He said I wouldn’t recognize him. It’s only been a few weeks since last time I saw him. How could he have changed so fast?

Oh. That. Well. That’d do it.

He said he had made some wrong decisions and was now going to go to a place where they’ll help him. I don’t know how much I can safely say here. It’s not my life I’m talking about. It’s a friend’s life. A friend who I don’t think reads this, but if he does, he knows I care. He knows I hope. He knows I wish the best for him. He also knows I can no longer pray.

It’s frustrating. This is one of those times when that’s exactly what I’d be doing. “Hey God. It’s me. My friend’s in trouble. Please be there to help him out.” blah blah blah blah blah. I’d go on and on about it, even though I knew my god already knew all this. For some reason I’m supposed to pray to him about it anyway, otherwise it won’t work.

And exactly what is it that won’t work? Prayer? Is it just a conversation with an all knowing all seeing entity that has no tangible presence yet is always present in spite of your senses? Is this conversation also somehow a magic incantation that when exercised will mystically make all the good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, and you with your imaginary friend will determine which is which and the world will be right and fair and just by just the mere utterance of words from your tongue? Wouldn’t that be wonderful if you could do it? Wouldn’t that be terrible if anyone you don’t like could do that? Presumably, anyone who believes can make this happen. It’s a magical act that is available to anyone who dares try it.

There have been scientific efforts to prove the validity of prayer in regards to hospital patients. These efforts have not proven intercessory prayer is at all useful. Some patients who receive intercessory prayer get better. Some don’t. Some patients who don’t receive intercessory prayer get better. Some don’t. The results were vague and open to interpretation. Based on what I’ve read from both sides of the argument, people who believe in prayer would take the evidence to confirm their beliefs, and people who didn’t believe in prayer would focus on the times when patients that were prayer recipients had complications and in some cases died. However, the truth is the evidence is still inconclusive.

To me, that means prayer just doesn’t work.

If it did work, we’d see a notable difference between people who receive intercessory prayer and people who do not. However, we see no such evidence and therefore the claim that prayer works has no merit. A Believer would be quick to point out that it doesn’t prove anything one way or the other. So. What? If prayer DIDN’T work, praying would make people worse? No. If prayer didn’t work, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and that’s exactly what we see. The evidence is “open to interpretation” because no clear cut difference and no effect at all look exactly the same.

So. What is an atheist supposed to do in times like this? My friend called me on the phone. Told me he was going into rehab. Again. He cleaned up and was on the right track, but he’s stumbled. He got back on the stuff. He said he’s lost a lot of weight and I wouldn’t even recognize him now, but he’s going to get himself cleaned up. He’ll be back in a month or so, but where he’s going there’s no contact with the outside world. They close you off and you focus on getting better. That’s the deal.

I didn’t know what to say. I tried to think of encouraging words but much of that vocabulary is off limits to me now. “God has a plan for you.” “Just believe you’ll get better.” “Put your faith in Him and everything will work out.”

The only thing I could think to say that made any sense at all was, “Don’t worry about us. You take care of you. We’ll be here when you get back.” He asked me to let some mutual friends know he was thinking about them. People we both know but don’t have their phone numbers off hand. He’s going in tomorrow. He won’t be able to say goodbye. I told him I’d pass it along.

He was saying goodbye. At the time on the phone I didn’t dwell on this. I didn’t think about it until later. I recognized his voice but I didn’t recognize the emotion. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him express fear before. Not like this.

He’s looking down into a long dark hole. It’s similar to a hole I’ve seen before. I’ve never been where he is but I know what that hole is like. It’s a scary hole. It’s a point in your life where you know if you do this thing you know you got to do no matter how it scares you, if you do this thing, there’s no turning back, and there’s no guarantees. It’s a fucking scary hole. It’s Alice In Wonderland’s rabbit hole only there’s no cute bunny. There’s no tea party. There’s no smiling cat.

In my friend’s case, there’s definitely no bottle of magic stuff that helps you get small or get big or have adventures. There’s getting clean and sober or getting dead. That’s what my friend’s looking at. That’s a scary fucking hole. I can’t say I’ve faced that hole, but I once stared into a future with no wife and no father and no future. I have once stared into a future where all my dreams of being a successful actor were just not going to happen. I’ve stared into my share of scary fucking holes. Nothing compares to his though. I’ve witnessed friends stare into that hole and get better. I’ve witnessed them stare into similar holes and the hole stared back, and they didn’t make it. That’s what’s really scary. Sometimes you can try your best, but when that hole stares back, nothing you do can be enough. There are some things that are just bigger than you.

Which I guess is why so many still believe, despite the evidence that such beliefs are unwarranted. They want to pretend there’s someone in their corner, staring into that same hole they’re staring at, so when the hole stares back, their imaginary friend can take care of the stuff that they can’t even comprehend. Must be nice to be able to continue to believe even after you know better. Must be nice to be able to pretend reality isn’t real. I can’t do that. I think anyone who does that, does themselves, their friends and loved ones, and reality as a whole a great disservice. Belief in a nonexistent god is a nothing. It’s shielding yourself with the absence of a shield. Not even a shard of glass between you and what threatens your life. Not even a sliver.

Long ago I stared into an abyss, and I thought I wasn’t coming back. A friend grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out by sheer force of will. I was lucky that day. “Death is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” she said to me.

Her words have haunted me long after she sailed on and out of my life, like a slice of herself she left behind in me, just in case I ever look into that abyss again. And oh yes I have. And oh yes she’s still there. I was lucky those days too, but maybe it’s not luck maybe it’s that sliver of a friend who didn’t just try to save someone that day. She saved someone that day, and she left a sliver of herself behind, in case I’d need saving again.

I could wish and hope I can be that for my friend now, but that’d be like someone who can’t swim trying to save a drowning man. My friend is getting professional help from a place he trusts. A place that has helped him before. They will do all they can but he knows he has to meet them halfway.

I don’t have a life preserver. I don’t have a magic bullet. I can’t stand there with him the next thirty days and stare into that abyss with him. I can’t be his shield. I can only be his friend.

I just hope he knows that in those rare precious times when we were together and worked and talked and played and laughed and shared this planet, that I left a sliver of myself with him.

I hope he knows that. I wish I had reminded him. Fortunately, he has more than just me to count on. He has himself. He has his own beliefs which will get him through.

What is a security blanket anyway? What is a teddy bear? What is a little lucky charm or trinket you carry with you? What are these things? They are reminders of times in your life, friends and family members, These things are connections to emotions or thoughts or memories or things we can’t even put into words anymore but they make us feel safe and secure at times when we have no right to feel that way, and every now and then these things, in the hands of certain people, give access to a reservoir of fortitude deep down inside we didn’t know we had, and it helps us make it through.

These are the slivers of our past that we carry with us to get us through our future. Sometimes they’re based on rational thought but more often than not they’re as far removed from rational thought as they can be, cuz in times of great distress and trouble, we don’t always welcome rational thought. We’d rather just bust through.

I’m reminded of the film Kill Bill Volume 2. If you haven’t seen it I’m about to spoil it for you in the next sentence so stop reading now. Black Mamba is up against the people who tried to kill her and they bury her alive. She’s in a wooden box with several feet of earth between her and air. She freaks out and almost loses it but then she quiets herself down and using her extensive years of martial arts training she meditates on punching through the wood to climb through the Earth to reach outside so she can kill her enemies. Of course she succeeds. It’s a film about her succeeding, but the boys over at Mythbusters took that scene to task and recreated it under controlled conditions and seeing if it were possible to escape once buried alive and the truth is no it’s not possible. The way Black Mamba escaped is impossible, but movies aren’t about the facts. They are about mankind’s perception of truth, which again, in times of distress and trouble, we don’t welcome the rational. We wanna just bust through. But what reminds me of that scene isn’t just the irrational sheer force of will that gets The Bride out of that death trap. It’s that what makes her think she can escape is a lesson she learned from a man that taught her how to fight. Lessons that she took from that man and used to live. Pai Mei left a sliver of himself inside Beatrix Kiddo, and that’s what saved her life.

You have left slivers of yourself behind you, throughout your life. Sometimes they’re not what you perhaps had wanted to leave behind, but they are the impressions of you that others have made while sharing time with you on this planet. What they do with those slivers is largely up to them, but this is one of the ways that our lives linger on after our hearts stop beating. If you have ever read the works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or Ian Fleming, you share a sliver of who those people were. Sometimes those can be very powerful slivers, and sometimes they just kind of keep us company but don’t do much more than that. Perhaps the more potent slivers are those of blood relatives, or strangers we meet who become members of our families of choice. These slivers linger on inside you, long after those you care about have gone away.

May our slivers serve our loved ones better than we did. I hope they do. I wish them well. I hope to see my friend again someday, but I’m sure either way, be it as slivers in the mind’s eye or one day face to face shaking hands, I dare say I haven’t seen the last of him, and I doubt he’s seen the last of me.

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