Religion, Humanism, and a Boy/Man in the Middle

Editor’s note: The following essay, written by a high school student, is fictional, however according to the author is closely bound to actual feelings and experiences. See all of our 2013 Humanist Essay Contest winners here.


I first met Christian from a distance—that is, watching him from 100 yards away, I knew exactly who he was. He stood in the dry field adjacent to where we lived, whipping back and forth a lure-less fly fishing rod. There were no bodies of water near him. The fish never jumped. His creel never filled. He just danced the line with closed eyes over the empty grass field and walked home when his shoulders got tired.

I first noticed him and his practice during the summer after second grade, when I would spend entire afternoons leaning over the railing of our front porch, staring into the sun. Being so young, I was not concerned by the pointlessness of his activity, just curious at the irregularity of his actions. In July of that summer I approached him and asked him why he wasn’t fishing near a body of water. He stopped waving the line, let it settle extended over the grass, and looked down at me to respond, “Well it’s not called catching; it’s called fishing. It’s about purpose not pursuit.” For years Christian was my idol, was the man to whom I looked for wisdom. He seemed to me, in those early years, to be a beautifully centered man. And in comparison to him, I saw how I was just a clueless second grader.

That following year I had my First Holy Communion at the local parish and saw Christian sitting in the back row, smiling quietly. The next Saturday he found me on my porch and invited me down onto the field. He handed me the fishing rod. He stood tightly behind me, his hands clasped over mine, my arms mirrored beneath his. And like a man teaching a boy to swing a bat or a golf club, he danced me. I remember blushing terribly. For the first time I realized how plainly foolish his activity was. Nothing was ever going to bite down on his line. He had invested his soul in capturing the intangible and to me that was just flatly illogical. I thought back to what he said about purpose and pursuit and decided he was incorrect.

But Christian remained a wonder to me. I watched how he fished, how he squinted into the sun and watched his line settle extended over the grass. I could see how much pleasure he drew from this practice, how vital it was to his existence, how much he relied on it. The rational part of my mind told me that even though it could not be understood, his pleasure was just as valid as any other. But the irrational part of my mind was overwhelmed by his secret, overwhelmed by the fact that I could not understand why he smiled so peacefully. He seemed to know something I did not, and this left me suspended.

But still, I never found myself fishing in Christian’s dry field after that lesson. I watched him from the distance of my porch railing, quietly disillusioned by the emptiness, distressed by his mysterious pleasure. I left Catholic school the next year and began in the public school system. I found the sciences and slowly rose through the grades, developing like the rest of my peers. I passed Christian as I walked home from school every day and we did not stop to greet each other.

In eighth grade my science teacher, Kirk, led a school backpacking trip along California’s Lost Coast, under the curricular label of biology. We all stared out the van windows as we raced north through the tremendous forests of Humboldt County. We unloaded on a small sun-baked, salt-blanched parking lot and shuffled as a class down the black pebbled beach, into the foggy distance. We slept in tents in the mouths of the river valleys and explored the fanciful tide pools during the day, collecting and learning.

On the final morning I woke up to catch the gray pre-sunrise and found Kirk standing out west on a stone perch, fishing into the Pacific. He was wrestling something from the depths, leaning and pulling, feet anchored on his rock. And after a tight stretch of time, I saw a splash from the water below him. Reaching down to the water’s surface with his net, he drew a fish from the black. He sat on his stone, unhooked the creature, and inspected it, holding its panting body up to the sky and admiring the reality and tangibility of it. And then he threw it back into the ocean and balanced back along the rocks to the shoreline.

As the years rolled by and I grew older, the Lost Coast hung in my mind as a constant wonder. I knew there was something profound for me to learn from the way Kirk pulled in that fish, captured a tangible reality from the veiled ocean, but I could not pinpoint it. When I turned sixteen I drove north to the Lost Coast on the weekends and watched the sea change. With fishing rod in hand I would balance out along the rocks, my pants rolled up to my knees, toes spread out over the cold algae glaze. Depending on the tide, I would move as far west as possible, as far into the deep recesses of the ocean as possible. And staring into the black water, I would fish. And if the whim of the universe would permit, I would draw from the sea a real, beating, thrashing, gaping life.

And from these starry communions with the Pacific I would return home, south through the night, my fish wrapped in newspaper in my creel in the backseat. I finished high school and continued through to college where I studied the sciences. I came home during the holidays and sat quietly and politely with my parents through Sunday masses. They held my hand tightly as we prayed, distressed quietly to themselves when I would not close my eyes or bow my head. We never spoke of religion; we never spoke of science. They danced around the subjects, assuming that all they needed was for me to grow older and wiser, assuming that I was to be their prodigal son.

But I knew better than to try to reel them in. Driving south through the night, back from my first solo trip to the Lost Coast, I had stopped in front of Christian’s house and rang his doorbell, my newspaper-wrapped fish held forward in my arms. When he opened the door and saw the tangible offering, he began to laugh. He pretended not to realize what I was offering him; he pretended that I didn’t realize what I was offering him. But he knew what I was doing; I could see the terror beneath his smile, the terror that what he saw was indeed real. But what he couldn’t understand is that there’s no malice in reality. There is only the physical tangibility of things, the slimy hard back of a fish wrapped in newspaper being held forward on two upturned palms into the doorway of another man in the night.

Christian did not accept the fish. I watched him wave his line over the dry field the following morning. His arms shook like I’ve never seen them. We did not talk again and I was told that he died of natural causes while I was away, a senior in college studying biology in a lab in Berkeley. I didn’t know to call myself a humanist until the year that he died. When I come home on holidays and wake up I expect to see him waving on the dry field, but the dry field is always unoccupied and I suppose that’s how dry fields are meant to be. I still drive north to the Lost Coast when I can, walk out along the rocks into the deep parts of the ocean to capture some new reality from the mystery that still remains. Last January I drove up in the night and arrived just as the sun was illuminating the fog. The tide was peeled back and the life underneath the veil of water was revealed. Small wonders crept through the narrow channels: an octopus swelled and spat into the breathing weeds; crabs flared their colors of orange and purple and red from the splits in the stones; starfish plied open muscles, contorted and overflowing like roots over boulders. And I continued further west, the furthest I have ever traveled, and I stood out on my slicked perch and lowered my hook into the black water. And I don’t know, I may have prayed, I may have spoken something quietly into the fog around me, I may have been hoping for something more, something beyond the tangible. But then my line sprung tight, and I found that it was all here, all before me, all in embrace of the wonderful, beautiful, meaningful reality of life.