I had an unwritten contract with my mother. She gave me a physical body and a home in which to nourish it, and in return I went to Sunday school every Sunday till I was confirmed into the school of religion of her choice.This was 1980′s South Africa. We lived in Durban, often termed “The Last British Outpost” – a pure WASP bubble where even white Afrikaners were considered foreigners. So my mother’s choice of religions for me was really between different flavours of Anglican Christianity. Even Catholicism was considered a little too â€œout thereâ€ to be a viable religion.
Mom had opted in her late twenties to join the Methodists. Not because of their superior ideology or any previous affiliation to this “tearaway” Anglican rebellion, but rather because she liked the singing. I guess secretly she wanted me to like it too. Behind my youthful posturing at Sunday school once a week, I now confess that I did actually kind of like a few of those melodies. Not that I would let on in front of the blushing pubescent girls in my class though, when you came from an all boys’ (all shiny white and all English) school, it was important to make a cool impression in your only mixed class in the week.
One tune I recall clearly cutting through my wannabe James Dean countenance babbled between the words of “The wise man built his house upon the Rock”, an old familiar bible story. I guess somehow the words and the melody fused into something that resonated within me. Something that, as soon as I had completed my contract with my mother at a confirmation ceremony, made me reject Christianity wholeheartedly and embrace another ideology. You see, I just could not, no matter how I wrestled with it, bring myself to build a relationship with my maker based on the muddy ideas I was presented with. After all those Sunday mornings spent grooming and posing, I did come away with a love of spiritual music but (sorry mom), I just couldn’t swallow the slightly stale holy wafer of accepting this Jesus guy as lord and only son of God before I could be saved.
So, my Christian confirmation ceremony ironically turned out to be a confirmation into an unexpected and altogether different kind of religion, Atheism. I had been toying for some time with the idea that there might be no God at all and that this light spectacle around me might actually be all there was to being. What I made of life here and now was it! Making the world better in my lifetime and passing my knowledge and this improved world over to the kids was the what would give impetus to get up in the morning (that and a glowing surf report). And so, one morning not long after my 16th birthday, I rose and declared to the world that I was now an atheist. Great! Free! Now what?
Well, apart from the fact that I now had a little more free time on a Sunday mornings (which I wisely used to recover from Saturday nights) little else in my life seemed to change. The air still erupted each evening with the song of hundreds of mynah birds coming home to roost, the summer humidity still clung closer than my newly acquired Gillette twin blade razor and my mom continued to drive her yellow Volkswagen beetle to Methodist services each Sunday morning, without me. Life without the specter of a hallowed trinity hanging over me seemed disappointingly same-ish. No Fire coming up from the sewers to swallow me whole for rejecting Jesus, no tidal waves or sea-monsters engulfing me on my surfboard, and sadly no lightning strikes either (although I did have a mean lightning bolt on my surfboard..).
I guess I had secretly wanted the atheism thing not to work out in a way that only rebellious teenagers can understand. I kind of liked the concept of a big guy upstairs, although santa-claus beards and pointy-fingers didnâ€™t cut it for me. Then there was all the hollow pomp and empty ceremony around this triple-headed entity and the fact that our church congregation consisted largely of grey haired old ladies who warbled when the sang behind me, stank of fake lavender and, as far as I was concerned, were terrified of dying and going to that other place, or worse still â€“ going nowhere! How could I be expected to be so terrified of dying at sixteen that I would become a lavender warbler. No way Hose (or Hesus either)!
So life at 16 continued on, relatively unchanged, although I could now unquaveringly sneer the Sex Pistols “I want to be Anarchy”, with a little less fear of divine reprisal. My life may well have continued along this path had an earth-shattering event not taken place. I lost my wallet! To put the magnitude of this event into perspective, I should explain that to a sixteen year old “independent”, a wallet was more than just a place to store my newly acquired BOB card (Barclays bank had just started making bank cards for teenagers) – a wallet represented the essence of my financial sovereignty. A place to store my hard earned funds from long hours spent alongside numerous other sixteen year olds behind the tills of the local hypermarket, a place from which to whip a two buck note to buy my mates a quart to share at the local bar which we had snuck into pretending to be eighteen. This was an ultra-precious item, more precious even than volatile hair gel, even more volatile aftershave (after shaving what?) or the black t-shirt bearing the logo of my favorite British punk band. The act of losing such a basic necessity to life as my wallet led me to utter , in a state of unreserved helplessness and teenage confusion, two words which irrefutably swung the scales of my life towards a wholly different gravitation. Those words “Oh God!”
Of course I realized as soon as I had said them, that I was now living my life without any kind of Goddy-authority, so I could not use them. They could not possibly mean anything in this new realist world I had just created, and so they must just have come out of my mouth purely due to force of habit. But that was the rub, deep down in a place seldom frequented by my adolescent hormones, I felt I did somehow mean them, it wasn’t just habit. At that moment I dearly needed that cosmic, all-seeing entity (at least to look for my wallet!). For a few brief moments, a veil lifted on my awareness and I clearly felt like the previous months had been like living with a snubbed friend. Sort of like the time I wouldn’t speak to my surfing mate Ricky after he had snogged the girl I had imaginarily been sweeping off her feet every night for a year, only worse. In that moment, I realized something of the life-long friendship I had had with the character my Sunday school teacher knowingly informed me, was called God. He had been there, before Sunday School, before girls and before we started tearing the sleeves off our T-shirts. He had, in essence, been the only friend that had stuck by me through moves to three major cities and four schools, just, I hadn’t ever really paid him much attention before.
Would that I could have lived in that expanded awareness from then on, but teenage hormones being what they are, I was soon consumed again by more meaningful tests of manhood. Human-ness closed around me like a fog of starving mosquitoes around my sweet-blooded aunty at a summer braaivleis (South African barbecue). Yet, somehow the smoky essence of that memory has remained, drifting, untainted by time, in my mind. Its scent has always made me remember how we habitually neglect the relationship with our only real friend most of the time, and it is only in times of real crisis or panic that we suddenly look to that friend for help.
If I look back along the wake dissecting the stormy oceans behind me, I see a distinct bend in the foam line stretching back towards the horizon, a spot where I adjusted my compasses away from pure anarchic atheism and more towards, well, towards atheism, but with a cosmic friend helping out. Its funny how the little incidents in life can often seem to have these huge consequences later on. I guess I’ve found that living life without paying heed to my best mate would be kind of like, uh, living life as a sixteen year old without a wallet!