When I was in school, my innocent, gleaming face would always inspire quizzical looks from parents, politicians, teachers and fellow students. Those confused looks would sometimes melt into gazes of sympathy, horror and resentment. Not that I was oblivious as to why; they perceived an atheistic child to be something unnatural, and unfathomable by all human logic. Whenever the class cited the Pledge of Allegiance, a row of faces would turn to me just to see if I omitted the word “God” from my statement. Imagine their relief when they heard the “forbidden” word come out of my mouth, delivered just as patriotically as the “United States of America.” The idea of God was never forbidden in my household; to us it was a symbolic entity, occasionally worthy of both respect and contempt, like any other governmental effort launched by man.
Naturally my parents, Helena and Reginald, played a major part in influencing my beliefs. They never argued with me or attempted to indoctrinate me about their religious views. They simply challenged me to view the concept of God with a practical perspective and eagerly awaited evidence of my findings. In my rebellious years, I put on “airs” of faith and countered their practical viewpoint with Christian dogma. To my surprise, and admitted frustration, they never became provoked by my actions, but instead chortled at my newfound hobby of believing in an imaginary friend.
These phases of faith would come and go, and I would frequently adopt their perceptions rather than come to any resolute decision. Our relationship almost became strained following the death of my first pet, Mrs. Nelon, a beautiful, yellow feathered cockatiel. When I found her mysteriously dead on the floor of her bird cage one day, I erupted into tears of outrage and suspicion. I interrogated both of my parents, suspecting some sort of “fowl play.” When they patiently answered my questions, I fumed and wept profusely. In desperation, I asked them if Mrs. Nelon was waiting for me in a better place, if her soul was somehow kept living on some higher plane of existence somewhere.
They answered me with a straight-faced frown and said “No.” They explained calmly that there is no afterlife, heaven or resurrection for birds or humans. The only thing that we have left is our memory of good times. “Life is not about suffering in this world just to find peace in the next one,” my father observed. “Life unfolds in this world. We enjoy it to the fullest, every moment of everyday.”
Following this enlightenment, my parents allowed me to experiment with various stages of grief. I erected shrines to Mrs. Nelon, and performed my own agnostic funeral with my parents in attendance. I expressed the thought that despite evidence to the contrary, if there were an intelligent higher power somewhere in the universe that I hope he or she would remember Mrs. Nelon kindly, for she truly was one of the most self-sacrificing birds I had ever met. My parents even said “Amen” following my prayer, with the same vocal inflection that I used every time I said “God” during the Pledge of Allegiance—a comment that was felt, not necessarily believed.
When I grew into adolescence, I noticed my parent’s attitudes began to evolve slowly. They started to watch the television news with a certain detachment. They never openly spoke of their rejection of contemporary American government, but started to take the same practical and clinical view of patriotism as they once did with religion. Whenever I became fixated on a certain charismatic politician, they would challenge me with various open-ended perspectives, encouraging my own cynicism to take root. I could say that I never truly felt disillusionment in life. The illusion was never projected. Idealism was cautiously avoided.
When probed for their own spiritual beliefs, they expressed to me a lyrical dream they had of a world, a fantasy, where there were no deceptions of religion, countries or possessions. The thought rattled me, and I do not believe I ever harvested the fruit of that thought until I dreamt of a friendly-faced boy. He would soon become my first and only cartoon character.
What set this animated boy apart from all the other puerile faces of joy in the media was the fact that he was a boy without a name. I started the creative process like anyone else would, trying to visualize a catchy and marketable name that somehow still had allusions to great literature. Then a few days later I dreamt of the boy in vivid detail and saw his future unfold. He would soon become a national icon and earn millions of dollars entertaining and comforting people all over the world. I was in a deep and prophetic slumber as I gazed at the movie theater screen in astonishment while the familiar song played. A trailer for the upcoming full-length animated movie starring this friendly-faced boy played for the first time and a leading Hollywood celebrity was voicing him. Even in the midst of all this glory, I still never learned the boy’s name.
When I awoke, I realized that his namelessness was the essence of his character. He had no name and no parentally inherited legacy to share with others. He had no implications or any philosophical or moral agenda. He would be judged by the way he treated others. Whenever he would meet a new friend, they would ask him his name, to which he would innocently reply, “I have no name.” When his new friends would wonder what they should call him, he would reply, “Why not ‘friend?’” When questioned on what word should be uttered when one is trying to get his attention, the boy suggested that his friends find his face and shout “Hey, my friend! Listen!”
Some children laughed and some parents fretted over the implications of a child with no name. Some concerned mothers forced the boy to come home with them and gave him a biblical name and religion to call his own. The boy participated in their faith and thanked them for their kindness. When he left the home, he would journey back to his home in the forest and gradually forget the name generously donated to him. This was not due to spite or pride; he rather ingenuously forgot the information given to him, because he associated all of it with that one house, a house he might or might not ever see again.
When this beautiful face without a name was sold to a studio, I became independently wealthy. Something about this boy seemed to speak to a generation that was lost without their Gods or countries. This became a bittersweet time in my life, because just as my idea started to expand in the universe, so one of the most powerful figures in my life started to dwindle away into nothingness.
My father was dying; his millions of cells corrupted by an illness, the name of which I refused to speak for the longest time. I would go and spend countless hours by his bedside, keeping him company during his precious last moments on earth. The spiritual revelation I instinctively hoped for never quite came. Instead, my father and I cordially exchanged sentiments on how much we would miss each other.
At one point during a particularly long night, I lost control over my emotions, and began interrogating the dying man, asking him how he could continue to reject the idea of God and an afterlife, even while claiming to have great love for me.
“Because, such dreams are not practical,” he muttered in a gasping breath. “Whatever your mother and I have been to you, know that it has been motivated by love…one more powerful than death, life and weakness.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
“Why would you want to? It’s time for you to share your gifts with others.”
He caught my crying eyes and reassured me. “Your mother and I decided many years ago that we would reserve all of our love for heavenly things and pass it onto you. You grew up without longing, without fear, without distraction.”
“It was wonderful,” I replied, desperate to comfort him in some way. “I never felt alone. I never once prayed. Because whenever I spoke, someone would listen. Someone would talk back.”
“Always remember…you live in this world. You regret in the next.”
During my father’s funeral, the profound thought occurred to me that when one has a childlike perspective, he views his parent as a God. Everything that young one contemplates about a higher being is based on his perception of a higher parental authority. Two parents will teach the youth male and female qualities that supposedly belong to a supreme deity.
As I listened respectfully to the minister make improvable promises about my parents being in heavenly bliss, I concluded that most parents probably force their children into a state of “transference”, taking what they know about their godlike parent and magnifying these qualities into a vision of godly submission.
I understand that many families might scoff at the notion of destroying naiveté so early in youth; cruel explanations that there is no such thing as Santa Claus, that your elected officials never make mistakes and that God is the brilliant work of man. To me, I feel as if I loved my parents so much more, and experienced life with them to a far greater extent than ordinary, because I never shared my life with a God. I did not have to rationalize, hope or pray. The world was my Garden of Eden.
In the months that followed, and especially after the death of my mother, I began to question the purity of my own lifestyle. I had successfully achieved my parent’s vision of success: a man without heaven, a multi-national citizen, a man thoroughly alive in the present and with no hope or desire for a “next world.” However, I had to be honest with myself and ask if my possessions—two two-story houses, three bank accounts, and a commercial income based on the friendly boy with no name—were really a part of my family’s philosophy.
What kind of a hypocrite would I be if I could release myself of religious doctrine and patriotism but still be indebted to materialism, land and currency? Besides, a part of me felt selfish because I was profiting from the tragedy of the boy with no name, a tragedy that he was not even aware of. Indeed, he always found it quaint and humorous that he lacked ancestral lineage.
About three years ago, I decided to sell all my property and give my money to charity to prove I had no obligations to man, state or God. But even that wasn’t enough. I had retained copyright of the boy with no name even after the studio contracts were signed, and decided that it would be egoistic to claim his life as my own, or worse yet to put his adorable face into the oily hands of corporate conglomerates. I felt that the only gift I could give the fictitious little boy who changed my life would be the freedom to travel wherever he wanted—a loving gift my parents once bestowed upon me. Therefore, I allowed his copyright to expire and chose to give him to the public domain. Now the little boy is free to travel to whatever house he chooses, taking on the name and ideology of any creator, only to return to his forest a nameless, clueless and fully satisfied child that never has to age.
(C) 2010 The Late Mitchell Warren