The peak experience is a term coined by late psychologist Abraham Maslow. According to Maslow, it is an experience “characterized by intense pleasure, euphoria, interconnectedness, oneness, extreme awareness, clarity, absence of all negativity and so-called higher levels of consciousness… The experience is most often explained by a magical and philosophical perspective relating to communication with a higher power or God.”
Some believe the peak experience alters the course of their lives. That it calls out for understanding. Some believe it is the case for the existence of God.
During what I believe was my peak experience, I did feel intense pleasure. I was euphoric. I was extremely aware of everything. Frequently, there was an absence of all negativity.
But my peak experience was not the case for the existence of God.
It was the case for the nonexistence of God. Or at least, my case for the nonexistence of God.
It was something I had been grappling with for years. I remember exactly where I was the first time I ever thought, Maybe there isn’t a God. It was in a stall in the girls bathroom at my high school. I quickly pushed the thought from my mind.
“I’m sorry I broke you,” M wrote, about seven months into our relationship. We were each other’s first loves, we were both shy, and on top of that, I usually kept my feelings tucked away. My sister was the sensitive one who talked about her emotions. I didn’t have any. Or at least, I didn’t let anyone know I did. I was the stoic one.
Dating M meant I had to be open, vulnerable, emotional — all the things I never wanted to be. There was something about how genuinely caring he was, how, if you wanted to talk, he would put down his pencil even though he was frantically trying to finish physics homework that he should have done the night before. And he would listen. We met in a theatre group in college and I would often see M sitting in a corner on the stage with someone — usually a girl — listening to her while other things like set design and blocking were going on around them.
I couldn’t believe someone this genuine and nice wanted to be with me. I still don’t fully understand just how he fell into my life. My life, the one that no one really knew about because I didn’t share it with them. But M was interested. He’s a person who wants to know your story and share his own. I told him things. I told him about the bathroom stall.
We are still sharing our stories with each other. I revealed secrets to M and I felt exposed, but accepted. I can’t say that falling in love made me an emotional creature because that’s what we all are. But falling in love did help me accept that part of myself, be okay with it, even embrace it.
It was hard to be that vulnerable though, after being locked away for so long. I was ashamed of how emotional I had become. I was so unlike the girl he had started dating. But I think that’s why we worked — not because he changed me, but because I was able to be a better version of myself when he was around. I let him become acquainted with the little pieces of me that I usually kept safely stowed away in the most reticent parts of my mind. I started to share some of those things with other people, too.
It was on one of the many nights that I didn’t understand why I was crying that M wrote to me, “I’m sorry I broke you.”
I told him maybe he did break me. But he broke me open. Open to the possibility of anything.
All of these emotions that I let flood my life brought back the depression. During a particularly bad episode I apologized, basically, for being depressed. For being difficult for him to deal with.
He just wrote, “You are like no one else in my world, and without you my world is a rather pathetic place that merely proves through meagerness that God is a fairytale. With you I still know that there is no god, but that’s because no god could hope to have ever created you or anyone like you (and also because no god that is capable of creating you would have created the rest of the world).”
I know that’s what he said because I saved it. I couldn’t bear to let it get lost in the bottomless chasm of Skype messages we had accumulated over the first months of our relationship.
Fairy tales are important to children. M and I learned that, as kids, we shared the same fairy tale of true love and marriage followed by a family. We believed all of these major life events would be blessed by God. As we got older, things changed. We didn’t necessarily want marriage or children, but only someone to love and love us back. We found each other and so our childish fairy tales gave way for just the hope of love. We also grew out of our religious upbringings, realizing that no god could have created the world we live in — this world that is both too great and too painful for any god to have created.
Though M’s journey to non-belief was difficult, he at least had the courage to say what he thought out loud. I kept those bathroom stall feelings to myself until he came along and helped me accept them. It would be so much easier to just go along. We know that our beliefs (or non-beliefs) would hurt our families. We know that there many people out there who think what we believe is sad and that our lives must have no meaning. But really? We are the ones who give our lives meaning.
M taught me that it isn’t scary or sad to believe that we’re all we’ve got in this world and that life ends — truly ends — after death. For me, believing these things is exhilarating and freeing. He has given me the courage to accept what is. He gave me to courage to feel and honor my own feelings.
Early in our relationship, I told E, one of my best friends, how this new me, this emotional wreck of a person who sometimes couldn’t hold herself together, scared me.
“I feel weak when I’m lying there crying and I want him to hold me forever. I never used to be like that.”
“That doesn’t make you weak, Nicole. That makes you human,” she said.
Then I began embracing my new self. Every time my emotions make me feel weak, even today, I hear E tell me that in my head. And then, a whisper in my ear, a hand on my cheek, I hear, “It’s going to be okay, Nikki. You’re okay. I got you,” from M.
And my younger self, my unabashed feminist self who was going to be the modern woman would have heard something like, “I got you,” and felt condescended to. She would have wanted to run.
But my new self, the one who is finally letting herself be more human, hears “I got you,” and thinks, “Thank you. I love you. I got you, too.” We’re all we’ve got.