[Non-Fiction] If You Happen to Lose Your Faith One Day at LAX
One day, in the winter of 2003, I lost my faith in Terminal D of the Los Angeles International Airport.
That’s the International terminal, you know.
But in LAX’s defense, it wasn’t the airport’s fault. My crisis of faith had been years in the making and was thrust to the surface because of environmental factors and the trauma of the unknown. It just, you know, happened while I was at LAX, and thus LAX will forever be the site where I lost God.
There’s a backstory, of course. There’s always a backstory when it comes to stories of belief, whether beliefs are being discovered or abandoned, and you can usually learn a lot about a person by the story of their personal journey towards spiritual identity.
My story is literally a Christian Conservative’s worst nightmare.
I was raised a Lutheran, in a household where God was real and Jesus was his son and we prayed to them both and believed in Heaven. It was a typical Lutheran upbringing, and I never found a reason to question what I had been taught.
I attended a small, private Lutheran college, wherein the average student’s bank account was the GDP of a mid-sized third-world nation. (I had scholarships; growing up lower-middle class, the world of designer clothes and parental credit cards was foreign to me.) I had planned to double major in dance and biology, the better to attend medical school while clinging to my dream of being a professional dancer.
I graduated with a degree in Philosophy and one in History, missing summa cum laude by a tenth.
Well, it’s the liberal arts. The liberal arts happened.
My school, renowned for theater and dance, renowned for its science program, didn’t slack when it came to the humanities, either. In the true spirit of a liberal arts education, each student had to complete a wide variety of compulsory classes in a variety of fields to graduate. There was a foreign language requirement, math, science, religion, etc.
And I ended up, through a freak of scheduling and alternate choices, in two classes that first semester I had not planned to take: “Male, Female, and Religion” and “Intro to Philosophy.”
The juxtaposition of those two courses would shape the content and nature of my thinking permanently; it would shape the course of my professional, personal, and emotional development; it would alter the path of my life and lead me here, to motherhood and writing and love and atheism.
The first course examined the history of sexuality throughout major Western and Eastern religions; the second was a basic overview of Socrates through Derrida; that is, everyone. Ultimately, the first course opened my mind; the second re-taught me how to think, how to reason, how to view the world beyond the limited confines of my own perspective. The first course made me realize the wealth of ideas out in the world; the second helped me adopt those ideas which comprise my personal ethos.
I started to read a lot of Nietzsche.
That’s when things REALLY started to unravel, in the Christian Conservative nightmare sense of the phrase.
I read A LOT of Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who famously wrote, “God is dead.” Nietzsche, who despised the herd instinct of organized religion, declaring it to be a toxic force sucking the love of life from its followers. I was submerged to my eyebrows in deep philosophical principles and loving it.
It was the beginning of the end.
Within three years, three years of studying religion and existentialism and the Venn diagram of the two, I had come to a place of agnosticism, my newfound knowledge prohibiting me from embracing the blind faith I had exhibited before.
And then—THEN—I went abroad.
I know, that seemed to come out of nowhere. But hold on, because this is the train of memory which will lead directly to LAX and my spiritual crisis. And if you happen to lose your faith one day at LAX, you’re going to want to know what to do.
I went abroad.
I went to Queensland, Australia. It was a beautiful continent; I almost walked directly into a spider the size of my fist, and I got bitten by a koala. But before all that happened, I lost God at the airport, and I lost God at the airport because of a blizzard.
I was due to make the fourteen-hour flight in February, but my original travel day ended up buried under four feet of snow. My flight was transferred to a few days later, but the timing didn’t work out nearly as well. The plan was to fly from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, PHI to LAX, and then transfer to Qantas Airlines to fly to Auckland, New Zealand, arriving MUCH later the next morning and, still, nearly inexplicably, not at my destination.
Despite my age at the time as a college junior, I had never been on a plane alone before; I had never negotiated an airport; I had a poor sense of direction, social anxiety which prohibited me from asking for help, and a schedule which even the most seasoned traveler would find taxing.
So, anyway, I successfully boarded a plane in Philadelphia, leaving behind everyone on Earth that I knew and preparing to live on the other side of the planet for several months. Imagine flying with that on your mind.
The plane, of course, was delayed upon landing.
I had no concept of the size of LAX, or where the terminals were, how to get around, or what time I needed to board my connecting flight. Exiting the plane, I mustered my courage and showed my travel itinerary to a nice-looking older woman who had been in my row on the plane. Her response was a somewhat alarming, “Oh, Terminal D? That’s the International Terminal. That’s all the way on the other side of the airport. Oh, God, you better hurry.”
That’s a great way to start out.
Again, having NO traveling experience whatsoever, I was unfamiliar with the various ways to get between terminals. Thus, I set off on foot, out in the covered walkways of the misty evening, lugging a small suitcase and a laptop case and a purse, weighed down with this baggage, every step seeming to bring me nowhere as the seconds ticked by and my arms ached and I tried to walk faster and failed.
I knew it was getting later. I knew I wasn’t walking fast enough. I was about to be stranded in an unfamiliar airport on the other side of the country with very little cash, no street sense, and no earthly idea what to do next.
I started to pray.
I surprised myself with it. I didn’t make the conscious decision to do it. I was in a place of deep stress, deep angst, stressors flying through my frontal cortex like butterflies, and it was a conditioned response.
“Please, God, let me make this plane. Please, God, let me make this plane. I swear I’ll never doubt you again if you get me to Terminal D and get me on this plane.”
I hadn’t prayed in years; not since that freshman year religion class when I learned the Judeo-Christian God is not the be-all, end-all of spiritual belief and started to relax my hold on Lutheran dogma.
And, yet, there I was. Praying. Hoping. Yearning, with every fiber of my being, to be heard, and acknowledged, and helped. Is that what people who pray for miracles feel like?
I speed walked through nearly empty terminals, hobbling in my flip flops under the pressure of my bags, muttering under my breath to a deity in whom I was no longer sure I believed.
And there it was. That’s when I realized it. It was a Eureka moment, staring me in the face.
A God who is omniscient and omnipotent and omnibenevolent isn’t going to allow the Holocaust but then intercede to help me catch a plane.
A God isn’t going to allow children to suffer but still help me get to the flight.
A God isn’t going to ignore the prayers of refugees and cancer patients to answer my prayer about getting on a plane in time.
The finger of God was not going to come down and stall that flight. I was not going to be magically lifted and carried on angel wings to my gate. I was alone, and it was all up to me because a God who allows tragedy and mass genocide probably wouldn’t give a damn about my missing a trip to Australia.
But, oh! How quickly my brain went back there! How quickly, in a time of stress, did I fall back on my childhood faith!
Even with the knowledge I had gained, the realistic perception of religion as metaphor, the understanding that we are likely all alone in the world and there is no purpose, it all paled in comparison to the comfort I received at the thought of a God who would take care of me if I just wished hard enough.
It was conditioning, that belief to which I had been exposed my formative years, that all things are possible with God. It lurked at my core, jumping to the surface in a time of agitation, there to self-medicate with endorphins, with familiarity, with comfort.
And after it happened, there was no more faith. It wasn’t even an absence of faith or a disavowal of it; it just ceased to be, ceased to be a factor to me or a principle which guided my life.
I lost God in stages and left Him for good in a broken pile behind me somewhere in Terminal D at LAX.
I did make my flight, yes, though I lost my driver’s license during the mad dash to my plane…surprisingly all I lost, as I kept hold of my sanity long enough to board with only seconds to spare.
And that was it. I came back, I studied more philosophy written by the likes of Soren Kierkegaard and Arthur Schopenhauer, and I slowly grew under the freedoms that atheism allowed me. It was a new world, not having a God to fall back on, and it required relearning a number of things: how to think, how to live, how to hope, and how to fear.
But am I saddened by it? Do I regret it?
Not at all.
I have embraced the world of logic, and biology, and the scientific method. I examine things critically, without bias. I rely on evidence, and data, and double-blind peer-reviewed studies. I feel I have a better grasp on the world, and even, yes, my eventual death; because it is eventual.
My life is rich without God. My actions are driven by a desire to do good, not a promise of reward or punishment. And I value my life, this life, as the only one I have, and the only one I get to enjoy, so I had better get enjoying it.
If you’ve ever had a crisis of faith at an airport, I extend my deepest sympathies—it’s not a pleasant process. But if you happen to lose your faith one day at LAX and you emerged from it stronger, more open-minded, more resolute in your stances and compassionate in your beliefs, then congratulations; maybe, at the end of the day, the pain of the path you took to that moment all became worth it.
It did for me.
Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia, currently gestating, with her soulmate and son, who keep things from descending into cat-lady territory. She aims to write the Next Great American Novel and acquire more cats. She comes up when you Google her.