Escape from Woo Zoo: A Story I Wish I Didn’t Have to Tell
When I was about 6, my mother took me and my sister to the theatre to see FairyTale: A True Story. And so the skeptical journey began.
A lot more happened between then and now too. For reasons my parents have yet to share, I spent the first six years of my schooling at a Catholic school, and went through all of the typical rites of passage associated with being a young person of the Catholic faith (minus the confirmation, thankfully). Amongst other things, I personally watched some pretty hideous psychic predictions mess with the proper course of justice, and I had all manner of weird quack claims peddled at me to ‘cure’ me of my severe eczema (Sorry- not cured just yet). I could go on and on.
But I’m going to skip all of that stuff- it happened; bit-by-bit it made me skeptical, but it wasn’t until really recently that I was cornered into dealing with the tough stuff. So I’m going to share some of that with you.
At the end of 2009, my final year of high school, one of my good friends was diagnosed with leukaemia. If there is ever something that is going to bring woo out of the woodwork, that something is going to be cancer. In retrospect, maybe it was slightly insensitive of me to ‘tsk’ at a psychic whose website claimed his personal motto is ‘keep it real’ to a sick guy who really wanted to believe. But my friend’s life had already been turned on its head enough without me all of a sudden switching tack and not being skeptical and not taking the piss out of him- It was what we always did. And so ghosts and psychics became a popular topic of debate in hospital rooms over the ensuing months.
Eventually I had to leave for university, and my friend was put in isolation for a bone marrow transplant. By all accounts it seemed like the most hideous kind of medical procedure a person could go through, but my friend got through. It was amazing. A miracle of modern medicine! I had already lost a cousin to a brain tumour three years earlier, so I was incredibly, unbelievably excited for him. The couple of times I saw him later in the year were thrilling—he had been given another chance at life, and he was starting to make plans for it. As far as I was concerned that was the end of the story. Cancer cured, now he could live happily ever after.
If only. Near the end of 2010 I got news of his relapse. As thrilling as his remission was, this was equally, if not more, devastating. I flew home with another friend so that we could hang out and say goodbye. It was cool! I could go on and on about how wonderful and brave my friend was, I really could. But what was quite interesting (and more relevant to this story) was his shift in obsession with woo.
This time round, it was religion. He had managed to get hold of a bunch of ministers/ priests/ pastors of various Christian denominations, he had got in contact with some Buddhists through a contact at the hospital, a Druid through an acquaintance of his parents, he had rung up the local Hare Krishnas, and we talked about ringing up one of the local Mosques, but he eventually decided that ‘they might require a bit more commitment’. He did all of this while still managing to proclaim to anyone of Christian faith who walked through the door: ‘Evolution is a fact you know. Evolution is a fact!’. This half-hearted, all-encompassing version of Pascal’s wager was a lot of fun too- it was a really interesting journey through death and trying to find ways to cope with it.
One day I was driving home from his place with another friend, and she (being Christian) said to me (the ‘I-don’t-know-Catholic-but-actually-Agnostic-or-Atheist-or-something’):
“Would you do what he is doing, you know, with the whole religion thing? If you were dying?”
All of a sudden the whole world came crashing down around me. Yes, it was amusing. Yes, our friend had an amazing sense of humour and he retained it right up until the end. Yes, it was a really cool way to cope with the situation. But I had to pause, turn, and say to her (and more importantly, myself):
“No. I wouldn’t. I don’t believe any of it. I think that when you die, you die.”
It was a pretty devastating thing to admit that in a few days (although I didn’t know it at the time) one of my best friends would lose consciousness forever, never to grow up and do all of the cool things he could have done. It was pretty devastating to admit that one day I would completely lose consciousness forever. And that everyone I had ever known and would ever know would go the same way. Or, already had.
But in some ways, it was pretty liberating too. For one, I could quite happily ignore any religious fear-mongerers telling me I’m going to hell (although I’d been doing it for years anyway). It meant I had to seriously think about what I want to do with the one life I have. It meant I couldn’t just think about what I wanted to do with it, but I had to actually do it. I was opened up to the whole reality of death, gut-wrenching as it was, and the whole range of comforting thoughts you could think about death that were firmly entrenched in reality.
You probably guessed by now how this story ends. I still feel devastated that my friend had to die. I still feel devastated that his parents no longer have a son; his sisters no longer have a brother. But none of that takes away the time he did have, however painful some of it was, and the amazing influence he had on me, and all of the other people he knew.