What Is Heaven?
Our competitive advantage as a species is our brain — so big we’re expelled prematurely. Big enough to ask tough questions, but not robust enough to answer them. Into this void stepped 3,500 superbeings, all competing to sit on the iron throne of our worship. One in five Americans share their faith online (feels more like five in five) or tune into religious talk radio.
Religion has played almost no role in my life. My parents weren’t religious, and I had no exposure to God until, at age seven, a babysitter told me I had to stand in the corner with my arms raised (like Jesus?) whenever I said “God” in a blasphemous manner (i.e., ever). We were living in Tustin, CA, and similar to today, the corporate world had little empathy for women with children. My mom was forced to leave me with a neighbor she paid $2/day to watch me as she ventured to work as a secretary for an insurance company.
My babysitter would announce my infraction and punishment in front of her two kids, and I’d go to the corner. When the ice-cream truck came in the afternoon, my sitter would give her two kids a quarter and me 15 cents. Pretty sure she’s standing in a corner in hell. Several weeks later my mom expressed her frustration that Ms. Spiro had said I was a bad influence on her children. My mom needed to find someone else to watch the heathen. Btw, this had an impact, as I now demand my boys say “gosh” instead of “God.”
After my parents divorced and my mom and I moved to Westwood, I was introduced to Judaism, or at least some form of westernized Judaism. My mom would occasionally go to Temple Isaiah. She’d remark how impressive the rabbi was and discuss geopolitics (like how messed up the Middle East was), which I’d never heard before. Judaism, for an 11-year-old, was mostly that we were on the side of the Israelis. It was easy to be on their side. They had survived the greatest inhumanity in history and were generally badasses. In addition, my cousin was a tank commander in Israel. My mom and I belonged to a team — Jews.
I was in. Judaism felt like a fit. In the sixth grade, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, most of my friends headed to a Hebrew school on Pico Avenue. I’d tag along, and for a few weeks it went pretty well. One of the assistants at the temple, a 10th grader, let my friend Adam feel her breasts over her bra, but under her shirt. In addition, I’d bring packs of Bubble Yum that I’d purchased for 15 cents and sell the 5 pieces for 5 cents each. I was in an environment ripe with the possibility of feeling a breast, and had 40% margins on consumer packaged products. Things were going my way.
Please Have Your Mom Call Us
Somebody, I can’t remember who, asked that I have my mom call them. You see, I just showed up at Hebrew school. These were good people, but someone had to pay the school fee. I told my mom I’d been going to Hebrew school the last few weeks. (If it feels weird my mom had no idea I was going to Hebrew school, I’d posit the helicopter parenting we inflict on kids today is equally strange.) I remember the call, as my mom listened and then glanced at me and looked uncomfortable. Hebrew school cost $35/month. Not a lot of money, but money a single mother, who was a secretary, didn’t have. She asked me why I was interested in Hebrew school. I didn’t have a good answer, and she told me not to go again.
Every couple of months for the next few years I went to friends’ bar mitzvahs. There were ceremonies at Temple Emanuel or Sinai Temple, where Adam/David/Robert would read from the Torah, highlighting their discipline/respect/knowledge, and begin the march to manhood. Sitting in the temple felt peaceful. People who loved each other engaged in an unconventional series of actions that said to a higher being, “We respect and love you, please love us.” It felt real, nice. We would then venture to the Beverly Wilshire and have a fantastic party with magicians, bands, cartoonists, and fancy food.
Meanwhile, when I’d visit my dad on weekends, his wife would take me to church. My dad went for a while, and then it was just Linda, me, and my sister. The denomination was Presbyterian, and Reverend Lee, when hearing I was staying with my dad for the summer, demanded I come to his house and pick up a spare bike. He was a big, handsome blond man whose embrace and kind words on the way out of service made you feel part of something bigger.
After I was accepted to UCLA, two weeks before school started, I went through fraternity rush so I could find cheap housing. At 17, I couldn’t calibrate the nuance of getting 100 guys to like you, so I just went to the parties and high-fived a bunch of guys. On Wednesday night, 60% of the way through rush, I found myself without an invitation to join a frat … having no place to live.
I stopped by the ZBT house. They seemed to like my sense of humor and thin black leather tie. I was self-aware enough to realize I should come back the next day, Thursday, and work this whole ZBT thing. I had no idea ZBT was “the Jewish House.” I got a bid — an offer to join the “Muffkateer” pledge class — and spent the better part of the next five years not going to class and spilling into adulthood with my “brothers.”
I loved being in a fraternity. As an only child, living with a group of guys my age I liked, and who mostly liked me, was wonderful. Most of the kids were from affluent families in the Valley and complained about the food. I was raised by a single mother who was British, and thought the … food … was … amazing. I learned a lot. They’d put pressure on me to shower after crew practice (“Dude, you smell”), and we laughed harder than we ever would again. I miss a lot about college. But the hole in my heart is that I never laughed again the way I did in college. Every few days, uncontrollable, joyous laughter. Some remnant gut laughs in my twenties, laughing out loud in my thirties, and now … it’s gone. Humor is now an intellectual nod more than the physical release it once was.
We Were Jews
We were Jews at ZBT. There was a pride that verged on a superiority complex. Constant mentions of how many Nobel Prizes we Jews had won and the need to stick together, as there were people who wanted us dead. I found UCLA was an open, accepting place for people of all faiths and races, but that didn’t extend to gay people. It was impossible to be openly gay at UCLA in the eighties. Most of my closest friends were gay, and I had no idea.
After graduating from college I had almost no exposure to religion, and began stereotyping religious people as stupid. I know how terrible that sounds. I just didn’t get religion. Everything about it seemed easily nullified. I said I was agnostic if anybody asked, and that felt good in a Switzerland sort of way.
Similar to 44% of Americans who at some point change their religious status, I pinged from Jewish to agnostic to atheist. Truth is I was never an agnostic, but an atheist, and didn’t have confidence to admit it. The methadone of agnosticism cushioned the insecurity of being godless in a society where 91% of our elected officials report being Christian. Not believing in God is just plain un-American.
Most agnostics are closeted atheists. I don’t know when exactly I turned off religion. My belief, similar to Ricky Gervais’s, is that good people do good things, bad people do bad things, and when you find good people doing really bad things, religion is usually involved. Finding atheism for me was significant, as I learned the core of atheism is not a denial of God, but an acceptance and tolerance of others’ beliefs, including those of us who don’t believe.
Clear My Mind
Last week, my seven-year-old son asked, “What is heaven?” I wasn’t ready to give a seven-year-old my map to atheism, so I asked him what he thought heaven was. He answered, “Where you go after you die to be with your family.” I’m 100% certain there is no God and believe the notion of a superbeing is irrational. As I’ve matured, I also recognize that my explanation of the universe — there was nothing, and then it exploded — is no less irrational.
As a younger man, I was always grabbing, searching. More money, more praise, more relevance, bigger, cooler experiences. But similar to the vampires in an Anne Rice novel novel who can have sex but never climax, there was just never enough. Until I had kids my life was “More … I want fucking more.” The only time I’ve ever felt sated, ever, is with my family.
My youngest has had trouble sleeping lately, so I meditate with him and go through a series of stretches and exercises to clear our minds. Sensing a strategy for delaying the hour-long process of going to sleep, he asks me, any night I’m home, to “clear his mind.” We go through the steps, and I finish by running my forefinger down his forehead, over his nose and lips past his chin and finishing on his Adam’s apple. He drifts into sleep, wakes up, discovers me next to him, rolls over flopping his outer leg and arm on me and returns to his slumber. In that moment, “this” all makes sense; I’m with my family, watching over them, strong, timeless, immortal. My child, assessing my worth on things that have nothing to do with our modern, material world, chooses me. I’m with family, loved, and at peace. I’m in heaven.
I don’t think we go to an afterworld, but believe we can get to heaven while still here on Earth. When near the end, I want my boys and wife to lie next to me, clear my mind, run their forefingers across my forehead, and strap their arms and legs on me. This is it for me… I don’t need anything else. I will make it to heaven, just a bit early.
Life is so rich,