The Death of an Atheist

Have you ever woken up from a dream–an intense dream–and had the emotions of that dream carry over into consciousness long after you awoke?  Last night that happened to me.  As I lay in bed, depressed, I had one overwhelming thought:  in all likelihood I will be completely forgotten within four generations.  This thought wasn’t depressing.  It was just a realization, a cool-headed analysis of the reality of the passing of time.  I was feeling depressed, but for a different reason.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself – let me go back to the beginning . . .

Death

I had a dream the other night, and in the dream my sister Emily had died.  I was notified, by telephone or in person, I don’t remember.  Have you ever sought to dwell on a negative thought just so you could bring up a specific emotion in yourself?  Like when you want to feel angry so you think about someone bullying your little brother, or when you want to really feel pain so you look at pictures of friends you haven’t seen in years?  Well that’s what I did in this dream.  I visualized my sister as the sweet kid and strong adult I knew she was, saw the relationship we had, and the one we never had because of distance, being too busy, or just because of apathy.  I felt the pang of regret for not having become closer to her when I had the chance.  It seems my dreaming brain wasn’t yet satisfied with the depth of my remorse, so it conjured up something greater – after dwelling on my sister for a while I also realized I was the only one still alive in my immediate family.  Of all the depressing dreams I’ve had in my life I’ve never been the only survivor left in my family.  I felt alone without them.  My gene pool, the people I grew up with from infant to adult, the only people on earth I have any real connection with beyond mere friendship, the people who could steal from me, or ignore me, or just have such a different personality from me but who I would love anyway–my family–was completely gone.  I was in a room, maybe a waiting room or a funeral parlor, and there were people all around me, but they were strangers, not my family, not my blood, and I didn’t care about them.  I was alone.

Awake now, sitting in my bed, drinking a glass of water, I realized I need to make some changes.  Because all I have is this life.  You see, when I die – hopefully as an old man while peacefully sleeping, or maybe while I’m on a mountain doing what I enjoy with those I love – I’ll be gone.  There won’t be a judgment; a cloud where I’ll eternally play harp music or a hell where I’ll eternally burn.  There won’t even just be blackness.  I will be dead – unable to perceive even the absence of light and conclude that I’m lonely.  Unable to feel, observe, think, regret, hope, or DO anything.  I will never exist again.  It’s not a happy thought, but it’s a realistic thought, and I have no reason to seriously believe any other philosophy.

This is important to me, because there will be no second chance to make something happen if I fail to do it now.  No procrastination.  No thinking, “Well, I loved Emily, and we didn’t have as good of a relationship as we could have, but we’ll have the chance for that when I pass away.”  To believe so is to rob yourself of the truth, and to rob yourself of the chance to create truly amazing relationships now.  If I want to have real meaning in my life I have to do it now.  Right now.

Purpose

Alone in my dream, with other people around me but none of my family, no one who had any reason to remember me, I realized that by all realistic expectations I will be completely forgotten within four generations, and mostly forgotten by three.  Think about it for a second – what do you know about your great great grandparents?  I know very little about my great grandfathers and almost nothing about my great-greats, even though I’m named after one of them.  I’m sure they did some good things, and certainly their decisions still silently impact my life today, but I don’t know their humor, their accomplishments, or their stories.

Your mom undoubtedly told you you’re special, most moms do, but I grew up in a religion that taught me I’m something even more than special.  You see, I was chosen before the world was even created to be born in this difficult time, given the truth, the simple and enlightening truth, to take to others lost in the gray confusion created by Satan and years of sin.  I was sent on a mission to convert others to the teachings that would literally save them from everything bad in this world and the next.  I was sent to change the world . . . or at least a good chunk of it.  I was told I’d live forever, and that death was just another beginning.

I now realize the only reason I’m here is because my parents had sex and the biological processes worked the way they’re supposed to.  No grand purpose, no all-powerful being guiding my decisions, no big impact on the world I’m destined to accomplish.  By all probable expectations I will have been born, lived, and died without causing even a minute difference to the world, or at least not a recognizable one.  Undoubtedly one of you is saying to yourself, “Well, everything we do has an impact and we can never comprehend how much we changed those around us.”   You’re absolutely right.  But go climb a mountain and look out over a valley.  Open up an atlas and look at the world.  Look at the largest cities, and marvel at the size of them, the sheer number of people who are living right now.  Marvel at how small you are.  Realize billions have come and gone, affecting only those in their immediate vicinity and were forgotten with everyone else.

The fact is within four generations no one will remember my name.  Unless of course I’m one of the few – if I write something truly great, star in some groundbreaking movie, or accomplish some great political reform that has my name attached to it.  But even then the futility of it all makes that quest hollow.  Self-aggrandizement solely for the purpose of having your name memorized by future generations is an altogether unfulfilling purpose to live for.  I won’t care if I’m remembered – I’ll be dead!

And that simple realization helps me gain real meaning in the life I live today.

Life

This moment–right now–laughing with friends, helping a stranger, learning everything I can, hanging out with family, struggling on the climbing wall–ENJOYING every moment I can in the fullest sense of the word–that’s what life is about!  ENJOYING my family.  ENJOYING each of my friends; their unique humor; their unique outlook.  Taking joy from helping the one, from caring about someone enough to listen to them, to teach a child something that will help, to give them confidence so they’ll believe in themselves.  These are the little things that make life great.  Being remembered, my name being engraved on some wall, written in some text book, or repeated by my descendants, is of little importance to me.  What pride is there to be had when I’m a corpse?  None of that is important.  It doesn’t matter if the stranger I help remembers me, or if the kid I teach praises me – all that matters is that I did something to make his life a little brighter, a little lighter, a little happier.

The fact is – all I have is this life.  These moments, written down in the book of my life – individual, fleeting experiences I have while the pages turn more and more quickly – is all I can guarantee.  So I LIVE.  I LIVE each day; each moment I can.  I revel in the weaknesses that make me ME, laugh at my inability to overcome them, and put one foot in front of the other and try again.  I appreciate each person around me, doing my best to not see them as society does–as a consumer, a product, a beauty or a beast–but as complex individuals with their own great stories.  I become honest with myself, and open my heart up for others around me so they can actually see the real me, and I hope they’ll do the same.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” 
Macbeth, act V, scene v

A tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing.  This thought does not depress me – rather it motivates me to learn to really live a full life.  I will not be “an idiot, full of sound and fury,” thinking so highly of myself while I live and then being forgotten – my life having meant nothing.  Rather, I know I’ll be forgotten, and try to live my life according to what brings me and those around me the most joy.  The truth is I have no purpose given to me from outside myself.  No God telling me I’m important.  No teacher giving me false hopes and delusions of grandeur.  The purpose of my life is solely up to me to create and to enjoy.  And I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it!
**********
What do you think?
This is part of a series–Death, Life, and Atheism–where I’ll be compiling some of the best literature and poetry about death and atheism, along with some thoughts of my own.
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6 thoughts on “The Death of an Atheist

  1. It takes an immense amount of courage and confidence to open up in this manner, and the least appropriate response from someone would be knee-jerk criticism. I genuinely laud the place in the world and in your own mind and heart that you’ve carved for yourself – it’s a credit to compassionate, deep thinkers everywhere.
    So what I’ll do is just wonder a couple of things out loud.
    I wonder if the straw man you’ve created in this essay is intentional. If the subtle but usually intentional rhetorical device of silently disproving one thing because of the virtues of its opposite, is intentional in your writing.
    Since this is seems to be a defense of your atheism (or at least an explanation), it would only make sense that the evidence you present, in your mind, could only apply to this one way of believing. That you don’t believe in God or any kind of eternal existence *because* you believe in the beauty of the moment, in helping and loving people for their sake and not for some kind of eternal reward, in enjoying everything in your life while you can – because if you believe that any of what we build here is eternal you couldn’t possibly enjoy or appreciate it in that same way.

    I wonder if you actually believe that to truly live the way you desire and profess to be the best way of living, that you cannot believe in anything except the here and now, and in the cessation of the individual upon death (both existentially and in memory).

    I would posit that while your belief system is beautiful and admirable, it seems to be born of false assumptions about the idea of faith in a higher being, and supported by straw man arguments that this kind of fulfillment – because its foundations are rooted in the finite, eternally meaningless nature of man – cannot be congruent with a belief system based on a belief in God.

    If you were striving to justify or legitimize the singular belief that man is only as eternal as his lifespan and that no higher power exists than the enjoyment and love we experience in these fleeting moments, and that this higher purpose of life is mutually exclusive to your way of believing (as your text insinuates), then you have failed.
    But if you were simply looking to define a manner of living and exhibiting faith that anyone of any faith is capable of, and a way of living that you’ve found despite (or because of) your personal belief system, than I say bravo and amen to what you’ve written.

    It is the notion that this level of compassion, enjoyment, and fulfillment can only be found without a belief system based on God and the eternal nature of humankind that is erroneous.

    • Wesley, thank you so much for your thoughts and questions. It’s not often that one has the opportunity to respond to civil, well-meaning, yet pointed questions or criticism, and I appreciate it.

      On the straw man – when I originally wrote this piece, it was to me and only me. I wrote it upon waking up, very early in the morning, from my dream about my sister. I couldn’t get the thoughts to calm down, so I got out of bed and wrote them down instead, and I’m glad I did. They were written to myself, which has always been the most honest, intimate, and thus best writing I’ve been able to do – because it lacked the desire to structure the information in a way to convince other people of my position. That, I think, is what my family and friends have appreciated about this article.

      I say that because if I create a straw man in this article, it was my own, previous self, the one that believed for a couple of decades that I was eternal. It was my current self looking back at my past self, interpreting how those past beliefs truly affected the way I lived. Even reflection on our own past is prone to a large amount of bias, based on our current position in life, but I feel I was pretty accurate to the way my belief in god had affected the way I lived – namely that I was focused on living for the future, an eternal future, rather than appreciating the moment I was in right now.

      That was my experience of the way belief affected me. For others it may be different. Certainly there are many believers who appreciate the moment, I’m sure, and live for happiness and joy now. Certainly there are many atheist who, though they believe they end at death, focus on things that they don’t care about, that make them unhappy, or that live for the future (getting the next house, the next car, the next job) just as much as I used to as a believer. My comments here are not statements on how religious belief or atheism will absolutely affect the way a person will live.

      That said, I do believe that belief in an afterlife–true belief, not just a hollow statement of words–will cause people to live for the future or for what they think god wants them to do, rather than living for themselves, the people they love, and for the OWN present. I think many of those affects on their lives are saddening.

      Yet the vast majority of us live our day to day lives as if we’re going to live forever, whatever we say we believe about it. We procrastinate doing the things we want to do most, we don’t call our family as much as we want, we spend our free time doing things that are trivial and mind-numbing. My way of dealing with that is to remind myself of how temporary I am, and to really STRIVE for happiness and fulfillment and for appreciating each moment. I try to remind myself of that because it gives me energy and focus, much in the same way as when someone has a near-death experience and feels like they have a “new lease on life,” appreciating for the first time how great it is to be alive. I think a belief in the eternity of our souls will tend to take away from that energy.

      Anyway, what do you think? Does that clarify any of your questions? Do you still feel I’m misrepresenting the opposing position? If you do and if you feel the desire to write, please challenge my assumptions.

      Thanks again,
      Jefferson

  2. Pingback: Life After Life | The Accidental Atheist

  3. Pingback: Life After Life | Jefferson King

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