Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nothing by Nica Lalli

This is a short memoir that focuses on the spiritual journey towards atheism taken by one Jewish woman living in New York. In it, she recaps a number of experiences in her early and adolescent life that made her question the faith her parents tried to instill in her. Most of them are amusing, and some of them contain seeds of the struggle she will have later in life.

For example, here she finds herself questioning God’s motives after trying and failing to nurse an injured bird back to health.

Well, I reasoned, maybe he isn’t so nice and kind after all. Maybe he is cruel and mean. I had seen boys who would kill things just to watch how it went. They would pull the wings off flies or the legs off daddy longlegs and then watch the insect suffer. I couldn’t stand that even though I hated daddy longlegs; they had ruined many a camping trip by crawling on me and making me itchy and frightened of going to sleep. Maybe God was like that; maybe he killed things to watch what happened.

I used to think that, too. When I got a little older and into Star Trek, I started connecting these thoughts about God with the character, Nagilum, from the Next Generation episode Where Silence Has Lease. “How interesting.”

But these stories, while amusing, were not what drew me to the book. That I found a teaser on the back cover of the paperback version.

In her adult life, her difficulties with religion continue as her family’s spiritual ambivalence conflicts with a new, Christian in-law. In the end, Lalli finds the courage to define what she is rather than what she is not. By delving into these universal themes through the lens of family relationships and the culture of “God Bless America,” Lalli finds that nothing is a philosophy to be embraced rather than feared.

That sounded interesting to me. A philosophy built on “nothing,” that was both satisfying and worthy to be embraced. I really wanted to see that rabbit come out of Lalli’s hat.

The stories from her adult life are less amusing. Engaging, yes, but more serious in their tone and implications. As the back cover promised, a Christian sister-in-law marries into her family, and what follows are years of misunderstanding, fear, and rejection on both sides of that relationship. Things sort of bubble along, until September 11, 2001.

Like a lot of New Yorkers, September 11 affects Lalli in ways us Midwesterners can probably never understand. Here’s an excerpt from her description of that horrible day.

I was home all day, except for those few minutes I was at school to get the children after the ash from the collapsed buildings stopped raining down on our neighborhood. Greg, who had seen the second plane hit the building from the elevated track of the F train, was stuck in Manhattan and had to walk home. While I waited for him, I sat at the dining room table and watched burned bits of paper float down through the smoke that blew overhead and spoke to anyone who managed to get through on the phone.

And much as many casual believers more forcefully embraced their faith as a result of that day, Lalli, like many unbelievers, grew more troubled at the influence of religion on her society and political culture. It forces her to figure out what she does stand for, if she doesn’t stand for the religion of her parents or her sister-in-law.

Frustratingly, there is never a clear statement of what these core beliefs are. Near the very end, this is about as close as she gets.

Because I realize that people are all I really have. Other people are what make my life. They give it meaning. The interactions with other people bring me a wealth of emotions and confirm my place in the world. It is other people who make that place for me, each person shifts and turns to allow me in, to make space for me in this crowded world. These people are my family—they are nearest to me and mean the most to me. These people are my friends, my acquaintances, my neighbors—even the smallest nod of the head in greeting counts as interaction and adds to the experience of my day.

I could never value gods above humans. I could never prefer to spend time with deities and miss opportunities to connect with people. My sister-in-law once told me that God was more important to her than her own son. I spent months trying to figure out how that could be true. And I still puzzle over it. I cannot even think that there is a God who would want us to care more about him than our own offspring.

I’ll have to confess, that doesn’t resonate very strongly with me. I mean, I mostly agree with it—there’s a pretty strong streak of humanism that runs through me. But I was ultimately disappointed with its lack of power. What should have been a climactic reveal—a true epiphany for those searching for truth in a world without gods—instead strikes me as more a restatement of the obvious.

Of course people are more important than gods, I felt like saying at the end. If you don’t believe gods are real, than who else is there for you to worry about? And conversely, if you do believe gods are real—I mean really real, like “creator of heaven and earth, ready to stuff you in the fiery furnace” real—then of course you’re going to think allegiance to their doctrines is more important that your relationship with the mere mortals that surround you. What exactly is there to puzzle over about that? Isn’t the fact that millions of people think that way kind of obvious?

What’s more important—to me at least—is how you act and how you treat other people. Some people on both sides of the believe/don’t believe divide treat people well, just as some people on both sides treat people like crap. I, for one, don’t see much of a connection between belief (or non-belief) and being a supportive member of our human society. Most of the world may think that the only way to measure goodness is on the believe/don’t believe scale, but I think that’s a false comparison.

It’s not clear to me what Lalli thinks of that.

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