Today is a sad day.
Granted, it's not as sad as those who have lost a relative or a pet or even a job, but I'm sad, nevertheless. Tonight, after a productive day on the Interwebs, after relaxing drinks with great people, after a fun, social event at a newly opened bar, after a great day all-round, I walked out to the street to discover that my guilt-free-electric, fabulously convenient, hardy, trusty, dependable scooter had been stolen by, I have little doubt, some fucking dick-faced prick.
I'm trying not to dwell on the fact that there were five -- count them -- five "guards" not ten metres from where I parked my scooter, although one does find oneself wondering why, if they do not guard objects of value nearest to them, they are called "guards" at all. Perhaps it's more of an honorary title.
I'm trying not to dwell on the fact that my glasses -- with the new lenses I had fitted literally last week -- and several first-edition hard-cover copies of my book have all been lost with my hardy, trusty best friend.
And I'm also trying not to dwell on the fact that if only I had not placed my faith in the ten hands of said five guards, rather electing to attach the U-bolt lock to my front wheel, the whole saga, including this wordy-but-eloquent lamentation, could have been avoided.
Instead, I've found my thoughts drifting towards certain statements made by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others, regarding the "transcendent." They say, and I found myself agreeing whenever it was said, that religion is not required to have such experiences as the "transcendent," the "luminous," the "ecstatic." The notion of weeping at a musical recital, or being moved by an oil-on-canvas from a long-dead artist, by the almost uncontrollable love and connection one feels to one's spouse, children, even close friends does not require religion and, I would add, oftentimes is all the more strong for its absence: If a close friend remains close even if he turns away from the deity in which you yourself believe, then the friendship is there for its own sake, and not merely because you're theologically compatible.
More than that, when a loved one dies, the so-called faithful will invariably tell you, or themselves, that "she's in a better place, now." An ultimately hollow attempt to find meaning, or at least solace, in death. Even more irksome is the priest or imam or pastor who never met the recently departed, but insists, in soothing, condescending tones, that they're with whatever brand of imaginary friend that particular preacher thinks exists.
Thank you, but no.
No, only when we reject such platitudes for what they are -- empty, meaningless, uninformed statements designed to conjure false comfort -- when faced with the absolute -- or, if you must insist, perceived absolute -- loss of a loved one, only then we can wholly grieve their loss without hiding behind the fairytale that they still live "somewhere" and we'll be reunited with them in the "afterlife." That grief, and for those who have not experienced such loss, I can tell you from experience that it can last years, is, I think, an example of the "transcendent" of which Hitchens and company speak. What emotional value is there in pretending that they're not gone at all? What philosophical or cultural value is there in thinking that they're only partially gone?
It seems to me that it is only the non-Abrahamic, non-Hindu, non-Buddhist types who genuinely, honestly face the transcendental pain in experiencing loss. Everyone else pretends it's not really happening, and that their loved-one is actually perfectly fine, but in another dimension, or another baby, or another animal, or, or, or.
I'm taking much longer to reach my point than I had intended, but I'll continue nevertheless, because I'm enjoying myself.
It seems to me that "luminous" is an apt adjective that we can apply to all the "ah hah!" moments in our lives. The moment you 'get' the feeling of keeping balance on your first bike; the instant, wholly liberating, oh-so-powerful feeling of freedom that you feel when the teller at the DMV hands over your warm, freshly laminated driver's license; the stupendously insightful moment that, say, Marie Curie experienced when, quite by accident, and without yet actually discovering it, "discovered" radium.
How does a deity figure into any of this? If "luminous" involves intellectual enlightenment blended with experience, as I think it does, then the presence of a deity, whose purpose, according to anyone who considers any such deity to exist, is to disregard intellect, experiment, laws of physics, and just do whatever they please, would seem anathema to said luminous experience, no?
"Ecstasy" is perhaps the easiest to describe. The feeling you get when your child is born. The joy of winning your high-school football final. Climactic sex with your soul-mate. If you've not experienced any of these, at least try the third one. But once again, these experiences are actually diminished when one invites, say, Yahweh to the party. For the new-born, we take to their genitals with a blade; for the football, we give credit to the deity, and not to our months of training or the coach's years of experience; for the sex, we feel guilty for not being married or for using a condom or for assuming the wrong position... perhaps all three.
When an "unbeliever," an "atheist" -- two words I don't particularly like, but I've no substitute -- experiences life, it's with their hearts on their sleeve, it's with full awareness that they will make mistakes and those mistakes will be their's to own and to correct, it's with the knowledge that their successes will come not from really really hoping to succeed, but from practice, failure, perseverance and help from their fellow human. In this context, and I can think of no other context through which we can or should perceive life, the transcendent, luminous and ecstatic mean so much more to an atheist than to a person of faith.
And today, I have lost. It was a utlity. A tool. And a cheap, poorly made one at that. I bought it new two-and-a-half years ago, for the princely sum of US$450, including four years of insurance. No doubt a local Shanghainese person could have done even better than that. How am I so sad about this squeaky little bike?
In spite of my analytical self, I do get sentimental about inanimate objects. I don't think I'm the only one on the planet to do so. I would venture to say that this is a form of transcendency. Although such bonds are usually reserved for biological matter such as humans, pets and limbs, I think we all have a "favourite" t-shirt that we really should have thrown out years ago, or a stuffed toy from our childhood which we no longer play with but can't bear to give away. These things have no purpose, yet we cling to them, almost as if they are the people who gave them to us.
As for my bike? I test-drove the first bike at the first store I visited, and bought it. I really don't like shopping much. But over the last two years, I've come to depend on this inanimate object. On busy Shanghai streets, it got me from A to B faster than any taxi ever could. It was always a fabulous excuse to get close to a girl on a date too: "I'll give you a lift home. Hold on tight, now..."
So I acknowledge and embrace my irrational, sentimental, transcendental connection to my inanimate bike that neither knows of nor cares for my unrequited affections. Farewell, my Shanghainese friend, you will be missed. You'll be replaced tomorrow, but you'll still be missed.