The Humor of the Situation
February 17, 2017 (Age 20)
It started out as a joke, and I laugh whenever I think that maybe all religions got their start that way. I imagine the first appearance of God in history. Two primitive men, let’s call them Ra and Ka. Ra and Ka are sitting in the field one day when Ra feels compelled to throw a rock at the back of Ka’s head.
“Hey!” Ka says, or something like it.
“What?” replies the crafty Ra.
“You threw a rock at my head and it hurt!”
“No I didn’t,” says Ka, now smiling.
Ra is not stupid. He may be sitting naked in the dirt, but he’s no fool. “Who else could it have been? You are the only one here!”
“God did it,” says Ra.
“Who?” And thus God was blamed for something he didn’t do. Except that maybe he put the thought in Ra’s head in the first place, I don’t know. Ka goes home feeling confused, not knowing what he did to offend this God person, who, Ra told him, is everywhere. He spends the rest of his days trying to understand why God would throw a rock at him and trying to make up for it. Ra spent the rest of his days being a prick. (lol)
Is this a parable? No. I don’t think so. It could be, I suppose, but it’s not one of the stories I tell to my listeners. It’s a downer, thinking all religion is based on a trick. Still, it makes me laugh.
If my religious studies professor heard me say this, he would probably start beating me with his enormous Bible. Actually, I’m surprised he hasn’t come after me already. Maybe he’s a secret believer.
As I was saying, this whole thing started out as a joke. One evening, over several glasses of wine, me, my
apartment-mate roommate Kyle, our friends Terra and her friend Jean, ended up talking about religion, one of my favorite subjects to rant about.
“None of ‘em work for me,” I said loudly. “The Catholics think they’re the only one’s getting into Heaven, they think they’re special, the chosen people. Problem is, everybody thinks they’re the chosen people. I’m sure the atheists think they’re the chosen people! I don’t know how, but the Jews still think that they’re the chosen people. What an asshole God would have to be if that were true.” <-(anti-Semitism?)
“What about Spiritualism?” asked Terra, who believed in chi and reincarnation and karma.
“What about Spiritualism? Who are the Spiritualists? Where are the Spiritualists? Spiritualism has become such a varying thing, you don’t have anything at all to believe in. Nothing specific, just vague mysticism. Maybe there is something to it, maybe some people can divine the future, or make it rain, but for your average person, the whole ordeal is too strange.” I took a sip of wine. “I’ve met Spiritualists who believed in angels. I’ve met Spiritualists who worship Mary, you know, virgin mother of Christ? Sounds kinda Christian to me. No, Spiritualism isn‘t a religion, it’s just what happens when you tell people they can believe whatever they want.”
Terra crossed her arms and made a sour face.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I continued. “I’ve got nothin’ against no one. I’m just saying I don’t think that anyone really has the answer.”
“Whatever,” said Terra.
Kyle, who studied philosophy, saw an opportunity to inject his own beliefs. “That’s what I’m saying, man, you just can’t know.”
“You say you can’t know anything,” I said, picking my wine glass off the coffee table. “I don’t know that I’m holding a wine glass right now, according to you.”
Kyle grinned, his eyebrows raised. “Do you know that you’re holding a wine glass right now Michael?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, losing the argument once again. “But still, I do, it’s right here, in my hand, and I am holding it, so fuck off.”
We’ve had this conversation at least fifty times before, so reviewing specifics was out. You see, Kyle was a firm believer of Skepticism and Hard Determinism. Basically, Kyle thought that you couldn’t know anything for sure, because you might be wrong, and your whole life as you know it might be one complicated hallucination. Technically, he is right. If you still don’t get what I’m saying, rent The Matrix. <-(No, explain it to your satisfaction.)
Kyle’s beliefs applied to everything, including free will. Kyle believed that everything that happened was meant to happen, and that everything that is going to happen will, eventually, happen. Take any decision you might make in your life, good or bad (if you believe in such things), and consider that it was never possible for you to make the opposite decision. When you make a decision, your beliefs and habits inform the decision. Your beliefs and habits are determined by your upbringing, your life, the decisions you’ve made in the past. You were meant to do the things you do, that is why you do them.
So, when you yell “Fucking faggots!” out your car window at the two gentlemen on the corner, you can feel better knowing that you were always meant to make that decision. Nothing that wasn’t meant to happen could ever possibly happen. Free will is an illusion. You are who you are. You choose nothing.
My problem is, I feel like something makes me better than that guy in the car, and also a bunch of assholes around the globe, especially child slave traders. I think I’m better than them, I think that I got something right that they got wrong. I have compassion and they do not.
Another problem. I would probably kill child slave traders if I could. So much for compassion.
“Kyle, there has got to be something right.” I said. “Justice man, are you saying there is no justice?”
“Is there, Michael?”
He got me again. “No.”
And then I said something. Something I may or may not have been meant to say. All I know is, I said it.
“But there should be.”
And now Jean, who rarely spoke, though this just may have been a side-effect of my presence, decided she needed to stand. “Would you shut up!?!?” she yell. “All you ever do is tell people that the world is screwed up and that they’re wrong! Like it’s their fault that the clothes they buy come from sweatshops! Where do your clothes come from?” She pointed a strong finger at my chest, and I didn’t need to look down to know that the shirt came from a sweatshop. I buy my clothes in department stores, of course they come from sweatshops.
“I never said-”
“And here comes an excuse,” she interrupted, still hot. “If you’re so fucking smart, why don’t you start your own religion?”
The question hung there, and everyone in the room pondered it, and then came the laughter.
We went wild on that one for a solid
four minute s, the wine making it seem like the funniest thing in the world. I imagined myself preaching to the masses, bouncing around like I usually do when I get excited. It was ridiculous, like an peace rally led by a coked out George. W. Bush.
When the laughing finally died down I wiped a tear from my eye, “do I have any followers?” I smiled stupidly.
Then, for reasons that are still unclear to me, Kyle said, “I’m in.”
And Terra said, “Me too.”
And Jean said, “You guys are idiots.”
At that point it was still a joke, but for the next two hours we designed a religion for me. Terra pulled out a butterfly-covered spiral notebook and wrote everything down.
The first official document of the Church of Hopeful Skepticism is stained with red wine, covered with scribbled crossings-out, and festered with arrows indicating where things should go. Once decoded, it looks like this:
The Church of Hopeful Skepticism
4 Good Ideas and 1 Suggestion
Suggestion: Okay, so we can’t know anything for sure, at least we’re pretty sure, therefore, don’t get all uppity (uppity? That word has a lot of racist connotations…) with these ideas. Don’t try to convert anyone to The Church of Hopeful Skepticism, instead, try to change
there their minds about more practical things. You wouldn’t be here if you thought some other religion had the right answer, and I just told you that we don’t. Therefore:
1) Be Nice. This one can be hard, obviously, people can be jerks. Sometimes it’s very easy to say mean things, but you should ask yourself why you desire to be mean in the first place. Also, most people aren’t prepared for extreme niceness, being really nice can get you out of a jam. But you won’t usually be in a jam if you,
2) Be Good. This doesn’t mean just not being an asshole, good is not just the absence of bad. This doesn’t mean follow the law of the land, the law of the land usually isn‘t good. Trust me, you know what good is: be that. I mean it.
3) Try. You don’t have to be nice and you don’t have to be good, but you should at least try to be. If everyone tried to be nice and good, things would be much better. So when you recognize a tendency in yourself that isn’t nice or good, try.
4) Be Honest. This one is tough too, but essential. Unless you are comfortable being a lying cheat, you’ve got to be honest, with yourself and others. You can keep secrets, you don’t have to disclose all information at all times. Again, you know what honesty is. If you do 1-3, it makes 4 easier.
Kyle was the obvious motivating factor on the suggestion. Terra’s translations of my ramblings on the failures of humanity, sprinkled with anecdotes of my own failures, became the Four Ideas of Hopeful Skepticism.
I hope that this ragged page finds its way to a museum some day. Who knows? Maybe it will. Probably as recycled paper in a museum café napkin.
I am so funny.
So the next day the joke got out of hand. Actually, Terra got out of hand, which isn’t unusual. Terra likes to stir the pot, she likes to watch the stew of existence bubble. She called me at 8:30 the next morning, asking when church was going to be.
“Katilzday,” I said.
“We’re not having church, there is no church, I’m hung over.”
“Oh come on! What kind of religion doesn’t have service?” The tone of her voice was slowly rising.
“The kind that is hung over and doesn’t need the money.” I said.
“How about Sunday?”
Here is another one of those moments where my lack of awareness caused me to go off blindly down a path I wasn’t even aware of agreeing to walk. I am not very good with sincerity. Everything is funny to me and so I’m not always aware of when people are being serious. I feel this way about twenty-four hour news networks on slow news days. If I had known what I know now, I wouldn’t have said what I said next.
“Sound’s great,” I said. “Noon?”
“You pick and let me know.” Ha ha.
And then she was gone and I closed my eyes.
It wasn’t until the following Thursday that I thought about The Church of Hopeful Skepticism again. I was walking with Kelsey, a pretty blonde girl from one of my philosophy classes that I had been trying to impress. We were walking by the campus café when I saw this flyer stapled to an event board:
The Church of Hopeful Skepticism
Not quite sure if Jesus really loves you?
Not quite sure eating Kosher makes a difference?
Not quite sure God is a white guy?
Not quite sure if the Messiah is coming?
We’re not either!
Come to our first service this Sunday @ 12:00 in the amphitheater!
“Oh shit” I said, quickly scanning the flyer. There was no “Approved for Campus Posting” stamp on it. I wondered if that was an oversight on Terra’s part, or if she just couldn’t get it approved. Either way, there it was.
“Oh shit.” I said again.
Kelsey gave me a look, a sort of embarrassed-worried look. “What is it?” she asked.
I ripped the flyer from the corkboard. “You don’t want to know,” I replied, checking to make sure it was the only one on the board. “I gotta go,” I said, stuffing the flyer into my pocket.
Now Kelsey was upset. iIt was unusual for me to just suddenly ditch her; she was used to my full attention when I was around. “Now wait a minute! Where are you going? What’s going on?”
“It’s just a joke,” I said, giving her a famous smile before running in the opposite direction.
Walking back to my apartment in the rain with no umbrella and no jacket. Sending out some horrible vibes while I waited for Terra to pick up her cell phone. A definite low point in the history of the church for me. Terra’s voicemail picked up:
“Hi. This is Terra. I’m not here right now. I don’t know where I am. Do you know where you are? I hope so.”
And then the annoying voicemail operator, telling me that when I am done recording my message, I can hang up, or press “1” for more options. That extra twenty seconds of annoyance was enough to set me off, I screamed at the phone in the rain, “What the fuck are you doing!?!?!” And then I snapped it shut and continued walking in the downpour.
I realized later that my best move was to go back to campus, by myself, in the rain, to tear down all the flyers that had been posted. I went from building to building, floor to floor. People would look at me with perplexed faces when they saw me rip the flyers unceremoniously from the boards.
The worst part of the job were the boards outside. The wind and rain kept pounding, blowing leaves off the trees and at me. Thunder began to growl in the distance. I ran from board to board quickly locating and removing each flyer.
When I was done I had collected 187 flyers. Dripping wet, I returned to the café to get a cup of coffee and warm up. As I came through the door, something on one of the funky-shaped tables caught my eye. It was a small piece of paper, almost a scrap, but printed on it was the same message as the flyer. “Michael O’Leary & The Church of Hopeful Skepticism Welcomes You!”
There were more.
“It was a joke!” I yelled, throwing my hands into the air.
I had tracked down Terra at the library. Someone shushed me from the next isle over.
“It was a joke,” I whispered furiously.
Terra looked up at me from the book she was reading. Her gaze at that moment was so sincere, I had never seen her look that way at anyone, let alone me. “You think it’s a joke, but you’re wrong. You have a lot of good ideas. People would be better off if they were more like you.”
What do you even say to something like that? I fumbled a protest, “I can’t…”
“Yes, you can. I’ve heard you go off in class, at debates, when you’re drunk, when you’re half asleep. You’re a captivating speaker. Your word choice is unique, hilarious, enlightening. You can do this, and besides, how many people do you really think are going to show up?”
I thought about that for a second. My ego had gotten away with me. I had imagined hundreds of people packed into the concrete amphitheater. It was insane, delusional. No one was going to show up.
“You’re right,” I said. “It’ll probably just be me and you.”
“You’re probably right,” she said, and went back to reading her book.
I’m never right.
Overall, “The Humor of the Situation” is a well-written, unfinished story. The story’s set-up, (which is what most of this is) is interesting, though sometimes the author over-explains things that could be said more concisely. I found the idea of a religion starting as a joke particularly interesting.
The narrative tone was consistent and enjoyable to read, but the characters could have been more vivid. While their interactions are natural feeling and their personalities come out a bit, the most specific detail I remember about a character’s physical appearance was Kelsey’s blonde hair, and she was only in the story for a single scene. The moment between the narrator and Terra would have been much stronger if I had a better sense of what Terra looked like.
Most importantly, I wanted to read more when I reached the end. Good stuff. Grade: A-
When I wrote this story for my intermediate creative writing class, I was still writing for fun. There is a shift in my writing that would come in the next few years as I started to consider myself a “real writer” and started taking myself too seriously. There is a flow to this narration that isn’t always there in some of my later writing. I have since stopped taking myself quite so seriously. (Though I also believe God inspired me to start writing this blog, so make of that what you will.)
It was actually remembering it was Sunday and that I needed to go to church that inspired me to select this piece today. I had glanced at it earlier in the week and thought it might be too long. I’ve since decided that I want readers who are willing to invest a bit of time into the stories, poems, and drawings I share. Thanks for reading!
The narrator of this story is a thinly veiled version of myself. When I read this, it’s set in the apartment complex just across the street from my college campus, where I used to live during my junior and senior-and-a-half years. The narrator’s beliefs were my own at the time, and his boisterous and performative character traits are my own. I never actually tried to start my own church, but I was as skeptical of all established religions as Michael is.
The whole going to church thing then, may surprise you. It surprises me. While my beliefs about practical matters haven’t changed much, I’ve come to find a comfort and strength in having a relationship with God. Through a series of difficult and troubling events too complicated and lengthy to get into at the moment, I somehow found faith, after years of wanting it and not having it.
The God I pray to isn’t the God I learned about growing up in the Catholic church, though “He” is quite similar (Oh pronouns, you tricky bastards). I came to believe in God before I found a place I felt comfortable worshiping God. But Google is an amazing thing, and I was able to find a church that believes the things I want to believe and doesn’t try to convince me to believe things I don’t.
Of course, this means people with a variety of beliefs about the “Truth” are gathered on Sunday mornings. In a way, we’re all making up our own religions, but I much prefer that to gathering with a bunch of people worshiping a God I don’t believe in and feeling like an imposter.
No offense, Catholics, keep trying.
Anyway, I hope you liked something here, and if you did, please click one of those SHARE buttons below! Thanks for reading!