It was February second in Poznan. The momentary snow had melted away and the winter seemed to be set on being mild that year. Miguel was having a second breakfast: pancake. His pancake was different, though; not the normal thin spongy one, but a rather thick crusty one. This was attained by simply pouring more paste and letting it cook for longer. That’s why he called it pancake, in the singular form, because it was just one big and filling pancake, which he’d spread with butter and marmalade to eat with his hands. On the kitchen table there was an old radio mended with masking tape. The radio had been there for days, but it was the first time Miguel had paid attention to it. “What is so special about it?” he thought, “Just a trademark of third world countries. But is Poland a third world country?” he wondered. “It must be if an obsolete artifact that’s meant to be thrown away is allowed to lie in an unsuitable place in inadequate repair. If not a symbol of poverty, it’s at least a sign of decadency.” That may have been the reason why he was in that country; it made him feel at home.
The pancake was ready; it may have been a little overdone too; its hardness gave away this fact. He’d been watching some reviews of Argentinean films during the morning; he surely was a little nostalgic. Crunching his pancake with butter, he couldn’t help recalling the crackers he used to have for breakfast back there. He hadn’t seen those in Poland. Was he going to start the melancholic path that would lead him to miss his own country so much that he’d be forced to go back? He hoped not, but he actually had solid reasons not to miss his country.
The day had dawned radiantly. His window faced the east, so he could enjoy the full glow of the rising sun. He had an exam he hadn’t studied for; as usual in his life, nothing was studied and nothing had too much effort put into it except literature. Exams could be ignored; work wasn’t an immediate need; the only emergency was always loneliness. A lonely soul is capable of dire extremes, especially when it’s accompanied by intellectual aloofness and moral detachment. Nothing tied him to this world and he was in constant search of an excuse for living. Miguel liked starting his days early and with a fast. He was a sleepyhead and he wasn’t moderate in eating habits either, so he tried to combat his weaknesses by getting up early. The fasting part was easy; he was never hungry in the morning, since he generally ate late at night. Thus a solemn feeling reigned in his room on his days off, when he sat in front of the computer and ingested some literature accompanied by a cup of tea. His stomach would always let him know when it was time for a bowl of delicious, milky and honeyed oatmeal or one of his big pancakes with butter.
He’d wasted a whole month of his life pining after a girl. She was a musician and she’d left him to pursue her dreams. She’d meant sweetness to him, but her presence in his life had been like a loan from the bank of happiness, with the interest growing exponentially, until he’d been forced to default. Fortunately for him, everything was over and he wasn’t inflating his emotional economy any longer. Whenever Miguel’s morale was a little low, he tended to make new acquaintances and be a little more flexible about his interests and his investment of time. He’d met an American evangelist called Steven; he was nice and Miguel could practice his English with him. Besides, he organized homely meetings where Miguel could spend his free Saturday afternoons. He’d invited him over for Bible reading; Miguel had no intention to go, but he was allured by food and the promise of hanging around after the religious task. Miguel was deliberately late, arriving almost at the end of the reading so he could enjoy the food and good company without the burden of the indoctrination. “Religion is for sheep, not for humans,” thought Miguel. “People who can think for themselves don’t resort to this moral stratagem.” Miguel thought of the thousands of years men had lived on earth and the variety of ways in which they’d lived, most of them without the help of the Christian god. “Ancient Greeks were renowned for their knowledge and wisdom, and they weren’t under Jehovah’s wing,” thought Miguel.
For him it seemed preposterous to believe that God is the only way to happiness and to try to convince others of this idea, as if the believers’ own happiness didn’t suffice them but they wanted to force happiness onto everyone else. Miguel stayed after the bible reading and, after everyone else left, he engaged Steven in a serious conversation. Steven was inclined to answer to all of Miguel’s questions, partly because he was doing missionary work in Poland and partly because he was really interested in getting to know him better. For Steven, Miguel represented those people of goodwill who haven’t found the path yet, but who strive and are always crying to the Lord inadvertently. Steven remembered his own path towards God and he saw himself years before in Miguel’s acts and words. He honestly wanted to help Miguel find peace of mind and happiness; he wasn’t recruiting any sheep to his herd, but he was dedicating his time and effort to a selfless cause.
For Miguel, the case was practically closed because he felt that there was no way to agree with an evangelist or to talk them out of their beliefs. He thought that their faith comes from the need to believe itself, even when they try to argue logically. He was sure that the best argument to give to evangelists for not following their advice was simply that their religion is boring and that joy can simply be found in the contemplation of life’s miracle. “A personal religion is more necessary than a church, where a bunch of people think they can feel the same and seek faith in the same way,” he said bluntly to Steven. Miguel was lying on a sofa, his feet up, showing his old socks to his friend. Steven didn’t flinch; Miguel’s words didn’t astonish him, although he found Miguel’s posture too irreverent for a subject like this one.
He was sitting straight in a chair two meters and a half away from Miguel, so he projected his voice across the room as if addressing an imaginary audience. “The church is people who share your views and ideals. You aren’t supposed to agree with them blindly but to choose your church carefully. I’ve been to many congregations; I’ve been to what Catholics call a church: a building for religious ceremonies; but my church is God’s church and He is the ideal I follow now. Other people who follow the same ideal are welcome to my church.” said Steven, self-satisfied with his answer. “I don’t believe in God,” uttered Miguel faintly, as if he didn’t want to fissure his interlocutor’s faith with a more assertive utterance.
Steven interpreted this deferential tone as a sign of Miguel’s moral submission to his judgment, so he welcomed Miguel’s straightforwardness instead of being taken aback by such a robust opinion. “You can’t not believe in God,” he said. ‘He is everywhere and everything proves it. The world we live in exists only in God; outside Him there’s nothing. Do you believe in nothingness?” That was quite an abrupt and too deep a philosophical question to be answered without deliberation.
However, Miguel didn’t want to break the flow of thought and, as in chess, in which we are forced to move our pieces even when it’s not to our advantage, Miguel decided to move on and see what was next. “Yes, I believe in nothingness,” he said. “I believe we come from nothing and we’ll come to an end and be nothing again.” Steven was dismayed by this miscarried spark of intellect. He suddenly saw that Miguel was no simple beggar humbling himself in front of him but a sort of intellectual enemy to be defeated. He took his task matter- of-factly, though, because he knew he wasn’t fighting the sinner but the sin. He wanted to talk Miguel out of his misconception. “Nihilism is an impossible stance in life because it leads to death and destruction and not to real creation. Even nihilists like Nietzsche and Sartre must have believed in something to write such imposing works,” said Steven assuming that Miguel was acquainted with the works of those philosophers. Miguel had read some of their books, but he didn’t immediately see the connection between what he’d said and the nihilistic movement. Besides, from what he knew, Sartre wasn’t a nihilist but an existentialist. But he thought that that was the most popular evangelizing method: rough categorization. “I don’t know; I’m not a nihilist,” he simply said and the topic was dropped.
Steven had realized that he had struck a false note by presenting his conclusions like that. He should have waited until things fell of their own weight. Now that he’d tried to impose a thought on his listener, he knew that he’d only find a defensive attitude. He would have to give up the evangelizing for the time being. They went on talking about lighter topics until they had no more interesting things to say to each other and Miguel took his leave. Yet Miguel was aware of the fact that this issue had touched him deeply and that he was drawn to these kinds of arguments. The only thing he didn’t want was for his interest in these questions to be smothered by blindly following a path marked by someone else. His intelligence didn’t allow him to overlook religious people’s intellectual loopholes; he couldn’t help seeing them as handicapped people that could not stand on their own legs. For sure he didn’t find the way sometimes, but he didn’t believe that the Christian God was the way either. He believed that only by having faith in himself could he find peace of mind, not by underestimating himself or believing in a godly design for him, but by realizing his talents and limitations and making the best of his life.
You know as much of feelings and the way they’re written as I know of poems and their legitimacy.
When you do something you’ve never dreamed of, and you’re just pretending to be yourself for a day,
then you’ll see how I write my verses,
from artless honesty, coarse bitterness without refinement,
drawn from drab reality.
Fly, fly butterfly, over the piano,
the strings are tense, awaiting your flutter,
poise yourself but an instant in every key,
and in the wake of your flight
notes that wane and are diffused in the air.
The strings are ready, the music is waiting
for you to stroke it, awake it from slumber,
and then again the infinite silence
already welcomes your next flight.
excerpt from: Second Chances