There’s a great Seinfeld episode – and one I relate to – in which George Costanza worries that he must have cancer because his life is going well for the first time ever. “I knew God would never let me be happy,” George tells his therapist.
Like many secular Jews, I don’t believe in God, but I do fear His wrath. Whenever something good happens to me I can’t enjoy it because I’m waiting for retribution. Some of the best moments in my life have been ruined this way; achievements – both professional and personal – have been mired either by illness, or fear of illness. I’ve had the flu at every one of my birthday parties since the age of five. Whenever I’m taken to a nice restaurant, my overactive stomach won’t let me enjoy the meal. The year I was supposed to be the opening day starting pitcher for my little league team I injured my finger during pre-season and never pitched again. Like George, I don’t think God will ever let me be happy.
All my life, I have wanted to publish a novel. That dream will become a reality on Tuesday, so of course I’ve been sick in bed for the past two weeks with an unbeatable cold and a really uncomfortable throat infection. All I want is to enjoy my book party, and now it doesn’t seem like that will be possible. None of this surprises me. I don’t believe in God, but I do think he’s pre-emptively punishing me for the hubristic attitude I would have if I was healthy.
I often think of God not letting Moses into the Promised Land. Sure, maybe Moses was being a bit cocky from time to time, but didn’t he deserve to celebrate? I mean, they were in the desert for forty years! The punishment didn’t fit the crime. And then there was Job, whom God punished just to make a philosophical point.
Is this why even the secular among us fear God so much – because the Old Testament God could be cruel and vindictive?
I’d like to think it has nothing to do with God, that it’s not God punishing us for our hubris and moral shortcomings, but ourselves. I’d like to think it’s because we hold ourselves to high moral standards, and feel we must humble ourselves. We’re not being punished, so much as remembering our own humanity, our own mortality.
Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen. He is the editor of the international online newspaper The Faster Times, and a professor of writing at NYU. His journalism, criticism, and fiction have appeared in many publications including Bookforum, The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Observer, Meridian, Washington Square Review, The New York Tyrant, Gigantic, Time Out New York, The Forward, and Paste.