First place — Anh Quoc Nguyen: A present for the future

By Anh Quoc Nguyen

Anh Quoc Nguyen

Heaven towers above and hell lies below, so where do we stand? Are we just the middle ground, an insignificant moment in time, that precedes the everlasting peace of heaven or the eternal punishment of hell? I stared up at the blinking stars, hoping that the god I read about would share his answer with me.

Silence.

The stars continued to blink.

If I were to describe the universe in one word, it would be apathetic. Growing up within the deep jungle of Vietnam, I never heard the church bell echo through our village. Not because we lacked a church; we just could not afford a church bell. Poverty ravaged my village, yet people swarmed to the church doors every Sunday morning. During Mass, children starved for the weekly bread offering while the parents traded their sorrows for moral righteousness. Faith, belief and love all ended with families going home empty-handed. Every prayer whispered from my friends and relatives for relief from suffering floated among the silence of the stars. We solaced ourselves with the thought of an afterlife, but I always knew that these prayers would never come to light. Days turned to weeks, then months, then years, but my village still sat forgotten by the government. People trapped within their own beliefs of heaven lost the motivation for the present. Slowly, the people withered away along with the village.

I have no hope for religion and its promises because believing in such things fails to fix the problems at hand. Our world is not simply just a middle ground for heaven and hell. This planet and its opportunities are all that we will ever know. No matter what happens, its effects will come circling back to us. Choosing to only see the afterlife equates to saying that we have already given up on this world. However, I choose to see the current reality, and it desperately reaches out for help. Every day, people across the globe suffer just like the people in my village. Holding onto the hope of an afterlife belittles the struggles of those around me while failing to pull them out of their hardships. The government covers its negligence with the promise of a heaven to ease the worry of the poor. But only through the true rejection of religion can people cast away their limitations and begin to take control of their lives.

The world is unfair, so we must learn to make it fair, not hide away its flaws with religion’s impractical promises.

One world, one life, one chance. This is all we have. We came into this world by chance, but that does not mean we do not have a responsibility to uphold. We need to help this world — our world. Humanity’s future depends on how we choose to act in the now. Heaven and hell might not exist after our death, but our children’s future will continue on along with the stars.

Anh, 18, graduated from Jersey Village High School in Houston. He was born on a cashew farm in Vietnam and moved to the United States when he was 8. He plans to major at the University of Texas in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on fluid dynamics and thermodynamics.