Only months earlier, the thought of such a declaration had sent me squirming uncomfortably and avoiding conversations. I used to have what I considered a healthy fear of commitment. My fiancé would disagree as to exactly how healthy or normal that fear was, but that’s beside the point.
Even still, the thought and even the word fiancé, gives me goose bumps. No longer are they shivers of fear, but of excitement. I can’t wait to marry this girl. She has weathered my doubts, fears, and my ultimate procrastination to this point.
We have been together for two years now. It was only a few months into the relationship that I knew she was the one. We became very close, very quickly, and we were often mistake for having been together for much longer than we actually were.
It took some time, but I finally came to my senses. Each day I was with her, a few more dents in my armor appeared. Over time, without even knowing it, she was able to chip away the wall I had erected around my innermost being. All the fears of commitment were gone. All the anxiety about spending my life with someone else somehow vanished. Marriage no longer looked like a cage. I began to realize it is but a doorway, opening onto a life of possibility with the woman I love.
Deceit (the good kind)
As this realization dawned on me, I still guarded my intentions. She had always wanted the engagement to be a surprise, so I played along with that. We still talked about our future and marriage as much as we used to. She could tell I was warming to the thought, but I kept hidden the full extent of my excitement and feigned an attitude of grudging reluctance.
Others would jokingly prod about our relationship and whether we would get married, and I would shrug off the question with the same shy smile and a “sometime in the future” answer. On the inside, my mind was churning about the details of how and when.
I began to tell some inner friends that it would be soon, and began questioning others about how they planned their engagement and wedding. We were approaching the two year anniversary of our first date, and I was trying to think about how to propose around that time. The trouble is, I knew she would probably be expecting the same thing.
I went over a bunch of possible engagement scenarios, but none of them felt right. Around this time, we were both extremely busy. She was always studying for her nursing boards, and I was swamped days, nights, and weekends on several projects at work. We had talked about wanting to get away for a few days’ vacation but her work schedule didn’t allot enough time.
On the day we found out she passed her nursing boards, we looked at her work schedule, and found that if she could trade a day with a coworker, we’d be able to get away for five days. Springing at the opportunity, we settled on going out to San Francisco for a few days.
If she was able to get off work, we would have to fly out in a week. As we were driving to have dinner with her parents that very night, a plan started emerging in my head. In an instant, I had everything planned out for a perfect surprise engagement.
Right away, I began telling her that, if we were going to fly out of town next week, I was going to need to put in a ton of extra, uninterrupted hours of work. She understood, and I did my best to keep her away from me for the majority of the following days.
As we were at her parents that night, scarcely an hour after agreeing on the possibility of a long weekend in San Francisco, I managed to briefly corner her dad to tell him I’d be coming by their house the next day without his daughter. I made a few quick phone calls to family members telling them I’d be by to tell them something, and called some friends for advice on a ring.
The following day, I left work early and went to a half dozen jewelry shops. I went from zero knowledge about diamonds to being able to identify carat weight by sight and being able to discard diamonds by color and blemishes by sight alone. I learned a lot that day and told the jewelers that I’d be back with my mother and my future sister-in-law for some womanly advice.
I then trekked over to my future in-laws to ask her mom and dad for their daughter’s hand in marriage. I’ll never forget her father’s immediate response of, “Sounds fine to me!” I then voyaged to my father’s house and told him and my step-mother and step-brothers. My mother I would surprise the following night and drag her ring shopping with me.
As I was on the phone with my girlfriend that night, I feigned fatigue from a long day’s work and told her I’d be even busier the next couple days, and encouraged her to make plans with friends. The next day, I found the ring that spoke to me.
I never realized how picky I would be when it came to shopping for a ring. I sensed the agitation of many salesmen as I rejected one after another, but I came to understand how much character can go into each piece of jewelry. I wanted something that was uniquely her. I didn’t want this ring to be a mere centerpiece, but to accompany the inner and outer beauty of this woman.
She is not flashy or trendy. We often joke about the fact that our choice of clothing usually consists of a drab sweatshirt and the same old ragged jeans. Many times we arrive at an occasion realizing we’re both underdressed. No gaudy piece of jewelry would suffice. One recommendation from a friend was to get the biggest ring possible. While this sounds fun, it just isn’t her.
She is very athletic and competitive, yet prefers to downplay her accomplishments and is often uncomfortable in the spotlight. I find this inner humbleness to be one of her greatest beauties. Likewise, she is often found to be shy and quiet within larger groups or with people she doesn’t know. Yet, with me, the shyness melts away and I experience the fullness of her inner self. The fact that I alone am able to see this side of her is something I treasure very deeply.
There is a subtlety in her demeanor that betrays the woman within. At first glance she may seem introverted and quiet, yet there is a depth to her character hidden beneath the surface that she doesn’t give away lightly. As I draw closer to her, I realize more and more of her beauty. The subtlety that exists upon first glance is gone as she opens her life to me.
She is at once strong and delicate, tough and tender, rugged with a hint of fragility. She embraces the values of endurance and hard work to meet challenges head-on without backing down. As a nurse I see the joy she takes in her work and the heartache that comes with sharing the pain of others.
She is not an idealist. She does not dream of how it all could be and leave it at that. Hers is a plan of action. Her dreams are real, and are continually accomplished through her purposeful approach and perseverance.
I revel in her complexities, and adore her outlook on life. She has softened my soul by opening up her own. Her perspectives have helped round out some rather rough edges of my existence, and all this has happened just by knowing her on increasingly deeper levels.
All this and more swirled in my mind as I rejected ring after ring. Nothing was suited to portray the breadth and depth of her character. It was as I began to lose hope for the perfect representation, when I stumbled across a rather plain ring in a jewelry store I nearly forgot about.
At first glance, I had almost rejected the ring because of an off-color diamond in the center that looked out of place between the two smaller and clearer diamonds on either side. After a second glance, I began to feel a connection.
It had a subtlety I thought impossible for a ring its style and size. Every other three stone ring went the route of having too much elevation. I dismissed the possibility of tall rings because to my eyes, they portrayed an inflated sense of self-worth and a shallow attempt at compensation. I was told that three stone rings cannot, by definition, be placed too low due to their size, but this one traversed seamlessly over the curvature of the finger without any offensive peaks.
The thickness of the white gold was just right and the setting for each square diamond was simple. The band wasn’t too thin to be dainty, nor was it too large to be meaty. It was not adorned by other intricacies or fabrications that would belie her character. Rather, its beauty laid in the subtleness and simplistic approach to real beauty; a beauty that doesn’t require any false adorning.
The color of the current center diamond made it somewhat difficult to picture it as it would be, were it fully alive. The jeweler assured me that he could find a matching diamond to replace the existing one in the center. Color aside, the setting of the diamonds spoke volumes. The sizes of the three stones were matched perfectly. The presence of the side diamonds gave a smooth transition to the larger center stone in a way that downplayed the flashiness of the larger diamond while focusing more on the integrity of the whole.
Each side stone was slanted with the slope of the finger in a way to downplay the required height, which made it stand out a little less because of the lower profile. The combined angles ensured that it would reflect light from each angle rather than a single location, promising to sparkle equally well from every angle, but without an obscene intensity.
I had all but settled on this ring, and I was soon to bring my mother and future sister-in-law in through several stores to get some input on what women actually look for. I shopped with them at separate times, yet both seemed to agree on this ring as the one.
The jeweler was fantastic and called several days later when he met with his supplier to obtain diamonds of better color. I raced to meet him and inspected several stones alongside the side diamonds until finding one that matched perfectly. By this time I was a little nervous that he wouldn’t be able to get it completed before our plane left in three days, but he assured me it was possible.
In my frantic life hidden from my future fiancé, things were starting to come together, yet I had to stay calm and appear overworked. This, I managed with ease.
At one point after I had picked out the ring, I was hanging out with her and she mentioned that she had recently had a conversation about rings with her friends. When she made a comment about carat weight, I played dumb and asked what a carat was and whether it had anything to do with gold. She mentioned something about the fact that people often by an engagement and wedding ring pair together, and I asked how you’d know which is which. The whole time, I was laughing on the inside because I was now able to tell the carat weight of a diamond just by looking at it and I could explain in depth about the four C’s and what types of bands matched with what types of engagement rings. It sure was fun to lead her on like that. Later she would tell me that after this conversation, she thought to herself that it was a hopeless thing to be talking to me about, and that she might have to do it all on her own.
Two days before our plane was to leave, I got the call from the jewelry store that the ring was ready. Racing down to pick it up, I was amazed at what he put into my hand. The colors matched perfectly and the center diamond was richer and sparkled more than I thought possible. The deeper I looked into its facets, the more color and complexity I saw. Yet, it retained that subtle brilliance and beauty which hid the true depth of its character from those not willing to look deeper. The more I looked and appreciated it, the more it rewarded me with its intricacies. This ring was perfect for her.
I kept it by my side and constantly held and looked at it while at work the next day and when she wasn’t around. I couldn’t wait to see it on her finger, and to see the tears accompanying the moment.
Since we were travelling, I had to keep it well hidden yet by my side the entire time without her knowing. In the metal detector section of the airport, I was pushy in trying to get her to go farther ahead of me, as I feared that the TSA may need me to empty my bag and pockets. Thankfully, we went through without incident, and I was able to carry the ring in my pocket for the next several days until the time was right.
And actually, there were several times that were right. But they just weren’t right enough. I wanted to make her wait a little, in case she was suspicious at all.
The first night we were in San Francisco, we drove up the mountain overlooking the city just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was windy and cold, but we were nearly the only people on the hillside overlooking the multitude of lights on the other side of the channel. The bridge loomed overhead, and we stood silently, with my arms wrapped around her to keep warm. We kissed. The moment was right, but I had other plans. I fidgeted with the ring in my pocket and struggled to keep it there, but I had resolved to see my plan through to the end. We left the overlook that night still as boyfriend and girlfriend.
I kept up the appearance of just some normal vacation without any special indication towards romance by suggesting we do some rather bland, touristy things. I suggested going to Alcatraz or some of the other tourist attractions downtown in order to keep her guessing, and maybe a little disappointed. I’m sure she’d appreciate it in the end.
The second day called for rain so we drove south to escape it on Highway One. On the way, we stopped to take pictures near a lake and talked to a biker who recommended a certain state park a few miles away. Always one to enjoy the randomness in our vacationing freedom, we drove through the winding countryside past beautiful homes and palm trees mixed with deciduous. As we made our way driving up the snakelike hills of King’s Mountain, we stopped and walked for a bit as we saw a gorgeous overlook.
This time, too, felt like the right moment. We were alone in the woods on an infrequently traversed road, high up the side of a mountain overlooking South San Francisco, the bay, and the ocean. Tall buildings graced the skyline beneath tall and billowing, yet nonthreatening clouds. It was a beautiful moment, and yet when the time could have been right, I sadistically beckoned to continue up the mountain.
Throughout the day, we drove down the knife’s edge of Highway One, treacherously balancing between cliff face and the ravaging surf below. We made it to Monterey, where I saw a sign for Pebble Beach Golf Course, and on a whim, we drove the seventeen mile scenic loop. We spent a few hours driving the loop and stopping often to bask in the Mediterranean beauty of it all.
We then made our way back north with the anticipation of watching the sunset from one of the many scattered beaches. While waiting for the sun to dip lower, we stopped and walked for a while in a rather inconspicuous location, but were greeted with a large square section of cliff face falling to a small beach below. The massive strength of the waves crashing tall upon the rocks was an impressive site. We were lost in time exploring the area and snapping photos of the crashing waves.
After a short drive north, we stopped at a beach as the sun hung just above the horizon. Sitting on a large stone, we talked for a while and enjoyed the moment. The distant ocean began swallowing up the sun and I held her close. Again, I was tempted to pop the question right then and there, but I still had a better plan in mind. The sun disappeared, and so did we.
Top of the Mountain
By this time, as she later told me, she had lost all hope of a marriage proposal on this trip. She didn’t know I had a ring and plan, but she figured that if I hadn’t taken any of the previous opportunities, then hope was a lost cause. She resolved herself to wish for some other day.
Little did she know it, but that day had come. After convincing her that it would be worth it to get up early in the morning for the day’s adventure, we awoke and drove north. We stopped again on the northern edge of the Golden Gate Bridge and witnessed the early morning splendor of a city waking up. The wind was brisk but fresh.
Our journey was to lead slightly farther north, through treacherous mountain roads snaking down into the valley housing the entrance to Muir Woods, where the massive redwoods reach skywards to touch the clouds.
I carried a backpack containing a large jug of water, a sub from Safeway, and a bottle of wine that I had bought in Monterey. In case you were wondering what type of wine compliments a ham and cheese sandwich from Safeway, it was a 2003 Chardonnay from Carmel Vineyards in western California. The pack was heavy, but my mind was only on the ring in my pocket and the woman at my side.
We climbed. Our hike first took us up to 1400 feet through groves of redwoods stretching as tall as the eye could see. Due to the overpowering nature of the trees, there was little other plant life adorning the forest floor. The area in the Muir Woods section had an overpowering color of brown-red, with the floor taking on the same color as the bark of the trees.
The first part of this hike wasn’t too difficult. We rose about 1000 feet from our starting point. We then came upon the divide between Muir Woods and Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Where the eastward facing side of the mountain contained nothing but redwoods, the west side contained few redwoods and more undergrowth and deciduous life. The immediate change in landscape was drastic. Rather than the red and browns of Muir Woods, this side of the mountain was a flurry of green.
Our path took us on a long downward hike next to a bubbling stream. It wound around and around, never becoming too steep, and at several points crossing over the stream. The mountains rose on either side of us and were covered in the green canopy that only grows in the Pacific Northwest. At several locations, large prehistoric boulders had crashed down the slopes and rested in the middle of the stream to form delicate gurgling waterfalls. This side of the mountain teemed with green life sustained by the crisp, clean, and slightly dewy air.
We had been hiking for hours and nearly four miles, when the fork ahead in the road told us that it was time to turn and climb again. The immediate incline was pocked with a wall of wooden steps that seemed to never end. Whereas the first climb in the redwood forest was a slight gradient, this climb got right to the point and shot straight up into the stratosphere.
We made several sweaty stops to catch our breath and take a drink of water. The hike was hard and beautiful, and we loved it. When the path started leveling out again, the air had changed and the slight tinge of the ocean was barely discernable. I twirled the ring in my pocket. It was nearly time.
We continued up the curves of the mountain, which now shifted back and forth between the majestic reds of the sequoias and the lush greens of the undergrowth. To our right up the hill, I could see a line on the ridge where the trees seemed to end. The path led up and took a sharp left at a point where we could make out a small valley in between the slopes which looked over the water. The sight of sun and ocean was invigorating.
As we walked slightly further, the world startlingly opened up. For hours we had been climbing through dense forests with only glimpses of the sun. As we rounded this last corner, the forest relinquished its grip and led us into a meadow of rolling green hills. To the west, the ocean spread out 1400 feet below in a swooping arc that nipped the edge of the cloudless horizon. To the east, the hills rolled up and over each other to meet a large grove of trees in the distance. The view to the south showed soft flowing mountains reaching to the boundary of San Francisco, which was barely discernable on the very edge of sight. The sun shown overhead, undisturbed by the cloudless expanse of azure sky.
We climbed one of the rolling hills to the left of the trail and just on the edge of its view. Here, we rested. With our legs aching and our backs sweaty, we sat in silence for a few moments, absorbing in the picturesque view.
We then talked about our two years together. Retracing our steps from the first time we had seen each other, through our days as friends, jogging around the block and nervously asking her if she’d ever want to hang out sometime, then waiting a few weeks before actually going out on date with her. We talked about how quickly we had become close, about the late nights spent talking into the early hours of the morning, and about how I took up drinking high doses of caffeine in the morning the next day at work. Memories of our first weekend together on Mackinac Island for a wedding came back in clear detail, followed by a barrage of summer weekend road trips and into her final year of school and diving. We joked about our first trip down to Miami and the Keys where she originally had wondered whether I was planning on proposing, only to continue on as just boyfriend and girlfriend.
We remembered our journey as she went to the diving nationals, and how I came to know her dad quite well after a six hour drive between the two of us as we crossed Canada to watch her dive in Buffalo. Summer had come and she humored me as I entered a suicidal training mode for my kickboxing fights in San Jose, and we spent nights riding together on my motorcycle to watch the sunsets at Holland State Park. At the end of the summer, we heeded the call of the north and travelled to the upper peninsula of Michigan to the northernmost point visiting places common to both our youths and relishing the company of each other. Fall had come and with it a few more classes for her and a lot of work for me.
Throughout our time together, we had often discussed the topic of marriage, of which I had always been afraid of. I turned the conversation now to our future together, as we overlooked the ocean and absorbed the rays of the sun. I told her how I had been thinking more realistically about marriage and how it was now becoming exciting for me. As we sat on the hillside, I slowly moved in front of her, face to face, on my knees, with the ring still hidden in my hand.
I reminded her of a statement I had made in one of our past discussions when I was struggling with the thought of commitment, and how I had assured her that when I was ready, I would know it with all of my being. I now slowly brought the ring in front of her, and told her that I had never been as sure about anything in my life as I was about spending the rest of my life with her in marriage.
Hidden behind sunglasses as she was about to say something, she glanced down and time slowed to a crawl as she slowly fell forward into my arms, tears flowing freely. I held her close, my own tears welling up, for what seemed like an eternity.
I was about to put the ring on her finger, when I realized that I hadn’t even gotten to the point of asking the question. Choked up, I asked her to marry me. With a single, “Yes,” I slipped the ring on her finger and held onto the love of my life, cherishing the moment.
The next three hours were spent on the top of that hillside, staring out over the vast ocean, having both our faces seared by the sun and cooled by the crisp breeze, and explaining what I had been up to in the last week and our plans for the future. We were lost in time, forever on that knoll, holding onto each other, drinking wine straight from the bottle, and splitting a cheap ham and cheese sandwich from Safeway. No other meal had ever tasted so good.
I wrote the following at the request of a Christian friend at Love Life, Embrace Risks, and Live for Eternity, to portray the viewpoints of an atheist for a Christian audience:
I am an unbeliever.
However, I am not “unchurched”. I have known the power and love of the church firsthand and had attributed it to my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was raised in modern Baptist home with loving parents and a life rich within the church. I was saved early on and until I reached the age of twenty-five, my life was devoted to living for Jesus and spreading His Word and love.
Yet, I have rejected the church and the Bible, notions of Jesus, the Christian and Jewish God, Heaven, Hell, and an afterlife. You may ask why.
My journey was never intended to draw me away from the Christian faith. Rather, I made it a goal of mine to become closer to who Jesus truly was so that I was able to serve him better. I made an internal pact with myself and God that I would see this line of questioning through to the end. I had anticipated coming out the other end with a much closer relationship with God through Jesus.
However, my quest began to show me, slowly at first, then like a tidal wave, that there is nothing unique about Christianity; that, instead, it contains as much (and as little) truth as all other religions, and that the things I thought were truths were far from it, that the power of the church and things attributed to God and Jesus were actually of a more sublime nature, more akin to the social cohesion obtained through the common human experience resonating in all ancient texts and mythologies.
The details of my deconversion are long and winding, full of twists and turns, and I’m working on piecing together the tale in its entirety. But let me first get a few common misconceptions out of the way.
1. You never were a “true” Christian.
Yes, I was. If you doubt the commitment I had to Jesus, I am writing a more longwinded version of my conversion, my Christian life, and the circumstances that caused me to leave the faith. However difficult it may be to understand that a believer could stop believing, it is true. I’ve got plenty of family and friends that would stand behind my life as a Christian.
2. You left Christianity due to sin.
My deconversion began with the simple request to know God more. The journey carried me through the various Christian beliefs, until ultimately finding no god at the end of the tunnel. I knew that in order to attain a closer relationship to God, I would need to remain pure of thought, mind, and deed. It was probably the most sin-free time in my life.
3. You are angry at God.
This one is hard to explain to someone who believes that beyond a doubt, there is a God. Let me try: I am as angry at the Christian God as you are angry at Zeus. The concept of God, while not foreign to me, is utterly lacking in substance. I can’t be angry at what I don’t believe exists, no matter how much you disagree.
4. You are angry or have unresolved issues with the church.
This is utterly false. My childhood in the church was fantastic and unbelievable. Most of my social life was inside the church and there was a never-ending fountain of fun things to do, lessons to learn, and spiritual “truths” to behold. The same goes for college.
If I have any underlying tensions with the church today, it is due to the dogmatic approach to scripture, the absolute assurance that the rest of the world wants what they have, and the willingness to assert those beliefs onto others unquestioningly.
5. You’re exaggerating your previous claim to Christianity.
Nope. I’ve got plenty of family and friends to vouch for me on that count.
6. You’re lying.
Come on now, really? I know this is posted on the internet, a veritable treasure trove of truth, but in this article, I have strived to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
7. You are unhappy or bitter.
Absolutely false. While I struggled through the deconversion process spiritually and emotionally, today I am more spiritually fulfilled and happy than ever. To assume that a lack of beliefs in Jesus causes unhappiness and bitterness is to ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
8. You’ll be back to Christianity, there’s a lot of people praying for you.
Ten years ago, I was certain that I would never leave my faith. If I were to make such a promise now that I would never leave my non-faith, that would mean nothing. But, now that I am able to read the Bible and see the faiths of man for what they truly are, I very much doubt that I will be returning to any faith, at any time. Those prayers, however much in earnest, have had no affect.
9. Your life has no meaning without Christ or the hope for heaven.
I’d prefer to think exactly the opposite. The fact that I know this is my one and only life to live causes me to make every moment worthwhile. While I don’t doubt that there was a time I questioned this very topic, I now see more meaning in my present life other than waiting for some future reward or trying to convert others to my belief system.
10. You are arrogant for not recognizing the creator.
On the contrary, I consider myself rather humble in this sense. I know that I am a speck of dust on a speck of dust on a speck of dust in an infinitely (or finite, we’re still looking into that) expanse of universe. I don’t assume that there is a maker of the universe, of supernovae and galaxies, of relativity and of quantum mechanics, who was greatly interested in the animal sacrifices of ancient Jews, or the sexual life of people today. That is what I’d call arrogant.
Assuming Too Much
The details of my decision are too many to name here. I won’t go into exactly how or why I came to this my worldview today, but I’d like to get a few things off my chest seeing as how I have a Christian audience.
The terms “godless” and “atheist” are unnecessarily looked down upon, and a lot of that comes from the portrayal of unbelievers in religious circles hammered in by religious texts. We are frowned upon by most organized religions. Most unbelievers tend to keep their unbelief quiet in order to not disturb the peace, and because we don’t adhere to a central doctrine commanding us to tell others of our beliefs.
I challenge believers to open their mind to the overwhelming fact that nonbelievers can be good people in no need of conversion: ones that are completely happy, spiritually fulfilled and generous towards humanity without the need to subscribe to a certain personal relationship or set of rituals or beliefs. We don’t all want to be Christians, nor do we have the same relationship that you have with Yahweh. If we make you queezy, ask yourself why you may believe negatively about unbelievers, or why you may look down upon them for not knowing the deeper truths you may consider yourself to hold.
I view religion (or personal relationships with Christ, if you prefer) more as a construct of social life built out of primitive fears and superstitions, mixed with the intrinsic nature to want to be good. There are other ways of fulfilling that goal without resorting to beliefs in deities and afterlives. Some people fill that gap with an overwhelming obedience to an interpretation of God and Jesus through the Bible, and I can understand why because I’ve been there. The spiritual highs that are attained through acts of worship can be adequately described in terms of psychology and neurology (albeit dryly). I no longer fool myself into thinking such experiences are the cause of a higher power, and somehow that makes the experience of life on Earth all the richer for me.
I can’t speak for all unbelievers, just as no Christian can speak for all others qualifying themselves as Christian. I know that there are atheists born again as Christians, and I know there are Christians born again as atheists (myself included in the latter). This all seems characteristic of the human experience, so I am unable to speak for all.
I am an atheist. But that is only the beginning.