‘Nothing’ but beliefs

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When you identify your religious affiliation as “Nothing,” it can be challenging to figure out what you do believe in.

It can be easier to say what you don’t believe in — as in “I don’t believe in God,” “I don’t believe that there is a divine entity in the sky that tangles with us down here on Earth,” and “I don’t believe that things happen because there is a force or a personality willing them to be.”

But being “nothing” doesn’t mean believing in nothing. So what do I believe in?

I believe that we, as humans, control our own minds and actions. When a church-going person says, “Thank God,” I say, “Thank me.”

At my house, grace is not for thanking a god for providing food, but rather for thanking those who worked to literally put the food on the table. That is usually me, so I get the credit for doing the cooking.

I have been told that this is arrogant, that God is the one who provides, and we should be his grateful servants. I say that thinking that God cares about you is arrogant — I mean doesn’t he have better things to do with his time than listen to us whining about dinner?

The human condition — the quest for happiness, the desire to better oneself, and the ability to learn, change and heal — is what really confirms my belief in people. When lives are changed, some would say that God is testing or challenging us. But I say that the challenge comes from within.

I have seen this happen, like when my friend was widowed and he didn’t think he could make it through life alone. But he did, and he is now remarried and, I am thrilled to say, he is happy. He didn’t forget his pain, though. But he learned to live with it.

I also believe in strong community, which is all about people. And so I try to make a difference, stay involved and watch out for my neighbors. I work to make Park Slope a better place, and if you forget to move your car on street-cleaning day, God won’t save you from a ticket, but I will.

I saw the first sign of spring yesterday, green shoots pushing up through the dirt in the tree pit outside my house, and I was reminded that the symbols of spring — of rebirth and regeneration — are just as important to me as they are to those with religion.

The greenery reminded me of my core belief: there is always hope and spring will always come.

Nica Lalli is a columnist for the Park Slope Edition of The Brooklyn Paper.

Nothing: An excerpt

I was driving in Manhattan one day. I signaled to make a right turn onto Broadway. There were many people all around the car, including pedestrians, other drivers, and a bus at the intersection full of riders. There were huge advertisements on the side of the bus, blown-up pictures of celebrities — people — staring down at me. I had to wait to make the turn, since the crosswalk was still crowded.

I looked all around me and felt the strong presence of the people. My car windows were rolled up. I didn’t hear, touch, or smell anyone; it was a different kind of sense at work. The strong presence was that each person — right there on the street at that very moment in time — was thinking of something, was remembering, feeling, forming an idea. It was as if I could feel all those brains at work. I could feel the energy that made all those people individuals.

Each person in the world has his own story, thoughts, and internal life. It seemed overwhelming, and I had to remind myself to breathe. I took in a deep breath, and the crosswalk cleared. I put my foot to the gas pedal and took the turn down Broadway. The moment passed, I turned on the radio, and drove home.

— From “Nothing: Something to Believe In,” by Nica Lalli (Prometheus Books, 2007).

Updated 4:28 pm, July 9, 2018
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