Two weeks ago I wrote about death and kindness. This week I want to focus on death and loss, and on making peace with it.
Unless you believe two things with absolute certainty, 1) There is a heaven, and 2) I am going there, you live with the idea that death is the end.
Maybe you don’t fully accept the idea. Maybe it’s only a possibility in your mind. But even if you have a faith, if you ever doubt it all—there’s death lurking inevitably in your future, and the chance that it will snuff out your existence like a candle.In a December 26 New York Times column responding to the Sandy Hook massacre, Maureen Dowd quoted Fr. Kevin O’Neill at length. When tragedy strikes, he writes, the question people ask is “Why?”
The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.
I think that’s an honest description of faith. My purpose here isn’t to ridicule such faith, only to point out that even the faithful still have this thing hanging over them.
And even if you don’t doubt your faith, but doubt your goodness or your salvation—there’s death. Even if you’re perfectly faithful, in some religious traditions it’s considered sinful to be too sure of your salvation. As I understand it, the Catholic Church teaches this very thing: you can never know for sure… until, of course, it’s too late.
And many people still believe in hell. Right now I’m only addressing those people who have at least some tiny doubt of heaven’s reality, or who think that the alternative is, as the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament to Christians) puts it, sheol. The grave.
And is there anyone, truly, who never doubts? It’s hard to say. Sometimes the people who seem the most sure are the ones who will someday walk away. Many years ago people thought I was one of the solid ones.
But today I don’t want to talk about doubt as much as I want to talk about this thing hanging over us. All I’ve been doing so far is to show that it hangs over almost all of us—apostate, doubter, and faithful—at least to some degree. The candle flickers.
Here’s my point: Wouldn’t it be better if we made peace with death? I’m not asking if it’s easy or something you can just will yourself to do. I’m asking if it would be better if we were OK with extinction and not terrified into running toward anyone who promises to fix it. Obviously it would, wouldn’t it? And just as obviously, this is a matter that religion and faith can’t really solve, but because there’s that doubt thing, remember? If we’d been able to will ourselves into perfect belief I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it.
So this is something we have to do on our own, if we want to have peace in this life. It isn’t just an exercise for atheists.
There’s much more to be said about this than I have space for here, but I’d like to end this post by quoting something that Greta Christina wrote several years ago. The full post in on her blog. Here’s my favorite part:
Our existence and experience are dependent on the passing of time, and on change. No, not dependent — dependent is too weak a word. Time and change are integral to who we are, the foundation of our consciousness, and its warp and weft as well. I can’t imagine what it would mean to be conscious without passing through time and being aware of it. There may be some form of existence outside of time, some plane of being in which change and the passage of time is an illusion, but it certainly isn’t ours.
And inherent in change is loss. The passing of time has loss and death woven into it: each new moment kills the moment before it, and its own death is implied in the moment that comes after. There is no way to exist in the world of change without accepting loss, if only the loss of a moment in time: the way the sky looks right now, the motion of the air, the number of birds in the tree outside your window, the temperature, the placement of your body, the position of the people in the street. It’s inherent in the nature of having moments: you never get to have this exact one again.
And a good thing, too. Because all the things that give life joy and meaning — music, conversation, eating, dancing, playing with children, reading, thinking, making love, all of it — are based on time passing, and on change, and on the loss of an infinitude of moments passing through us and then behind us. Without loss and death, we don’t get to have existence.
I’m eager to hear your thoughts.