by Alyssa Gu
Alyssa Gu is a Chinese-American writer and high school senior from the suburbs of New York City. Like a typical little sister, she began writing at the age of six because her older sister was also writing. Since then, she has written countless pieces, ranging from zombie apocalypse novels to sonnets, and acquired a sizable collection of notebooks. In her free time, Alyssa can be found journaling, studying, and watching Formula 1.
I was eight and a half years old when I began to believe in God. It was October 2012, and, as we were waiting for the bus, my new friend Julie told me that because I did not believe in God, I would go to Hell. She said it so matter-of-factly that I didn’t know whether to laugh or take her seriously. Instead, I shrugged, said, “Okay,” and we got on the bus together. Later that month, the second hurricane in as many years rampaged through my town, and as I watched anxiously for signs of flooding and broken windows, I began to believe.
It was tentative at first, but as the skies cleared and my family and our home emerged unscathed, I began to wonder how much of our safety was down to luck and how much was due to a silent plea for help I made to God in the middle of the worst of it, when the trees were being blown heavily against our front windows, banging against the glass.
When we returned to school, I asked Julie about God, and she told me that He was loving and forgiving, that He could work in your favor if you were good and believed. It sounded almost too good to be true. Maybe, I thought, having some faith in an omnipotent man up in the sky could protect me and my loved ones more than luck ever could.
I didn’t care about going to Hell, a place I knew more as a naughty word than any eternal punishment, but I did care about house fires and robberies. For some reason, that fall I had developed deep fears of the stove flickering to life in the middle of the night to suffocate my family and me, of armed, masked men rifling through our belongings as we slept unguarded. It didn’t help that I had begun dreaming vividly every night, a string of nightmares that woke me kicking away my blankets in a cold sweat. A general, unceasing terror had enveloped me, a feeling I would later come to know as anxiety. Weeks in, luck felt like a defenseless shield from it, and I was tired of checking the stove and door twenty times before bed, endeavoring to stay awake forever until my eyes eventually drooped closed. So I ran into the arms of what my friend had sold to me as the Creator, as the all-powerful deity who would protect me if only I believed.
I did not read the Bible, nor did I even consider attending a church service. Those were commitments I had not been raised to make. My family was irreligious, proud atheists who believed only in science and the occasional superstition. One night, after I had asked one too many questions about God, my father asked me if I believed in God. He was smiling so widely with one side of his face that I thought it was a sneer, so I lied and said no. But that didn’t stop me from getting out of bed every night after my mother had tucked me in, to pray to God to protect my family from robberies and house fires and my slumbering mind from its own imagination. I cannot remember where I learned about prayer, only that I believed in its power fervently, even when I acknowledged how foolish it felt to kneel in the moonlight, shivering, unsure how else to conduct myself except to ask for safety in the plainest language I could. I would say, “Dear God, please make sure the house is safe from robbers and that the stove is off and that my family stays alive. Please make sure that I do not have any bad dreams tonight. Thank you. Amen,” cross myself, and return to bed a little less tense.
My faith was fickle. One moment I would be able to say “Oh my God” without flinching, the next I’d accidentally flick my middle finger and panic that He was mad at me and would punish me in due course. Sometimes, I prayed twice for good measure. Other nights, especially if it was freezing, I would double and triple check that the stove was off and the front door locked, allowing myself to stay in bed and drift off to sleep.
At some point, the anxiety began to loosen its hold. Perhaps it was due to background matters—there was no longer an undercurrent of stress running through my household and school had eased up—or simply the lack of disasters through the months, natural or otherwise. Whatever the reason, I stopped praying, stopped asking Him for things. I was sleeping better and something in me had eased enough to trust that my mother could check that the stove was off and the door was locked. I pretended I had never had such a change in belief. Instead, I told whoever asked that I was an atheist, like the rest of my family, and when they inevitably inquired what that meant, I proudly defined it for them.
I still believe in God, though He now takes the forms of avoiding the number four, carefully spending my eyelash and birthday wishes, and knocking on wood to avoid jinxes. But if someone asks, I’ll tell them that I’m not sure what I believe in but I believe in something, and kindly direct them to the dictionary definition of “agnostic.” Or maybe that of “anxiety.”