I live a life without gods. Many people would call me an Atheist and that is not a label that I would deny. I have come to a place in my life where I simply cannot take the word of various “authorities” that a god or gods exist and are agents in this world. My life experience just doesn’t support what the various religions who believe in gods have to say about these supernatural powers and how they affect my life. And so I live my life without the comforts and advantages that a belief in a god can bring.
It wasn’t always this way. I was raised in a Christian household by parents who were Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. So not only was I watched over by God but, according to the doctrines that my parents subscribed to, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were also active in the world and in my life. There were a host of other supernatural beings that concerned themselves with my life as well. Angels and saints, devils and demons, prophets and heretics were here to save me or tempt me. But as I got older, I found many more plausible explanations for the things that happened to me in my life. Explanations that did not involve a god or the supernatural trappings that my parents believed.
In 1990 my grandfather died. He was the man who had raised me as his son from the time I was an infant. He was, for all intents and purposes, my “father.” Sadly he died a very painful death from cancer and it was difficult to watch him wasting away in that last year of his life. My family decided to hold his memorial service in a Catholic church and I was horrified that of the roughly 70 minutes spent in that service, only a handful of minutes acknowledged who my grandfather was and even then only in the most cursory terms. Instead we heard about the “glory of God” and an afterlife where the “good” souls would spend an eternity in peace and joy while the “bad” souls would be tortured forever.
As I sat in that service, I could not keep from thinking “How do you know this?” Where was the evidence that after death a part of us lived on to be judged and sorted into our appointed place in some heaven or hell? All the while those around me sobbed quietly believing that some part of my grandfather would go on to that idyllic afterlife. Many of them took some great comfort in the idea that, after their own death, they would see him again and share in his eternal life with their God. But I didn’t find the thought comforting at all. I found it unsettling.
Imagine no forever
I wasn’t quite myself in the year following my grandfather’s death. There was nothing specific I could have expressed to explain my feelings. I was just vaguely unsettled all of the time. It wasn’t until I happened to be watching a television interview with the actor Sir Patrick Stewart as he talked about the death of his own parents that I was able to make sense of what I was feeling. He was commenting on the difference in the emotions he felt when his first parent died as compared to when the second parent died. Stewart described that first loss as causing him to confront what he called “the impermanence of life.” The cold reality that someone dear to him was irrevocably GONE from this world and his life. That is precisely what I was feeling. For the first time in my life, I had to face the permanent loss of someone I loved dearly.
In the gathering directly after my grandfather’s memorial service, there were tears and laughter as we all coped with our loss and tried to take some comfort in each other. But every so often I would catch a bit of conversation that “we will see him again” or that “we shouldn’t be sad, he is with God” and that worried me. It could be so easy for these people to forget. I was personally feeling a sense of urgency to remember every small detail I could about the man that was my grandfather. But many of my family seemed less concerned believing that they would see him again. It seemed as if they had no need to cling to those memories. They seemed to feel there would be ample time in the afterlife to be re-acquainted and re-united. I wondered how many of them would depend on that afterlife to renew those memories and how many would, like me, work to keep them alive.
I don’t have the luxury of believing I will see my grandfather again. I am not a believer in such things. People die and they are gone forever from my life. Impermanence. And I am left to depend on my own memories and feelings to keep my grandfather alive in some fashion. It is up to me to give him as much of an “afterlife” as I can. I think of him often. He appears in my writing. He was, and continues to be, a tremendous influence in my life and who I am in the world. I wonder if that would be true if I could have just told myself I would “see him again in heaven.”
No second chances
The impermanence of life doesn’t make me uneasy. It makes me vigilant. It makes me appreciative. It helps me focus. It helps me to know that the people and things I love will only be with me for a while and that I may have to let them go. All I can be certain of is what I have here and now in this life. Some family and friends left me with the impression that their belief in a god or an afterlife took away the urgency I felt to cling to those memories. They seemed comforted by believing that would get to see the deceased again “in the next life.” I wondered how that might affect how they appreciate each other while they are here.
Life is a complicated business. My journey has led me to try to simplify and avoid unnecessary conflicts and problems. Staying focused on this life is about all I can handle. Loving the best way I know how and appreciating what I have in this life is more than enough for me to manage. In the years since my grandfather’s passing, I’m sure his family and friends have all gone on in their own ways. And I wonder how many of them have lost some part of who he was by taking comfort in the belief that they will see him again. They didn’t seem to feel the sense of finality that I did. They didn’t seem to feel the urgency that I did to keep his memory alive. For them there would be a second chance but not for me.
I don’t believe in second chances. Not when it comes to death. Living a life without gods means that I have to put my heart and mind into the here and now. I have to do the best I can with this life. I have to make this world a better place while I am here. And I have to cherish those I love, living and dead, the best way I can.
Sebadeval 2010 – from Pixbay.com