Kelsch's mantra, "It's all good." No problem when you’re on a 40 mph descent. When it’s all good during a 6.7 mph descent into a 25-mph headwind, then you’ve found your inner-Buddha.

The winds attenuated in Capital Reefs National Park, a 100-mile-long "wrinkle" in the earth’s surface which created a narrow canyon with towering cliffs and hoodoos on either side. (Hoodoos are the rock spires that are left behind when a cliff crumbles.) Bryce Canyon has nothing on this real estate. We stopped at a scenic overlook and stared at a pair of gigantic hoodoos which were taller, asymmetrical versions of the Twin Towers. Their beauty stole my breath. Why does beauty have a hold on us? From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems likely that what we call human beauty is related to the passing down of genes. We want to make sure that we choose a mate that is healthy enough to produce offspring. This evolutionary health is defined as beauty. At least that’s the theory. But what of a hoodoo, a Mozart concerto, or a solitary red rose bud covered in morning dew? Once I was teaching Solomon's baseball team the finer points of sliding, and a rainbow appeared. An entire team of eight-year-olds, whose holy trinity was baseball, pizza, and Gameboy, stopped and stared. I couldn’t imagine an evolutionary reason which created this kind of response. And then understanding struck.

“Beauty is ambrosia for the soul,” I pontificated to Yonah as we gazed at the hoodoos.

“I agree they’re cool to look at, but I don’t think they’re ambrosia for the soul.”

“Do you think there’s an evolutionary reason to think hoodoos are cool?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. But the reason I doubt they’re ambrosia for the soul is because I don’t believe in a soul.”

“If there’s no soul, then what are we? Is a person just the electrons jumping across our brains’ neural synapses? Is being alive simply the evolutionary drive to go forth and multiple DNA?”

“I don’t see evidence for anything else. Believing in a soul is like believing in the Tooth Fairy.”

“That can’t be right. I can’t prove the soul exists through mathematical proof or empirical experiment, but there are too many stories, coincidences, and déjà vus to dismiss the non-material world out of hand. If we are simply the sum total of neurons firing how do you account for goosebumps when you hear a beautiful song?”

“I don’t get goosebumps.”

“You’ve never read a passage in a book or saw a movie that made you feel something in your body? I've read To Kill a Mockingbird with my English classes over 20 times, and I still get choked up when Scout figures out that Boo saved her life.”

“Sure, I get feelings, but why say it’s the soul?”

“What else can it be?”

“I don’t know. I’m only 13 years old.”

We left it at that.

At the overlook stood a couple in their late-50s. He wore a long, gray ponytail to counterbalance a heavily-tattooed body. Crosses and the visage of Jesus shared his living canvas with his mother and granddaughter. He introduced himself as a prison minister. He had been a motorcycle mechanic and drug addict until one morning he arose and heard Jesus call him to minister to prisoners. He customized his Harley by welding on bullets, hand cuffs, and night sticks. For the next 17 years, he and his wife visited prisons spreading the good word. This is religion at its best, when it can save a person and motivate him to bring peace and a feeling of self-worth to others. Soul or no soul, this man was doing holy work.

“What you’re doing, riding across the country on bicycles, is noble. I’d like to pray with you if you don’t mind.”

We held hands in a circle and he offered a prayer, ending with, "Please, Lord, may they cycle no faster than angels fly." Nothing to worry about there unless the angel needed ibuprofen to deal with a pair of arthritic wings.

Back on the road, I asked the resident atheist what he thought of participating in a religious event. I expected cynicism mixed with scorn.

“Actually, it wasn’t bad. Maybe we should get more religions to pray for us.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“It can’t hurt to cover all bases.”

Either his spirit was growing, or the hot wind short-circuited his cerebral wiring, or my little boy was a whole lot more complicated than I ever imagined.

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