Love or Something Like It

 |  April 29, 2013

God doesn’t exist.

The air whooshed from my lungs as I allowed the thought to rise to the surface of my consciousness, giving in to the struggle I had worked months to keep at bay. I broke into a cold sweat, momentarily paralysed by both fear and exhilaration.

I waited a beat, half expecting the plane I was on to plummet into the Atlantic Ocean. The crash would have been my fault, I was certain, since I had been the one to have such a blasphemous thought.

What happens if I don’t believe in God? What if He doesn’t exist?

These questions remained on my mind throughout the next ten days, while I was in Prague for a journalism conference. Between lectures, events and interviews, I wandered a city littered with religious art and statues. At one cathedral, I paused to look at an enormous gold crucifix, a symbol that had once been so meaningful to me, with angry tears in my eyes. The sense of loss and grief was palpable.

But so was the sense of freedom.

For 24 years, I had been a devout Catholic with my feet planted firmly in American soil. I prayed several times a day, went to Mass more or less regularly, tried to live an obedient, Christ-like existence. I genuinely believed that following the teachings of the Church was the path to a good life, even when said teachings hampered everything fun.

My belief was a source of constant guilt. Whenever I got drunk (which, as a 20-something living in Washington, D.C., was often), or listened to the explicit versions of rap songs (my favorite party music), or (gasp) uttered the word goddammit, I prayed that I wouldn’t die before I had a chance to make confession. I had secretly wondered since about age ten if I was damned for all eternity because I occasionally masturbated, a practice that did not abate once I hit adulthood (and why would anyone ever want it to?), but could never bring myself to confide this sin to my confessors.

My trump card, I thought, was that I upheld at least one Catholic principle: no sex before marriage. Seeing as how all of my friends were doing it, and I was obeying God by holding out, I felt that I should be forgiven all of my other transgressions. I had been sexually frustrated for about ten years, and, since no potential husbands seemed to be in sight, would remain that way for a very long time. My anguish had to count for something.

In some ways, I knew I was going to let my religion go in Prague. I had spent the previous nine months seriously examining my own belief in God and commitment to the Catholic Church, and every question I asked, documentary I watched and article I read had led me further and further away from belief. I wanted desperately for the opposite to be true. I’d attend Mass on Sundays, Bible studies during the week, pray the Rosary on behalf of unbelievers. But all the while, a growing emptiness, a deadness, was spreading inside me. The evidence warred with my emotional attachment to God.

Prague represented an escape for me, an opportunity to blow my whole life wide open. It was there that I could think and finally embrace the truths I had been struggling with at home. Free from the constraints of familiarity and expectations, I finally allowed myself to imagine a life beyond religion – and beyond the carefully mapped out plan I had established for the next 20 years.

My entire life changed after that trip. When the wheels touched down in Washington, D.C. on my return flight, I knew on some level that my days in the city were numbered. It took nine months to make the move, but my desire to live abroad and travel was already inflamed. All of this was aided by a new sense of intellectual freedom, and I relished the giddiness of realising that I didn’t have to feel guilty about every aspect of my behaviour on a regular basis. My ability to think critically, evaluate myself and other people, and make decisions about my life based on my goals and desires, rather than my guilt over what everyone else thought and felt, opened the whole world up to me.

Since then, I have lived in three different countries and travelled to several others. I’ve dated several men, explored my sexuality and discovered sides of my personality I never knew I had. The way I view the world has changed completely and I’ve developed new levels of empathy for myself and people around the globe. It’s been an enlightening, freeing, occasionally really frustrating but altogether gratifying life.

Making the leap from a ten-day trip in Prague to a life lived overseas wasn’t an easy one, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Today I live, work and play (ahem) in Chiang Mai. Who knows what’s in store for the future, but one thing is for sure: I have not looked back since that first fateful trip.