He’s very smart, my childhood best friend, and very faithful in his atheism. When he was 6 he was clever as clever, but now he’s past 60 and knows he will not live for ever and ever. Yet now, as in years past, even the most modest mention of God brings a growl: “Don’t proselytize me.”
He called me this summer and pleaded that I come visit him, so I hopped on a plane and did. He has many physical problems for which doctors have prescribed this and that, with meds for one ailment making another worse. He has worse psychological problems, which he first summarizes with sociology speak: “I lack a support network.” Then he speaks more plainly: “I’m all alone.”
He puts his head on the table and says, “I don’t know what to do.” He’s haunted by unused potential: “I’ve wasted my life.” He programmed computers for others but never worked on any trend-setting products. He knew some women but never married. No children. He knows he could go underwater with hardly a ripple. He doesn’t look back proudly at anything in his life, including military service. Seems noble to me, but he says all he learned was, “It’s better to be a live coward rather than an f-ing dead hero.”
For a time he took satisfaction from his financial worth, having socked away maybe $2 million, but he long expected a stock market crash, kept his money in cash and commodities, and missed recent run-ups. He’s angry about that, and blames the Federal Reserve. He blames politicians. He blames Obama, for whom he voted.
He says he would be suicidal except that he fears death and oblivion. When he was working, he could keep his brain busy on computer problems. When he stopped working, he could keep his brain busy learning a new language and his legs busy by learning how to dance. But at some point the void within him became unbridgeable by activity. He stared at the void and reacted with the cry of Ecclesiastes from 3,000 years ago: “Meaningless.”
Some Christian writers have understood what my childhood friend is going through. Blaise Pascal wrote in 1670, “I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die: What I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.”
T.S. Eliot wrote in 1925, “We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men.” A half-century later Walker Percy described the contemporary secular man as one who “works, grows old, gets sick, and dies and is quite content to have it so, [living] as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him after all.”
But what happens when secular man wises up and is no longer content?
I spent three days with my childhood friend as his world was disintegrating. He was in despair, but I can’t consider that a bad thing: With his hostility toward God, he should be in despair. He has to hit bottom before he can rise, and maybe his only chance is to hit bottom. But how will he then bounce up? Augustine wrote in his Confessions that he was “speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, ‘Take up and read; Take up and read.’”
Augustine did that, picking up Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. When others will not take up and read, true change seems impossible. Except, except…with God, nothing is impossible.
Reprinted with permission of WORLD. To read more news and views from a Christian perspective, call 800-951-6397 or visit WNG.org.