Driving Interstate 15 towards the Las Vegas Strip, I pass a green billboard with the letters G – O – D spelled out in white. Next to the word is a large white arrow pointing up to the sky. The sign seems to suggest that God is watching, even in Vegas. But it also suggests that God is somewhere else – up there, away from us – something with which I disagree. I believe God is everywhere and in everything. This belief is about to be put to the test.
My mind runs through all the stereotypes it holds of Sin City: greed, sex capital of the world, money, corruption, mob, underbelly of society. I realize that I’m holding dueling ideas: 1) that God exists everywhere, and 2) that Vegas is these things that could add up to being ‘Godless.’ In psychology, this conundrum is called cognitive dissonance, which holds that it’s uncomfortable to maintain conflicting beliefs. So it makes me wonder: in a city where gambling and money reign supreme, will I find God?
As I check into the New York New York Hotel and Casino, I argue with the front desk clerk over the extra $20 she wants to charge to get into my room an hour early. I’m already upset at the mandatory $15 “resort fee,” which brings the real rate to $85 per night, plus taxes. I hate being nickel and dimmed to death. Many hotels do this in Las Vegas . . . it feels underhanded. I mentally place one check in the “Godless” column.
I settle into my room, which is modern and clean, and try to nap, but feel awake. Blaming the oxygen in the suite, I grab camera and hit the Strip late afternoon. I haven’t been to Vegas in over five years and the city has literally exploded with new buildings. They shoot up like the skyscrapers of Manhattan or Chicago.
Glass enclosed walkways connect the avenues, allowing traffic to flow below. The streets are full of people from all walks of life, all parts of the world. Street performers dressed in costumes – Hello Kitty, a group of Elivises, Super Mario Brothers – line the walkways urging tourists to snap pictures with them, for a fee. Panhandlers sit on corners with hat in hand. Some wave signs which claim “no job, no house, need money” or simply “please help.”
Music blares from unseen speakers. Billboards compete for attention – some mounted to trucks, which drive endlessly around congested streets. Casino signs flash feverishly and hired help offer free ‘this-or-that’ to step inside . . . if even for a moment. Bobbles and boobles are for sell on every corner. Mexican men snap little postcards at people as they walk by claiming “girls direct to you in under twenty minutes.” Check two, “Godless.”
I walk and expose the city through my lens: Buildings, people, street scenes. My favorite subject is the reflection I see in the glass. At a street corner, I snap the Eiffel Tower, distorted and doubled. Next, clouds in the new Trump building. Then, the people behind me, just their legs contorted into their heads.
As I walk, I note that this city has captured the best of what the world has to offer and brought it here. Want to see NYC; it’s here. Paris, Rio? They’re here. Even magical, mystical lands – Treasure Island, Excalibur – are here and available for everyone (provided they pay). It’s like Vegas is simply a small planet earth – just the highlights.
Like a ton of bricks, it hits me – what I think is a universal truth – everywhere I walk, everything I do, everything I see, Vegas (aka the Universe) is simply reflecting back what is being projected. When I look into a window, it reflects me back. When humanity walks by, their movements are mirrored. Palm trees, clouds, casino/condo high-rises, cars, people, everything – it’s all reflected back by the city/Universe.
I crouch down to take a shot of myself in a display window next to a sign that reads “weirdo.” I take the exposure . . . then another epiphany – what I see in the pane is a choice. It’s not the true me – it’s whatever I think of myself: weird, normal, fat, thin, good looking, ugly, healthy, sick, happy, sad. What other people see in the window is different and really none of my business.
This brings me to my next thought: if I choose to see the world as Godless, corrupt, and dangerous, then that is what the world is going to be. If however, I choose to see the world as full of God, beauty, and love, well then that is what the universe will reflect. So it’s not so much whether God is or is not present in Vegas, but it is whether I choose to see God here; in the casino, the homeless, the prostitute, the gambling or drug addict, the greed.
With this revelation, my whole experience changes. Things that were void of meaning and relevance come alive. The city which was Godless becomes a reflection of God. People become well intentioned and human (and thus trying to survive just like me). I fully enjoy my time in Vegas. That night I sleep well, despite the oxygen and energy of this microcosm of the amazing world in which we live.
The next morning, as I leave the city heading north on Interstate 15, I pass another billboard attached to and facing the opposite way of the G-O-D arrow. This one reads: “with our thoughts, we make the world ~ Buddha.” I laugh to myself at how the Universe and God works in my life, thankful to have had these experiences.
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