Watershed moments

December 17, 2010 | By | Reply More

I often think of the big power of little moments; they can switch you to a new and dramatically different track in life, even though it doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time. In this way, life is chaotic:

Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general. This happens even though these systems are deterministic.

Another way of looking at this phenomenon is to think in terms of path dependence.   Early-developed choices, habits and tastes  can have huge long-term ramifications, and the person making many of the most important decisions that determined what kind of person you grew up to be was a younger version of you.   Even the five-year old version of you had your life in his or her hands.  If you like how your life has turned out, thank that 7-year old (and that two-year old) who had your life in his or her hands once upon a time. The 7-year old who raised me found many abstract ideas interesting, and put me on that track.

Even the tiniest mental shifts in thought can lead to cataclysmic differences in how we eventually come to see the world.   I imagine a universe of possibilities consisting of hundreds of parallel tracks–grooves with marbles rolling in them) that all seem to go in the same general direction, but way down the path, those grooves that were once adjacent start to separate, almost imperceptibly at first; miles down the road those paths are now going in opposite directions.  One of those grooves was embodied cognition and the other (which is early on adjacent to it) allows for the possibility of unembodied cognition.  No big deal, it might seem, as long as those paths are still in sight of each other, but what happens way down the road?  The failure to grasp that our 3-pound neural net is the only thing that allows us to think has invited many people to believe in souls, ghosts and Gods;  this mass failure to marry cognition with biology has spurred our country to invent mighty weapons and to use those weapons to kill poor infidels in deserts halfway around the world.

Image by Andrejs83 at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

I thought of these things while I was going through some old school papers today.  My name was “Rich” back then. I spotted a sonnet I had been required to write in my sophomore year of high school.   An fastidious nun taught the English class (my parents sent me to a Catholic co-ed high school).  One fine day she told the class that we each needed to write a sonnet.

All through my high school years, I was disoriented by the fact that I didn’t believe in a sentient God, yet none of my classmates expressed such doubts.  Back then, I was a searching loner, both at school and everywhere else.   With that as the context, perhaps it’s not so surprising that I decided to write my sonnet about God.

I imagined a God who couldn’t use words to communicate with his creatures (even back in high school I had no confidence that any sort of scripture was inspired by God).  What are the options for a God with aphasia?   An image popped into my head.  This God “up there” couldn’t talk to us using words, but He cared about us and he was desperate to tell us that He was there and that He cared.   Though He had no words, he had lightning and thunder.   He used the sky as his canvas, and He went about his work with gusto.  His special concern was for doubters like me.

Thus, I wrote a sonnet that I titled “Touched,” and I was rather proud of it at the time.   I have reproduced it at the end of this post.  It was written by a 16-year old version of me.  My life was in his hands back then, although I can assure you that he didn’t feel any great weight; he was unaware that he was training up an adult.

Here’s the epilogue:  The class had about 30 students, and the nun put only the best 20 sonnets up on her bulletin board.  My proud creation didn’t make the cut, and I still vividly remember the disappointment .  I wasn’t disappointed because I thought it was a great poem (I did think it was a good poem back then), but rather because I was proud of my description of God’s plight.  I showed my creation to several of my classmates, but none of them showed any interest in my poem.

Today I wonder . . . what if anyone in the class had shown interest in my poem?  What if a cute little high school girl had told me that this idea was interesting?  What if the nun had decided that my poem was in the top 2/3 of the poems submitted?  What if anyone back then had validated my concern that “sacred scripture” did seem to be riddled with both vagueness and contradictions, and it thus seemed to have been written by people.

None of this happened.  What did happen is that I start asking increasingly pointed questions about religion.  In my junior and senior years, whenever a Mass celebrated at school, I told my teachers I didn’t believe in God and I requested that I be allowed to study in a classroom instead of going to a big auditorium where most of the students goofed off while a priest went through the motions.  To the credit of the teachers, they allowed me to study alone (if they hadn’t done that, I might have become strident anti-religion atheist).  It wasn’t too long after my high school graduation that I stumbled upon Bertrand Russell’s essay “Why I am not a Christian,” and that’s when the sparks really started to fly in my head (and thank you to the brave librarian who decided to put Russell’s subversive book on the library shelf; that’s path dependence at work again).  By the time I had graduated from college (with degrees in philosophy and psychology).  I began to conceive of myself as an iconoclast. I decided that life is too short to not ask hard question and to let the chips fall where they might.  I felt reinvented enough that I decided to give myself a new name.  I went to court to change my first name to Erich.

That’s what did happen in my life. I’m not presenting this as an airtight causal chain, but as a story admittedly based on hunch.  But what if my poem (and my conception of God) had been cherished instead of being ignored back in high school?  Would I now be the same sort of person I now am?  Or would I now be leading a cult, whose Bible was the sky?


The quiet grows as loud as all true noise
As unseen hands toss leaves and dust skyward
The earth’s dwellers grow still to mimic toys
Darkness hides the shelters they now flee toward
While from the dome fall drops from clouds of silver
Together form the Artist’s darkened screen
On which He’ll paint his blinding streaks of color
Clashing to thrill the world on which it’s seen
Our God above has made his presence known
All to the wonder of His seeds past birth
As we’ve searched more for him as we have grown
On seeing him reach out we’re filled with mirth
And awe our friends, our foes, the young, the old
Thanking that they’re all relieved of the cold

Rich Vieth 1973


Category: Meaning of Life, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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