A Fine Young Atheist
by Albert Wong
(In the volume Radical Spirit, edited by Stephen Dinan)
I was born to be a scientist. My dad was a theoretical physicist and he named me Albert after Einstein. His favorite hobby as we were growing up was trying to teach us about vectors, group theory, and why we floated in the bathtub. We lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee — a science town that had been built overnight in the early 40s as part of the Manhattan Project.
Science in those days was my religion. The world was a thing to be quantified, measured, and reduced. One day we would all be able to understand everything as part of the elegant matrix of natural law, and the pursuit of this ambition was a person’s highest calling. So, in my youth, I dedicated myself doggedly to science.
As I grew older, however, I began to discover how poorly mathematical formulae described my own felt experience of the world. I began to contact reality from the inside as a participant in the nuanced world of life’s texture rather than as a mere objective observer. My vision was cracking open and a new sensibility was arising.
I was beginning to taste the delicacy of beauty, feel the agony of love, and know the sweetness of pain. What answers could physics give me when my gaze turned inwards to questions of soul? I would ask my textbooks this directly again and again, and though occasionally some insight would come, my hunger for the something-more would soon return.
JERUSALEM, 1987. The summer after I won more national science awards than I ever wanted. The summer after Jennifer told me she was in love with my best friend, not me.
I was seventeen and in Jerusalem. It was sunset.
I was one of the American representatives to the Bessie F. Lawrence Summer Science Institute and we were en route to the Weizmann with a Jerusalem layover. The other future young scientists of the world were back in their rooms doing what future young scientists of the world do: discussing the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, reviewing the latest oncogene research, or planning nerd pranks to play on the girls that they liked. I should have been working on my paper on the mathematical formulation of convolution products.
But I was alone, on the back deck, watching the sunset.
I had always thought of myself as a fine young atheist. Back in my hometown of Oak Ridge, I had even taken my scientific faith to its evangelical extreme — trying to get my born-again friends to see the deluded errors of their ways.
Virgin birth. Where did he get his Y chromosome? Created in seven days. Look at the data on cosmic microwave background radiation. Water into wine. Yeah, duh. Ethanol has carbon in it; water doesn’t.
God was the tooth fairy (with a beard). The second law of thermodynamics was much more real.
But this sunset was real.
My mind flashed to Jennifer. Ever since we had stopped talking to each other six months ago, a vague, unsettling darkness had begun gnawing at me from the inside that no scientific reduction could satisfy. There were no answers in Newton’s Laws. The question still buried itself in my body’s quiet lament.
For reasons I could not explain — was I going crazy? — I began whistling to the sunset, slowly, plaintively, the chorus from Supertramp.
There are times when all the world’s asleep
the questions run so deep, for such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned.
I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am.
My first scientific paper was soon to be published in the Journal of Biological Cybernetics, and though I could speak for hours on the pattern recognition properties of the Hopfield model of neural network, I was utterly at a loss with those questions that had begun to matter to me most: Who am I? Why am I here? And what does it all mean?
Sometimes when we were arguing, Jennifer would say that trying to talk about God with me was useless.
You can’t pin down God. He doesn’t have a name. You can’t put him in a box. You can’t hold water. It just is.
I would press on. I wanted to know where the tooth fairy lived.
He’s where love is. You know, like beauty.
It had all sounded, to a scientist, like drivel.
Sunset. Jerusalem. I have just finished whistling. I pause. The sound hangs in the air and echoes through me for a minute, maybe ten, I do not know. I only know that the heat in my body is rising and growing sharp and pointed — like static on the radio. I listen to the pulse in my neck. At first slowly, as a trickle through my lower belly, then all of a sudden, yes, the sun is pouring in and through every part of me — as if a firehose of light has set me aflame. A flood of rays is burning through me, and my sweat is gasoline. Across my whole front side, my body is being stretched open, urgently. My skin will burst, I know it, for I can feel my seams popping, but still with my every breath, I want to take in more. I want to drink in this moment, this blood-red sunset that cuts across the sky and screams itself through me. I want to swallow it all whole, again, and again, and again.
The sunset had spoken no words and yet I felt addressed. To my question “Why?” it had intoned a simple, shattering “Yes”— all things settled in a world beyond science, in a language beyond understanding. Who am I? I am that I am. I was beginning to learn how to see.
The soul has a way of remembering and then forgetting and then remembering again. I spent my next three years mostly in forgetfulness. I did what I had always planned to do — what had always seemed my unspoken destiny. I studied theoretical physics at Princeton University just as my father had done. I used his old Sears, Zemansky, and Young book on Mechanics, and like him, I won the Kusaka Departmental Prize in my junior year.
But the script ended here. I had achieved all that my father had achieved in his moments of greatest glory. My duty was complete. But now I was at a loss. For, what now should I do?
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO, 1990. The summer that I was in Time Magazine as a rising young future scientist. The summer I began to leave science.
I was twenty and in Santa Fe. The Shuttlejack from Alberquerque had just dropped me off at the Eldorado Hotel, and I was trying to bum a ride from someone up to St. John’s College to check in at the Santa Fe Institute Complex Systems Summer School. All the complexity theory heavyweights would be there. I should have been excited.
An artist woman who had also been on the Shuttlejack ended up offering me a ride, and soon I was in the back seat of her gentleman friend’s car — he had come to pick her up. He was an old white-haired guy and liked talking about Jujitsu. So we did.
We stopped to pick up the woman’s accumulated mail — she had, apparently, been gone away on vacation. On top of the pile was the Time Magazine article that I was in. I didn’t say anything, and we drove on.
He asked me where I was from.
“Oak Ridge,” I said. “It’s a science town in Tennessee.”
He looked at me through his rearview mirror.
“I know,” he said. “I used to run the place.”
He had been Director of Research of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the scientific heyday of the late fifties in the years after Sputnik. I gulped. That was the life I was supposed to have — head chief scientist somewhere. Somewhere.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I left,” he said. And then, he was silent.
I was expecting him to say more, but he did not.
And in his understatement lay a world of mystery that called to me. What happened? Had he just one day decided to disappear, packed his bags and gone?
I looked at him in disbelief. He knew I understood.
“Say hello to the folks down there for me,” he said. “Tell them you met me. They’ll remember.”
I said that I would.
My last impulse as I stepped out of the car was primal. I wanted to grab the Time Magazine off the top of the pile and show him my picture. Look. See. I’m a scientist too.
My second impulse was to grab my bags and disappear from the world, just like him.
I never saw him again.
Sometimes spirit leaves signposts in the strangest ways.
I would oftentimes not listen to the urgings of spirit immediately and to the extent that I was wayward, the vague unsettling feeling that I had known in my younger years would begin to visit me again. I would often disregard my soul’s beckoning and lose my bearings again and again until I would find myself lost deep in a woods, shivering, uncertain which way to turn and fearful that there was no way out. Strangely, within these dark times the occasional moments of transparent illumination would flash through me, and they seemed to arrive more frequently, quickening somehow, in pace with the call of my own soul’s pain.
GRINDELWALD, THE SWISS ALPS, 1992. The summer I traveled through Europe, begging the great monuments of Western culture to answer my soul’s call.
I was twenty-two and at the Terrassenweg Youth Hostel. It was 2AM at night. The other backpackers were in their bunkbeds, asleep. I was standing on the back porch looking at the Jungfrau. I was asking the mountain for help.
I had been traveling throughout Europe for the past three weeks in a flailing effort to find answers.
Atop the Eiffel Tower, I had looked prayerfully down. Please tell me how I should live.
At the Trevi Fountain in Rome, I had thrown my coins and prayers into the waters, hoping that the fairy tale ritual were true. May I live long enough to return. May I find my way through.
In the back rows of the Vienna Opera House, dressed in backpacker’s shorts, I had supplicated to the tuxedos and the music. Please, what should I hope for in life? Which way now?
I did not know which way to go next, and I was being slowly destroyed by the torment of my own indecision. Science, I had found, could not help me. There was no mathematical derivation for the life best lived. So I turned to ask the world.
Should I take up my place at Harvard Med?
Of course you should — what an opportunity. Listen to the sound of the word: Harvard.
No, are you crazy? Do you really want to be a doctor? Run off to the Australian outback and find a job as a jackaroo. That’s real living. Be free.
Don’t be silly. Farm life sucks. Take up your Hertz fellowship at Stanford. You’ll be a great physicist.
Aaaack! No, don’t do it. You’ll be trapped in an office for the rest of your life. Sign on to the Bread for Bosnia relief team. You can run trucks filled with flour into the war-zone and save women and children. You’ll be a hero.
Dumb. Very dumb. You’ll get killed. No, what you need is to get settled on life questions. Go to grad school in philosophy. You’ll find answers there.
No, go back to Oxford and get a job at George and David’s ice cream café.
No, go to Auroville.
No, go to Africa.
Go to the mountain.
The Jungfrau. My mind was in its characteristic sleepless frenzied pitch. And once again, I began my mantra on the back porch, in supplication to the mountain. What should I do next? Where should I go now? I asked the question from the depth of my torment. And then I listened, hoping for an answer, a direction. At least an inkling. The Jungfrau did not give me this. The mountain gave me something else. For a moment, it gave me peace, in a moment of awe-inspired reverie as I stood witness to the arc that its southernmost edge cut into the sky. I do not think that I had ever seen a curve etched so beautifully. My mind could not fixate in its interminable cycle of self-destruction when I, standing before the mountain, did imbibe the artful lines of nature’s grand sculpture. It gave me no answer. But it gave me a knowing: Everything’s going to be Okay, Albert. Everything will be Okay. Be at peace. There is beauty in the world.
I slept that night, for the first time in many.
Was I being guided by forces unseen, coming to stand by me, to hold me straight on my way through? Perhaps, yes. Of course, it did not seem that way at the time. In the thick of things, I was, so I felt, most utterly alone.
I was leaving science, but until now, science was all that I knew. I so much wanted my father to understand my departure from this most sacred field of study and would explain myself to him again and again. We would argue. In the aftermath, I would spend the night lying awake, trying in my own imagination to state my case to him, to justify my exit from science with, ironically enough, scientific exactitude. And in me, all the while, I knew all logic was futile. No words could win. But I would keep trying, I think, in my own mind, all night long to find the elusive perfect rejoinder, until sweet exhaustion would give me temporary salve. Until the next night. When my mind would begin to beat itself senseless once again.
Indeed, the break with my father that my departure from science created was deep and would nearly crack me open from its pain. But still I limped along, in pursuit of this inkling that there was more in life — more marrow in life’s bones — and I could not but try to know life, raw. Truly, there was no choice.
A series of synchronistic jolts would lead me eventually to buy a one-way ticket out to California. I had begun to listen to my inklings and all signs pointed to a strange institute in Big Sur called Esalen. I was supposed to be there. I could tell.
Though I had never been there before, in so many of my darkest moments, a thread would connect me to the place. Our histories were meant to intersect. And finally I answered its call.
I arrived at the Esalen gate on August 20, 1995 in a half-crazed mixture of hope and desperation: hope that here I would find a place where I could give voice to my own soul; desperation for it felt as if I was near my soul’s whimpering end.
I began my great fall from the ivory tower — my katabasis — with kitchen work. My job was the most menial and least desired in all of Esalen, and therefore also the most noble. I was a dishwasher.
And all around me at Esalen — this Mecca of integral practice — a grand carnival of soul rolled on: from Aikido to African dance, from yoga to gestalt, from Buddhist meditation to Reichian catharsis.
Esalen, more than any other place in the world, had become the nexus point for the emerging new American spirituality. For the first time in a long time, I felt as if I were home. I became, once again, a student — not of science, this time, but of life.
* * * *
Albert Wong is a past Marshall scholar and has assorted degrees in physics, philosophy, politics, and economics from Princeton, Oxford, and the University of Michigan. He won numerous national awards as a budding young scientist before working for the Esalen Institute for five years. He now works with Jeremy Tarcher in Los Angeles as chief research director at a think tank start-up that studies independent thinking and pioneering individuals.
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