Accepting that life is temporary doesn’t make it meaningless.
Three years ago, my mother died of cancer. Hers wasn’t the first loss I’ve experienced in my life, nor the last, but it was unquestionably the largest. She had been a constant, the one who was always there when no one else was, the one who did all the hard work of raising me and my brother. And after a very rough year of surgeries and chemotherapy, she died.
On the way to her funeral, we all saw a sun dog gleaming beautifully in the sky. Some of my mom’s spiritually-minded friends said that clearly, that was a manifestation of my mom’s soul, saying goodbye. I refrained from telling them that was crap, because if they needed to believe that to cope with the loss, that was their own business. It really was crap, though. The sun dog was a manifestation of high-atmosphere ice crystals, saying that yes, light still refracts.
That’s the challenge of grief when you’re an atheist; knowing that according to the best available existing evidence, your loved ones aren’t in a better place, you’re not going to see them again, they’re not going to be rewarded for their good acts in life, there’s no payoff and there’s no reason. The other challenge, of course, is dealing with well-meaning people telling you the opposite because they think it’ll make you feel better. It’s hard not to take that as insulting, as patronizing as telling a child that their dog’s gone to live with a nice farm family where he can run around and chase rabbits all day.
The reason I don’t get offended by those lines is because I don’t feel like I have the right to deny other people their coping mechanisms in the face of death. If someone can only deal with the monstrous unfairness of mortality by denying it to some degree, then that’s what they have to do, and I would be a real asshole to try to demand they do otherwise.
In a certain sense, death is the least unfair thing there is: the end that comes equally to all of us. In another sense, though, it’s grotesquely unfair. We come into this beautiful, complicated, fascinating world, full of love and rewarding experiences and amazing things to learn and do, and then we have to leave it forever for no reason? That’s bullshit. That’s completely unfair and there’s no justification for it.
Death is a legacy of how we evolved, what our cells are made of and how they function. In that sense it’s no more fair or unfair than wisdom teeth or appendicitis; a biological leftover of the world we grew on. Even now, extraordinary work is being done on addressing it, just as we have so many of our other weaknesses. But in the meantime, we all get the same raw deal. We’re all in this together.
And for all of that, we are, so far as we can tell, the universe’s luckiest beings. We are the only parts of the universe that can look back at it, that can understand even a part of it. Our experience of and influence on the world is the best that exists.
A shooting star is nothing more than a piece of matter that traveled millions of miles only to burn up in the atmosphere. Blink and you’ll miss it. But in that instant of immolation, it’s beautiful, and if we pay attention, we’re privileged to see it and make it part of our experience. Being temporary, even brief, doesn’t make a thing worthless.
So that’s how I face death as an atheist: it’s unfair, it’s pointless, and it’s irrevocable. It is one of the cruelties of reality that we’ve as yet been unable to repair. But it comes with being human, and being human is the richest, most engaging, most beautiful way of existing in the universe that we know of.
My mom’s dead. Her corpse is buried in a field in New England where flowers and wild strawberries grow. I helped bury her. Nothing’s going to bring her back or let us meet again, and there is no pretense that this is fair or just.
But while she lived, she was extraordinary. She traveled around the world. She couriered gold for paranoid libertarians and smuggled condoms across the Iron Curtain to needy prostitutes. (Turns out Soviet customs agents don’t have the brass ones it takes to ask a lady “Are all these condoms for your own personal use?”) She memorized poetry, read every Agatha Christie novel, married twice, divorced twice, opened people’s eyes to the truths she saw, raised two sons, brokered peace during the Cold War, and laughed about it all, right up to the end.
It is downright insulting when people suggest that that was insufficient, and doesn’t mean anything unless there’s also a magical afterlife where she gets judged to see if that was somehow good enough. She doesn’t need another life. She had this one, and so do I. And so do you. She was human, and she made the most of it. She got to experience this universe in a way almost nothing that exists can do. While she was in the world, she made it better. That is the most any of us can ask.
Photo—Greensprings Natural Cemetery