Until I was 12, I didn’t know other religions taught about hell. I’d been raised in midland South Carolina, where everything was hot and Baptist and deeply conservative. I was well acquainted with evangelical teachings about the lake of fire. But it was a tiny, insular religion I’d been around, and I’d thought hell was our idea and ours alone.
The night I learned differently was in the middle of a stifling hot summer. Church had just ended, but I’d left my bag inside. As I searched through the youth room for my purse, I came upon a small slip of paper. It was a chart, probably thrown together for a lesson I’d missed, that described crucial differences between three religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Here were the views of three massive Abrahamic traditions on heaven, on sin, on birth and denial — all condensed for the minds of suburban teenagers in a southern church. And there, in the final column, were the views of the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims on Hell. As my eyes skimmed the paper, I felt dread for the first time.
I spent that night at a friend’s house. As I sat cross-legged on her hardwood floor, I tried desperately to focus on texting and magazines and chatter. But my innocence and nonchalance were fading, and my world and belief system were opening up and yawning in the most terrifying way. Before then, it had seemed neither horrifying nor horrible to believe in a final and tortuous destination for the sinful. I think it’d never seemed scary because I’d always assumed I was in the right club. But my certainty evaporated that night, and with it — for years — went my well-being.
In all our discussions about anxiety, we don’t talk enough about terrified children. The fear that sank its teeth into me that summer night didn’t go away for years. It reappeared in various forms and iterations, in numerous fixations. My parents would go to dinner and I’d call midway through and beg them to come home. I’d clutch the phone until I heard their car in the driveway, and the clenching in my stomach would ease. When I was 15, we started shopping around for a new house. As we toured models and showrooms, my mom would ask about bedrooms and neighborhoods and proximity to schools. “Do you like this one?” she’d ask. “Do you think you’d feel at home here?” But it didn’t matter. I was too worried to feel at home anywhere.
My worry started to subside just before my senior year of high school, and became almost entirely manageable by the time I finished my first year of college. I am not free of anxiety. I doubt I go a day without shaking hands, or six months without the chest-squeezing, starry-visioned anvil of a panic attack. But I have found little ways to cope, ways to soothe the worst of it.
It might sound odd for a child who once directed all her nervous energy toward Hell, but no coping mechanism has worked as well as prayer. In all those years of being afraid of God, I’d never really directed any comments or questions his way. Now the two of us keep up a running narrative throughout the day, a conversation that started when I was eighteen.
When I was 12 and vulnerable and afraid of everything, my mom searched for essays and poetry (and sometimes email forwards) that would push back my fears. She printed them in italics on cheap computer paper, and presented them without commentary. That’s how it was with “Desiderata” — a prose poem penned in the early 20th century, by the mostly unsuccessful American writer Max Ehrmann. A Google search of Ehrmann today yields little more than a Wikipedia entry, but this was his legacy, his only poem to make much of a dent in history. And it was his gift to me.
“Therefore be at peace with God/whatever you conceive him to be,” the poem reads near its end. “And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.”
When I was a 12-year-old fundamentalist, those lines offended me deeply. God was not something to conceive! He was what He was, and we knew everything about Him. There was no room for questions and no space for conceptions. I was so certain.
But today I am 22, and I talk to God. I believe we can conceive of him — or not conceive of him, as some choose to do. And I believe we can misconceive him as well, as I did when I viewed God as nothing but the arbiter of some final justice and life as nothing but a speeding roller coaster toward some uncertain (and surely terrible) end. I have forgotten how certainty works, and I’m not afraid of being happy.
There is peace in my soul.