I was around nine-years-old when I dealt with my first major existential crisis.
It wasn’t about the grief of losing all my marbles in one game—real marbles; I played with real marbles. It wasn’t about getting my heart broken when my one-kiss girlfriend Laure relocated to the South of France, leaving behind our quiet banlieue 45 minutes outside of Paris. And it wasn’t about having to wait another year to get a new bicycle, which my paternal grandma ended up getting me much sooner.
No, it was an existential crisis as real as my marbles, my love for Laure, and my desire to have the fastest bicycle outside the one ridden by the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.
The problem was that soccer practice and catechism were both mid-afternoon on Wednesdays, and my mother informed me it was up to my nine-year-old self to choose one. Zut, alors! Pas facile!
Here was the real problem. If I chose what I wanted most, running around on the soccer pitch, I would disappoint my grandma and maybe her God, Jesus, Mary, and Holy Casper, the friendly ghost. Yeah, I needed some religious teaching.
If I chose what I wanted the least, sitting on a hard church pew reading a confusing book, listening absent-mindedly or most likely acting like a clown, I would disappoint myself and most certainly my buddies who’d already joined the team and told me I would make a great goalie or at least the goofiest one.
What was I to do? What would my choice say about me? And why the hell did my mother pick this opportunity to give me some locus of control? My first major life decision and it’s a catch-22, no fair. Dear Holy Casper, the friendly ghost, help moi!
Thanks to my over-pragmatic mother, miraculously, I got out of that existential conundrum. Her plan was simple, and it genuinely gave me control over my final decision. I would attend catechism one week, soccer the next, and then I had to make a decision before the subsequent week.
Yes, you read correctly, my mother, a hiker, cyclist, a dancer, and an atheist did not attempt to influence my decision. Not a bit. So, what did I choose?
What do you think most nine-year-olds would pick if they were fortunate enough to be given a choice? Running around like a maniac with my friends was my true calling. Age-appropriate and self-determined, the best kind of choice!
I would be dishonest if I claimed that I disliked my one hour of catechism, although you won’t catch me doing it again.
I remember being enticed by the quaint church and all its intricate decorations. It was like being inside a dollhouse, and I was G.I. Joe and there were other Joes and Janes, and we all seemed ready to unleash the fun. Even the sparse religious art displayed throughout spoke to the artist within me. Aren’t we all artists at that age? I sure was a clown, a comedic artist.
The light shining through the stained-glass windows and the soothing serenity of the quiet setting felt incredible, and, to this day, the memory feels warm and rejuvenating. At the time, this overwhelming degree of calmness was in sheer contrast to the loud, emotional chaos I experienced at home.
I liked the environment. I even liked the priest who seemed to be more of a teacher (I adored my teachers back then) than a parental authority. (I never responded well to authoritarian figures.) I liked his kind and round-faced smile. I liked the calmness of his voice. I also liked that he wasn’t afraid of ridicule wearing a robe when it wasn’t Mardi Gras. He was a funny guy like me, I thought.
The only thing I didn’t care for was having to sit quietly for so long when I spent so many hours doing the same thing at school all week. Especially when I knew my buddies were running around like a horde of sugar freaks on a soccer field.
The grass was literally greener on the other—soccer—side of life. Casper, the friendly ghost, approved my choice and, on the third week, I was giggling and running away from screaming coaches (who, as it turns out, were quite authoritarian). I loved every minute of it.
I became a devoted admirer of Platini, Maradona, Socrates, Keegan, Pele, etc. I watched every game I could on television. I subscribed to soccer magazines. I asked for a new soccer ball or begged for a jersey of Saint-Etienne at every gift-giving occasion. I dreamed of joining the ‘creed’ and one day becoming a professional player. I dreamed of soccer fields every waking moment of my life; I was hooked. I was a believer. Soccer was an existential raison d’être.
Not lost in this experience was the obvious fact, that my pragmatic mother had given me a choice to exercise my religious freedom. In this case, freedom from religion.
I chose soccer as my ‘first’ religion and, for years to come, because it filled my existence with absolute joy, and because, on the soccer pitch, I could be my goofy self.
Thanks to my mother, I was taught to make meaningful choices at an early age. She gave me the gift of free choice; I never looked back.
Years after this seminal life moment, I asked my mother what would have happened if she’d insisted I please my grandma and attend catechism. She laughed:
“Are you kidding, you were already set in your principles, stubborn as a mule, at that age. You would have run away from that church in less time than it took to say ‘Hallelujah’.”