So, I was in Hinman Dining Hall eating my lunch solo. I was trying to eat kind of quickly because I left my Management Information Systems homework to the last minute, and I needed to head back to the library to finish it. It's always so crowded in the dining halls during lunch. So, this kid walks up to my table, and asks if he can sit across from me. I didn't really hear what he said through my headphones, but I just said, "Yeah, yeah, sure." I kept working on my macaroni, and listening to my music. After about a minute, I decided I'd take off my headphones, and talk with the kid. It's just weird for me to sit across from someone in silence like that.
"So, what's your name, man?"
"Cool. cool. So, what's your major?"
"I study engineering."
"Yeah, what kind of engineering?"
"I'm not sure yet, either mechanical or electrical."
"So, what year are you, dude?" I asked completely expecting him to say freshman. He looked young. Just a frail, little white kid with a shaved head.
"Me? I'm a freshman. How about you?"
"I'm a senior."
"And what's your major?" Lawrence queried.
"I study psych and business." I said as I took a big bite of fish.
"Interesting...what do you plan to do with that?"
I chewed over my fish, as I waited to respond. A moment later, I finally swallowed, and then spit out my reply. "I'm actually gonna be takin' the LSATs this Saturday. I'm hopefully going to law school next year. I wanta understand international and contract law so I can mediate negotiations between Chinese and American businesses. I forgot to tell you, I lived in China for a little while, and I can speak some Chinese. So, yeah I'm hoping I'll be able to weave some of these things together."
"Cool man. But where does the psych come in?"
"Oh, I just study that one cuz I'm interested in it."
"Yeah, I'm interested in psych, too. I actually wanted to be a psychiatrist, but decided it would be too much work."
"More work than engineering?" I said incredulously.
"Well, yeah, I mean, psychiatry you have to do so many years of school. Then a few years of residency..."
"Yeah, that's more time-consuming," I interjected. "But I still think the engineering work would be harder."
"Well, I've always been good at math and science, in high school, you know."
"Word. I hear ya. So where ya from, man?"
"Me? I'm local. I drive to school everyday."
"Oh, cool. What town are ya from?"
"Oh, really, I'm from Norwich. So, you play any sports for Union-Endicott?"
"That's awesome, man. Tennis is great exercise."
"So, what are your hobbies, dude?"
"Partying." He stopped for a second, and gave me a funny look. Then I nodded my head to goad some more hobbies out of him. "Reading." He said with emphasis. "Yeah I like to read books. Well, actually I just like to read one book, The Bible."
Whoa, I thought to myself. This boy needs a bit of education. "So, you're a pretty devout Christian, eh?"
"Well, that's good man. That's good that you're spiritual. Everyone ought to be spiritual. But me, I just can't believe that Christian shit."
"Why not? The Bible is never self-contradicting. It all makes a lot of sense once you really read it."
"...Well that may be. But, ya know, I told you I study psych, which is a pretty scientific field. And the more you learn about psych, the more you learn about biology, the more you learn about physics, about any science, the more you wonder, 'why the fuck wasn't any of this important shit mentioned in The Bible?' Why does the stuff in the Bible contradict a lot of these known truths about the universe."
"Yeah, but what made the universe? I mean, yeah energy created the Big Bang, and then later some rocks came together to form the Earth, and then some chemicals came together to produce life...Doesn't it all sound too improbable to have happened without a Creator?"
"Well, it is very improbable that any one reality exists. I mean, you know it's one in a billion. Actually it's way more than that it's like 10 to the hundredth power, or some ridiculous number I can't even comprehend. But whatever the chances of any reality existing are vanishingly small. But that's the whole idea of parallel universes and alternate realities."
"Yeah, but positing a Creator is even more improbable than that!" I interjected forcefully. "As hard as it is to explain the big bang, and the beginning of life, it's much easier to explain those than to explain a Creator. What created the Creator? You need some Deux Ex Machina to come and create the Creator, and then everything's solved!" I said mockingly.
"Yeah, but doesn't it just make sense that there's a God? There's more to this world than just matter."
"Yes, that's true. Everything in this world, can't just be described in terms of matter. But there is a physical and mathematical aspect to every phenomenon. For instance, in psych you can describe something in terms of the behavior itself, the social context of the behavior, the neurochemical processes that elicit the behavior, the evolutionary pressures that created the need for the behavior, and so on..."
"Yes, I know that. I know some things about psych. I have OCD actually. So, I've learned some things just through my own experience."
"Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?" I said with surprise. I couldn't believe this kid I just met had told me this, but it was just the beginning.
"Yeah, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression. So, I've spent some time with psychologists." He said with a nervous laugh.
"Well, that's interesting..." My whole emotional state and perspective on this little chat seismically changed with those few short sentences. "When did you find out?"
"I was in 6th grade when they diagnosed me with OCD."
"And were you depressed all that time?" I asked intently. I would've been shocked to hear about a 6th grader with clinical depression. It just doesn't happen too often. Kids are happy. Teenagers get sad.
"No, the depression didn't start until 12th grade."
"So, last year?"
"Yeah. My psychiatrist tried to switch around some of my meds because they thought it would help, but I just ended up crashing. Just couldn't really do anything, but lie in my bed miserably...My mind was so polluted. I thought about commiting suicide. I was pretty close." He let out a mirthless chuckle. "And that's actually how I got into reading the Bible. You know I just felt like there was no purpose--no reason to go on. But then I started reading the Bible, and it gave me hope. It gave me a purpose--to serve God...I mean don't you feel like without God that there's just no purpose to life?"
I looked up at the roof of the cafeteria. That last question stung me a bit. I don't know if many people know it, but I've actually had my own struggles with depression throughout the years. Nothing clinical. Although my Dad did want me to get therapy in high school, but I was such an incorrigible lad that I just told him to fuck off, and went and played FIFA Street. I sighed, "Yeah, I know what ya mean. I feel that purposelessness. But I don't know..." We were silent for a moment, then I asked, "So man, I actually don't know too much about OCD. Could you educate me a little?"
"Yeah, well OCD is an anxiety disorder. For instance, today I parked over in the M Lot. And I saw someone I knew and I said hi to them while I was locking my car. So, the whole time through philosophy class I just kept thinking 'did I lock my car? Is someone breaking in?' Ya know those kinds of thoughts. But just a million of 'em a minute."
"Yeah, I hear ya. I often get anxious about forgetting little things like that too." I replied in a pathetic attempt at consolation.
"Yeah, but it doesn't consume your entire being. When I'm thinking about something like that, that's all I'm thinking about, and I just can't stop the loop."
"Yeah, yeah. That must be rough." This reminded me of something a psychology professor of mine once told our class, "The only thing that separates mental illness from normal distressing psychological experiences is; frequency, severity, and duration." Frequency. Severity. Duration. I believe it. "So anyway man," I continued, "what kind of symptoms have you had in the past?"
"Oh, it goes in cycles. Phases, really. You know, I had a cleanliness phase, where nothing could ever be clean enough. And recently I had a Scrupulosity phase."
"Yeah, it's where you always think you should be praying, and reading the Bible. Things like that."
"Wow, that's very interesting. I'd never heard of that. Well, a lot of great people have had OCD. I know David Beckham has a mild case, or something. Apparently, his compulsions are practicing his shot and his passes all the time."
"Yeah. I actually had a phase where I was pretty obsessed with success. That was part of what led to my crash. Just trying to do so much school work, and do my best, or whatever. But I'm past that now. I just wanta earn enough to provide for a family."
"I hear ya. That's an honest goal, man."
"Yeah, I just figure what's the point with that, right? I'd be pursuing success for all these selfish reasons. And now I'm at college where there are a lot of talented, driven kids, and if I tried to compete with all of them, I'd probably crash myself again. And I figure whether I get a 2.0 or a 4.0, I still get the same diploma. So, as long as I can pass I'll be happy."
"Haha. That's true man. Not too much competition in U-E or Norwich High, that's for damn sure. But yeah that's a good idea, man." Silence returned to us, and I finished up my yogurt, as I thought about his hobbies. "Yo, you said that you liked to party, right?"
"No, I didn't say that." He said with a quizzical grin as he shook his head.
"Yeah, I didn't think you were that type of guy. I must've misheard you earlier. Shit, I just get so used to all the white people here telling me that their favorite hobby is partying. I must've just expected you to say it. That's good that you don't party, dude. That stuff brings you down. Do your own thing."
Now that I was done eating, I needed to head back to the library. But this conversation seemed a lot more important than a routine MIS assignment. I wanted to say something to this kid. I didn't know what. You know? Just let him know I heard him. Let him know it meant something to me that he would be so honest with me. I gave him my name and phone number and told him to contact me if he ever wanted to hang out, or needed any advice about university life. But I needed to say something more before I left. Part of me wanted to tell him that God had brought us together today. But I didn't know if I could keep a straight face while I said that. "Well, Lawrence, I'm glad you sat down at this table. It was real nice talking to you. I hope we'll keep in touch."
"Yeah, me too. See ya."
And off I went back to the library. I wanted to start writing about the conversation then and there. But the success bug still has me, so I finished my homework. I couldn't stop thinking about our conversation all day, and I vowed that I'd write it up as soon as I got back home. But after class, I stopped at that same dining hall to pick up some dinner. I ended up sitting with a Chinese buddy of mine. It was Monday, so I was still excited about the New York Giants' unexpected victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. So, I talked to him about the game and he taught me the Chinese word for rival (宿敌, in case anybody out there gives a shit), and a few other sports-related words. We walked out of the cafeteria together, and as we parted ways, I saw Lawrence sitting on a bench 20 yards away, reviewing some flash cards.
"Hey, Lawrence, what's up buddy?" I said as I approached.
"Oh, hey Pierce." He said as he looked up from his flash cards.
"So, you studying for a quiz or something?" I asked as I squatted down next to him.
"Oh, no, these are just some Biblical verses I'm trying to memorize."
"Whoa, can I take a look?"
I looked down at these flash cards and they've got some pretty inspiring verses on them.
"Yeah, these aren't the best verses." Lawrence said to me.
"Why not?" I asked.
"I mean, for convincing someone about God."
"Yeah, I hear ya. But people who read the Bible don't need convincing. These verses aren't really about convincing, man. They're about inspiring. They're good."
"Yeah, they are."
"So, anyway man, what are you doing sitting out here?"
"Oh, I'm just waiting to go to a meeting for this project I have."
"Yeah, what's the project for?"
"It's an adreno project. Every freshman engineering student has to do it..." Lawrence went on about some details of the project, and I asked him a few more questions about it. All fairly geeky stuff. I don't feel like boring everyone here with that. Fact is I'm grateful you've had the patience to read to this point.
Anyway, as I walked up the hill back to my dorm, I thought about those flash cards, and three words popped into mind. Frequency. Severity. Duration. I wondered what a full blown case of scrupulosity must look like. I sighed. I thought about some recent conversations I've had with an old buddy of mine. He and I are both fairly committed Atheists. He's been encouraging me to be more proactive about trying to educate believers, which I applaud. I'm always eager to hear that. I think this world would be a much better place without organized religions. But still it's tough to try to disabuse people of their delusions. Especially, when you meet a good kid like Lawrence, who's had some bad luck, and needs the religion to help him get through. I can't express to you how horrible I would feel if I knew that my arguments against God and religion brought Lawrence back to depression...let alone if he fell into such a dark hole that he killed himself. I don't have the heart for that. Truth be damned.
It's tough to have a purpose without religion. Lawrence was right about that. I mean there is a purpose to life. It's nothing magical and special like the religious charlatans would have you believe. It's to procreate and spread your genes, and just keep on going in this rat race of existence. But that's not too edifying.
A lot of people can go through life with no real purpose, and that's just fine for them. You can keep yourself distracted, and away from the big questions...and the big answers, with a lot of stuff. And the distractions become more numerous with each passing day (e.g. the new facebook ticker on the top right hand corner), and the masses remain docile, and the world keeps spinnin'.
Despite my rather scientific analyses of most situations, I'm actually a very spiritual person by nature. It's just in my blood. My mother and father are good Protestant folk--honest, hardworking, loyal. I try to take that religious discipline and apply it to secular fields. But still, what's the purpose? When you're religious you try to do right by God, and that's your purpose. That's what matters.
But what's the secular purpose? Progress? Towards what?
Helping others? To accomplish what?
Actualizing your potential? Potential to do, or become what?
I guess that's what's so great about religion. Once God answers every question, you can just stop asking them. It's nice. It's comforting. But maybe the greatest thing a person can do is to accept that they have no inherent purpose. Isn't that the most admirable? To keep on marching in the face of an infinite abyss. To work for its own sake. To do right by other people, just because that's what they deserve, not because God told you to.
Maybe that's my purpose in life. To just keep on keepin' on for the sake of keepin' on. I don't fuckin' know.
Pierce is a student at Binghamton University, where he studies Psychology and Management. He has traveled extensively in Asia, speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently and a bit of broken Hindi. His interests are as scattered as his mind. A bit of a pensive pussy, Pierce enjoys writing poetry, essays and short stories concerning a plethora of topics.