Commentary: The meaning of life

The Miami HeraldNovember 26, 2008 

I was crammed into a middle seat. The guy in front was practically in my lap, and I had my arms drawn in tightly as I pecked furiously on the keyboard. God glanced over. "What are you working on?" He asked.

"A column," I said. "About you, in fact."

He lifted an eyebrow. "Oh? What did I do now?"

"Well, not you per se," I admitted. "It's about this atheist group, the American Humanist Association. They stirred up folks in Washington, D.C., recently by running a billboard on the buses. It said, 'Why believe in a god?' "

God was curious, so I passed Him the computer. Just then, the plane lurched violently. The guy next to me spilled his drink and muttered a curse. God paid no attention. When He finished reading, He passed the computer back. "That's not about me," He said. "It's about defending their right to free speech."

"Sure," I said. "What else would I do?"

God shrugged. "Why not just answer their question?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well you know," He said, "you've got that Thanksgiving holiday coming. Might be appropriate to remind people of whom they're thankful to."

I considered it. "That could be a good idea," I said.

He gave me a look. "OK, OK," I said, "all your ideas are good. But you know, proving you exist is a heavy-duty philosophical chore. I suppose I could go with the complexity-of-life argument, talk about how if people see something as unremarkable as a cardboard box they assume it had a maker, but if they see something as intricately designed as a person -- or heck, an amoeba – some folks say, Oh, it just . . . happened."

God was unimpressed. "I don't need you to prove I exist," He said. "I am the great I am, remember? Besides, that billboard doesn't ask for proof of my existence. It asks, why believe? Isn't that a fair question?" He gave me an expectant look.

I see, I believe

I looked past Him, out the window. We floated above a deck of clouds, the sun falling toward the horizon, the whole world the color of gold. It was like poetry in midair. I said, "I believe because I've seen you. And because I've heard you."

The plane jolted again. Two rows behind, a baby started shrieking, hitting notes I'd have sworn were impossible for a human larynx. The man ahead of me shifted heavily in his seat. My tray table pressed hard against my stomach.

God gave a smile that I couldn't read.

"It's not all poetry in the sky," He said. "Where you see poetry, somebody else sees only a flaming ball of gas circling the earth, light refracted through crystals of ice and pollution in the air. Where you see eternity, someone else sees an ocean. Where you hear my voice, someone else hears thunder."

"What are you getting at?" I asked.

"What do you see then?" He said. "What do you hear when no one else sees or hears? When you walk in places where no one knows your name? When you curse the brokenness of your own life? When flood and famine strike the wretched and the vulnerable? When the diagnosis is cancer? Do you see me then? Do you hear me then?"

It took me a moment. "Sometimes," I said finally. "Not always." I thought about it a second, then added: "But I'm always trying."

"Why?" asked God.

I looked past Him. The sun seemed to be sinking into the clouds. The sky was growing dark. "Because nothing else makes sense to me," I said.

God smiled.

The captain announced that we were about to land. We were asked to shut down and stow our electrical equipment. The guy in front returned his seat to its full upright and locked position. The baby kept squalling. Moments later, the plane touched the tarmac. It had been an awful flight, and I was glad to be home.

"Thank God," I whispered.

"You're welcome," He said.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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