Saturday, July 2, 2011

Denyse's Wager

In January of 2001 I took a break from teaching to work in furniture sales. Acutally, I should say that I took a break from teaching and ended up in furniture sales. I had become a bit disenchanted with public education, which is more than ironic that I'm thinking about this right now after finally escaping the strangling grasp of the state of North Carolina. Ok, that's a bit dramatic. But, as usual, I digress.

I left teaching because I was not happy. It was more than just being unhappy with my job - it really all stemmed from me not being happy with ME. My mom called it a "quarter life crisis" since a book with the same name came out that same year. I'm pretty sure she saw it on Oprah or something. I think she was just happy to put a label on what was wrong with her oldest child! You can read more about a quarter life crisis here: I never read the book so I can't recommend it, but the concept makes sense. A twenty-something person gets out into the real world for a few years and then questions his/her career decision, relationships, lack of purpose, etc. I was definitely doing all of the above.

My biggest issue, though, was that I was questioning the existence of God. I had become a Christian at the age of nine. "How could a child so young truly make that sort of decision," I wondered. "How do I believe in something I can't see?" Even though I used to think I at least felt something, some sort of Godly presence, I wasn't feeling it anymore.


While working in the furniture store, I met a sixty-something African-American gentleman who basically served as a custodian. He cleaned and moved large furniture items and repaired things. I'm sure he did other things as well but I was far too invloved in myself and my own problems to learn more about him.

Whenever we ended up in the break room together it made me uncomfortable yet at the same time I wanted to hear what he had to say. He talked to me more than to the other sales people, or at least it seemed that he did. I think he said he had been a professor. Or was it a minister? I'm not even sure anymore, but he always called me "Teacher."

"Ok, Teacher, today is the 14th and it's falling on a Tuesday. Mathematically, can that happen again in the same year?" Well, I had no idea, of course. Math is not my thing (understatement). But I would listen politely while he explained why it was or was not possible.

"Teacher, what do you do if a child in your class steals something?" I would give some sort of developmentally-appropriate-approved-by-the-state-of-Virginia type answer and then wait for his reply. "But is that really getting to the root of the problem, Teacher? Isn't that just a bandaid?"

He kind of blew my mind.

Then, one day we started to talk about God. This kindly former professor or minister or something introduced me to a theory called Pascal's Wager. (Yes, this was the same Pascal you learned about in math class in high school.) The theory deals with your choice in whether or not to believe in God, specifically the God of Christian faith. Pascal said that if you choose to believe and you are right, you will be rewarded with heaven, and thus have gained. If you choose to believe and it turns out there is no God and no heaven, you have still lived your life so the loss is infinitisimal. Or, in other words:

God exists God does not exist
Believe in God Infinite gain in heaven Insignificant loss
Disbelieve in God Infinite loss in hell Insignificant gain

You can read more in depth about Pascal's Wager as well as more about his many contributions to religious theology, literature, math, and several other areas here:'s_Wager. Pascal was a pretty versitile dude.

So for awhile I kind of clung to this. It was better to believe that there was some bigger, better being looking out for me on a daily basis. And if I thought hard about bible teachings, I sometimes remembered this bigger, better, omnipotent and omnipresent being knew the number of hairs on my head. This was exactly what I needed - some sort of rational thinking to satisfy my analytical mind. (I said analytical - not mathematical.) It was better to believe and be wrong than to not believe and be wrong. So I'd choose to continue to believe...just in case.

Ten years later, my feelings about God and how I know He is real couldn't be any more different. But that's another blog. I'm just so thankful for that man who cleaned that furniture store. I wish I could remember his name. I wish I could thank him. I wonder if he has any idea that he helped me through such a dark period of my life? Or, maybe he does. An unlikely friendship between a chubby, 20-something, teacher-on-a-break and a retired African-American man whose former career is now fuzzy to me. Maybe he was not a man at all...maybe...could he have been an angel?