As I was falling asleep last night, I felt quiet, not public library quiet, but after-a-big-thunderstorm quiet. My mind felt quiet, I wasn’t having many thoughts, I didn’t feel compelled to.
One time, when I was going through a break-up, I tried to fast for a day, to clear my mind; I made it until 2 PM and then went to KFC and got a barbecue chicken sandwich and macaroni, and then I went back to fasting. The next day, I was so upset, I couldn’t eat at all, even though I wasn’t fasting. One friend describes breaking up like this: when you discover that a favorite piece of clothing is getting a little worn and maybe isn’t good to wear out and about, you put it in your bottom dresser drawer; after a break-up, it’s like you get to wear those favorite old clothes again.
Everyone has annoying habits, things like cracking knuckles or using words like “irregardless” and “inflammable”, or always being a little late, or, when going out to eat, making detailed requests of the waiter. So, even when a break-up is about something important, acts of betrayal or disappointment or irresponsibility, months after a break-up, it’s the passing of these minor, petty grievances that gives relief; realizing that you are, for sure, not going to spend the rest of your life with someone who eats their Oreos by splitting them in two and then scraping the frosting off with their teeth.
I used to do research for the Army. I thought that the war in Iraq was unjustified and, although what I was doing wasn’t going directly to Iraq, just working for the Department of Defense concerned me.
About half of the work itself was material testing. In The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, the main characters work for the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois, because IRS work is repetitive and dull but requires attention to detail. That was what testing materials was like: a pointed boredom. One time, I did the same test two hundred times in one week. I wasn’t well-suited for the job. I would sneeze and lose samples, tiny ones, down into the screw holes on an optical table. One time, I got dizzy from epoxy fumes while trying to mount some instruments on samples.
The other half of my job was making software tools to collect and analyze data. This was more interesting than just doing the tests, but even when I was making tools, although the way that the tools worked was a little interesting to me, what they did wasn’t. Only a couple of people would even use these tools.
There were all sorts of more minor things about that job that I hated. I hated the commute, which was an hour and a half during rush hour. I hated the security policies; to get to my desk, I had to pass checkpoints and show my badge and swipe my badge. I had to wear a badge and it turns out that I don’t like wearing badges; they’re awkward and dangly. I had to take the badge to the Front Desk once a month, and I wasn’t good at remembering this; when I forgot, which was about four times, there weren’t any actual consequences except the worker at the front desk glaring at me.
I tried to quit that job once, but my next gig wasn’t lined up properly, so I was stuck with the job for another four months. I think that made my dislike of the job worse. When I finally was able to quit, I started grad school, which scared me, but I kept remembering that old job and thinking about how glad I was to have something else to do.
Most people, after a break-up, plan on dating someone else, eventually, and most people quit one job planning on starting another, at least eventually. As I was quitting Christianity, though, I wasn’t considering Krishna or Thor. I didn’t exactly find a new thing. I meditate a little, I go to weekly meetings of the Secular Student Alliance, I read, but all of those things, put together, aren’t like a replacement for Christianity. At first, quitting was difficult, like the feeling very hungry or too upset to eat; I lost a lot of sleep, I would have night panics. I would wander around outside late at night.
I used to pray, not as much as I thought I should, but enough that I felt like God was always with me. When I would go for a walk or sit in silence or drive in my car, I felt like I wasn’t alone. In the morning, my alarm clock would wake me up, I would roll out of bed, walk across my room to turn off the clock, then stand there in my pajamas and pray, just to deal with getting up.
Mornings became more difficult after I started to doubt. Why was I waking up—to what end? Why do the things that I do matter? How do I know if I’m doing well enough? How do I go about not feeling bad? Sometimes, I overslept, often until noon. I kept cans of Red Thunder by my bed, to jolt myself awake with caffeine, as soon as I would wake up.
And one day between then and now I woke up, not praying, not missing prayer, feeling a little cranky because I always feel a little cranky when I wake up. Then I used the bathroom, and then went downstairs and ground some coffee beans and foamed some milk for cappuccino, and I did the same thing the next day, and the next day, and eventually, I stopped noticing that I was alone and it seemed normal, and now it feels good.
I would say that I thought about this as I fell asleep last night, but I didn’t, because I wasn’t thinking so much as being quiet.