The sky was as blue as a blue sky can get. It was the last day of school in late June of fifth grade, 1960 in Yonkers, N.Y.
We had left Christ the King school grounds with all the dignity of a litter of puppies finding a hole in the fence, crawling under and over each other to get out. Not much later, a bunch of us were playing freeze tag in the yard next to the ruins of an old house.
I close my eyes and I can see those boys playing together in school uniforms that can finally be abused without fear of punishment. The whole world belongs to them, and they know it.
It was the first few moments of a summer that stretched out to us for an eternity. I could no more imagine its end than I could imagine a person that is me thinking about it more than 50 years later.
A few weeks back I was at the dreaded cocktail party before dinner. You know the kind — you have to be there, you’re not in the mood for chitchat, and you are trying hard to blend into the wallpaper.
A guy came up to me, and after the usual banter about the Pirates looking better this year, he said to me: “You’re a believer. What’s the one question that you would ask an avowed atheist?”
I thought for a minute then said: “I wonder why a shark never gets nostalgic?”
Throat clearing. The head tilts quizzically.
“That’s what you’d ask an atheist?”
Work up a little list of all the moods, all the feelings, all the emotions a human being can put together. Happy. Angry. Hopeful. Despairing. Bored. Foolish. Sad. Kind. Gloomy. And nostalgic.
All that alone might not even make up an average hour of an average person. It’s the incredible mystery of an individual human being, whether from Indonesia or Iowa. And that’s just scratching the surface.
How do we explain it all? Our atheist might answer that these are just mental synapses sparking off helter-skelter inside a human cranium, chemical reactions handed down from some primordial stew. That is harder to believe than explaining everything by the bumps on our head as 19th century phrenologists similarly assured us.
Do electrical synapses make boredom boring or sorrow sorrowful? Does a liver secretion make hope hopeful or joy joyful? Especially when these so exclusively human emotions differ by cause and effect in a million ways from one human being to another, even though we share them all. One man’s nostalgia is another’s regret; one man’s joy is another man’s boredom.
And it’s all meaningless to a shark that never looks back to the good old days as he searches for his next meal.
Atheism can offer opinions about humanity, because humanity is a collective conjecture. But atheism can explain absolutely none of what makes up the individual human living in the infinite complexity and wonder of an individual human soul. A collective nonexistent humanity becomes more definable and more rational than that messy collective of individuals that make up humanity.
The sacredness of life is in the humanity of the individual created by God. Alive with a million emotions, a million feelings, a million thoughts. The good we try to live by; the bad we try to make better. And pray for God’s help either way.
The guy at the cocktail party was still clearing his throat. I looked down at my glass of soda and I thought for no reason whatsoever of the old Wyatt Earp show on television when I was a kid. It was the episode that finished with the old boozer Doc Holliday having to drink a glass of milk.
So I looked up at my curious friend and asked him if he ever played freeze tag.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.