Thursday, February 05, 2009


I wrote this last month while sitting on a Goa beach, drinking a beer. Pretty simplistic, but might as well share, to show that I wasn't just staring at the topless, aging hippies:

French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued like this that one should believe in God: "It makes more sense to believe in God than to not believe. If you believe, and God exists, you will be rewarded in the afterlife. If you do not believe, and He exists, you will be punished for your disbelief. If He does not exist, you have lost nothing either way."

Growing up, I always thought of myself as a rational person, or maybe something of a cynic or skeptic, so his argument--or "Pascal's Wager" as it's known--seemed inadequate. I didn't want to bet on God's existence. I wanted proof.

Every once in a while, I'd try to test God, to see if he'd intervene in everyday life and prove Himself. I wasn't the first or last fourth grader walking home on a snowy day sending up a silent prayer that went something like this: "Dear God, Please make it keep snowing all night. Please make it snow so much that school will be canceled tomorrow." Back in Chicago, every once in a while, we'd have a snow day, but only if there was so much snow that cars and buses couldn't move safely. It didn't happen often, especially after one mayor lost his reelection bid because he didn't clear the streets in a timely manner.

My little prayer was my own wager with God. I'd finish off with this offer: "If You make this happen, I promise that I will forever be a good, church-going person. I swear! And all you have to do is provide 10, 12 inches of snow tonight. Surely this is in your power."

I would sleep well that night, knowing that I didn't need to fear that awful math test the next day. The next day, I'd wake up calm and happy, yet a little excited. This happened more than once, and each time I remember running to the window and seeing clear blue skies and clear back streets. God had let me down.

Thing is, the prayer did work, just not in a way that I'd understand for a long time. My prayer somehow set my mind at east, allowing me to get a good night's sleep. Like any form of meditation, prayer slows your heart rate and allows you to calm down and think clearly about your problems, whether they are major life problems or minor math problems. Is this enough to believe in God? I don't know. But I know I'd always do OK on those math tests. Of course I would've done better if I had studied, but the praying at least kept me from getting too nervous.

Other things in life don't have such simple explanations. For example, I've never sought out palm readers or other fortune tellers, but sometimes they've found me. With mixed results.

Back in 1990, during my first year of college, a friend introduced me to his girlfriend, a strange but beautiful gypsy from somewhere in Eastern Europe. After saying hello, she held onto my hand and asked if I wanted her to read my palm. "Oh whatever," I thought, "like palm reading is real. But what if it is!" 

She lifted my palm to get a good look and almost immediately screamed and let go of my hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "I ... I've never seen such a short life line." In other words, she was telling me I didn't have much longer to live. 

I didn't necessarily believe her, but I thought, wow, in case she's right, I better start acting like I don't have much time left. I started ... living. No more wasting time, just sitting around watching TV. I sought out adventures, travels, excitement. "I'm not going to wait until I'm old to experience life," I decided.

That was almost 20 years ago. So I guess I outlived my lifeline. 

Years later, while living in Japan, I met another friend's strange but beautiful girlfriend. This one didn't read palms. Instead, she read feet. I thought she was giving me a foot massage, but really, she was applying pressure to different parts of my foot to learn about me. For the most part, after tickling for a while, this "massage" felt good. But then she pressed one point and I felt an almost electric pain shooting up into my body.

"Does that hurt?" she asked, pressing again. I pulled my foot away.

"According to your foot," she told me, "you are healthy, except for your stomach. That part of your foot corresponds with your stomach, so it means you will have stomach problems later in life."

And here's the thing: It's now later in my life. And while I don't have major stomach problems, my stomach does cause me problems more than other parts of my body. Then again, ever since that foot reading, I started taking care of myself. Started drinking more juice and water, less alcohol. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, less junk food. Maybe the warning helped me make better choices by leading a healthier life.

These days, I'm still cynical, and I'm not much of a betting man. But when I reflect on what I've learned from the palm reader and the foot reader, maybe it makes more sense believing. There's much to gain, and the proof--if one is necessary--is a longer and more fulfilling life.

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