I am an Atheist. I Wish I Believed in a God.
On a beautiful spring morning in May 2022, I called 911 to rush my husband to the emergency room. My son whimpered in his bedroom. I gently closed his door as I assured him that the commotion he was hearing was the doctor taking daddy to the doctor’s office.
The sun poured fresh rays of light into the living room as the paramedics carried out my husband on a stretcher. After the eerie silence that I was suddenly left with, I took a deep breath and entered my son’s room. I scooped him up, hurried him to get dressed and out the door to face a day that would be thrown into an unpredictable maelstrom.
I made my way to the hospital after dropping off my son at daycare. I foolishly imagined my husband sitting up and ridiculing me for overreacting. We would then laugh at the sorry spectacle that we had caused. Instead, when I arrived, the words “septic shock” and “organ failure” fell out of the mouths of the doctors.
That evening, he was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
Thinking back, the day before, he was in bed feeling unwell and groggy. He did not have a fever and his body felt temperate. After a negative COVID test, we both expressed relief that at least it was not that, and thought he just needed rest. I said to myself — I will call the doctor tomorrow morning if his condition doesn’t improve. However, I horribly underestimated that just beneath the surface of our normal everyday life, we were at the precipice of losing him.
At the ICU, my husband howled and growled while his ghastly pale body writhed maniacally in bed. Doctors voiced concern that the infection was also affecting his heart. My gut turned inside out as I came to grips with the severity of his condition.
As I watched the nurses doing their darnest to stabilize and make him comfortable, I suffered the quiet realization that the bacteria had already invaded my husband’s bloodstream and brain the day before. He spent the day in bed not breaking a sweat, not because of a fever we thought had broken, but because he was no longer able to fight the infection. That evening, when I took comfort that he was sleeping deeply, he was actually already slipping away.
I stared at the crisscross of tubes on his body in disbelief at how we got here. With a 3 year old at home, I felt utterly unprepared for life. At that moment, I faced the reality of my atheism — where I was fully responsible for my own susceptibility to fear, loneliness, sorrow, and anxiety that the world would bring me.
That evening, my son and I snuggled in bed. As he released sweet puffs of breaths into my ears, my mind ran uncontrollably, untethered to any anchor of comfort. The despair I suddenly wallowed in felt utterly inhumane.
I thought — humans are not designed to endure such anguish and uncertainty without being supported by some higher being.
In desperation to grasp for inner balance, I clutched my phone and started to text my family and friends to unload my burden. The situation was out of my control, and all I could do was to recruit positive energy from the universe. I reached out to friends and family and implored them to send prayers, hugs, positive thoughts and words of support our way. I sought to harness the collective prayers and strength to create a protective forcefield around my husband.
As I faced down life’s brutal unknowns, people’s prayers started to pour from my phone. Feeling invigorated, I reached out to more people. More prayers and good energy percolated through my bubble of distress.
One friend told me she phoned her grandma, known as the prayer lady in her community. Her grandma led a prayer with her and her mother over the phone. Several friends told me that their entire Churches were praying for us. Angels in the human form of friends and neighbors dropped off food and offered rides to and from the hospital. I received a steady stream of check-ins and words of support and compassion that gave me a foundation of courage and calm to get through each day.
Growing up, believing in a God was not part of our lives. Family was all-important — past and present. Honoring our ancestors, who inhabit a vague celestial space of watching over the family, was central to rituals and gatherings. A sense of fulfillment was gained through respecting our elders and by generally — being a responsible and benevolent person, in particularly, when it comes to serving the family.
And for better or worst, we were responsible for our own state of mind and state of being.
However, at a certain age, my parents started to refer to a Water Goddess who protected our family. When I was 13, my father contracted viral meningitis. (Coincidentally, my father and husband were both the same age when they contracted meningitis.) He was in critical condition for ten days in the hospital.
Without a medical treatment for viral meningitis, my brother and I both sat by his bedside, not knowing what to expect. My relatives diligently searched for and delivered traditional Chinese medicine to him. I recall wishing that we had a God to call upon because our brute mortal efforts felt woefully inadequate. There is something about the palpability of losing a loved one that triggers a craving for a higher being to intervene.
My father eventually came home, recovered, and fought through other illnesses. Since then, my parents would often conjure the Water Goddess, who they say protected them when they escaped from China to Hong Kong. They often express gratitude to the Water Goddess whenever we experience good fortune, or evade calamity.
When I phoned home about my husband’s condition, they called on the Water Goddess to bring my husband back to good health, as she had done for my father.
One night, I stepped out of the ICU to take a break from watching my husband thrashing in bed. When I returned, I saw that a siren had gone off in the corridor of my husband’s room. I quickened my pace and saw the nurses resuscitating a man who appeared to be my husband. My knee was about to buckle until I realized that my husband was actually in the very next room — sleeping. I was so relieved, but at someone else’s expense.
Life, I thought, can be so senselessly wretched.
It is moments like these that I wish I believed in a God to provide some existential reasoning for and comfort in what I was experiencing.
After one full month in the hospital, my husband was discharged to go home to continue with rehabilitation. It would take another month for him to get steady on his feet. And it would take more time and patience for him to feel like his normal self, and for us to resume activities together as a family.
The sun cast light into the living room that beautiful spring morning that jolted our lives. Reflecting on my Chinese name, Li Xi (麗曦), which means ‘beautiful morning sunlight,’ I discovered that I always had the internal strength to carry me through that difficult morning. Chosen by the elder generation, the name 曦 (Xi), meaning morning sunlight, was given to me and my cousins of the same generation. As if propping me up with invisible rays of hands, I learned that I will always have the eternal support of my family and ancestors for whom I pay homage.
But when I was wrought with that devastating uncertainty, I truly yearned to be able to pray to a God to comfort me—a God to ask for favors that seem impossible to grant in the human realm. I learned, however, that by allowing myself to be vulnerable and open to others, I can summon all the good forces in the universe to strengthen and uplift me.
Above all, I realized that harnessing the diversity of prayers and spirituality, across cultures and traditions, may have, in a way, been even more powerful than calling on any one God.