26 January, 2019
My beliefs on death, the afterlife, and the supernatural have changed exponentially over the past decade. Once a born-again Christian, I began to question everything I’d been taught, the absolute Biblical truths peddled that didn’t seem to explain all those grey areas of life. Life shuttled me towards suspicion of motives, consciousness of human fallibility (especially when it comes to interpretation, execution, and personal stakes), and ultimately, a healthy dose of skepticism. My unquestioning faith segued into cynicism and I ended up repudiating Christianity, but not God… not for a long time anyway; I remained somewhat agnostic. But having dealt in absolutes for so long, it wasn’t long before science became my new religion. Science doesn’t have all the answers, either, but it tries to glean as much as it can – if nothing else, the absolutes that could be proven were of great appeal to me in my transient spiritual state because of how concrete they felt. It seemed relatively infallible.
Slowly, I moved from broad agnosticism, to hard empiricism, and finally atheism. It was a natural progression. Until science could prove otherwise, spirits, gods, angels, demons, and life after death, etc. became non sequiturs. The inability to prove these things was absolute enough to make me feel secure and smugly superior: my life wasn’t going to be dictated by invisible beings and other things I couldn’t see. That just seemed stupid. Even if it was ugly, empty or devoid of hope, I was putting my faith in something concrete. I was taking truth on truth’s terms; that made me feel secure. But it’s all well and good to have beliefs and philosophies about death, until you start losing people you love.
Up to this point I’ve believed that once we die, there’s nothing after this. Zip, nada – just a complete cessation of consciousness, oblivion. Some may call that bleak; sure, it’s not romantic, but I don’t think it’s particularly grim, either. There’s no hell, no punishment or dwelling on our mistakes in life, but there’s no reward, no heaven, either. That philosophy has a host of other problems that I won’t go into in this post, because believe me, I wouldn’t mind there being a hell for serial killers, rapists and paedophiles, and I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of them escaping without some eternal consequence for the lives they’ve destroyed.
Two days ago my grandfather passed away a week after having a massive stroke. He was 96. Back in September, my grandmother passed away; she’d broken her hip several months before and had a stroke not long after that, and whiled away her last months of life in a nursing home, not sure of much going on around her. My mother lost both her parents within a four-month span. I can’t begin to imagine how much that must fucking hurt.
I got to see my grandma one last time before she died and it absolutely broke my heart. She was a waif of a thing, a shadow of her former self; eyes fluttering towards the ceiling, voice crackling like cellophane, barely a whisper. A lot of people said afterwards that she waited for me – she knew I was coming home for a visit, and I was the last family member she hadn’t seen. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Pop, but I did see him one last time at Christmas. He survived World War II, raced speed-boats at break-neck speed, saw six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren born into his family, and worked as a mechanic pretty much from the time he returned from the war and into the first few years of his nineties. He was quite healthy for a man his age. When Nan passed away, however, he began to deteriorate. I’ve always wondered at the phenomenon of long married couples passing within months of each other, the apparent urge to join them in the elsewhere, when such a place can’t be substantiated.
My grandparents aren’t the only people I’ve lost to death. My stepfather, father of my half-sister and -brother, died several years ago now, and I lost a very close friend of mine back in 2012. Each time someone close to me passed I wondered if perhaps it was my beliefs that prevented me from mourning the way others mourned. Don’t mistake me: I was devastated by these losses – even my stepfather, with whom I had a tumultuous relationship over the years, his passing shook me hard and made me re-evaluate our complicated history. But generally speaking, I’m not much of a crier. I’ve rarely felt tears to be an essential part of my process. I assumed it was that I’ve made my peace with the concept of death; understanding it’s a part of the natural order. I assumed it was just a sign of me being stronger and more logical than other people. I never want my tears to come off as insincere, nor my lack thereof as cold or apathetic. If nothing else, I figured the deceased wouldn’t be able to hear how much their sudden absence tore a hole in my heart. What was it worth?
What I never expected was my concrete, so-called logical ideas about death to be shaken. I expected my ideas to bring me comfort because of their cold rationality. But every time someone close to me died, I felt so conflicted. When you love someone, you want something good for them; you want their best traits, the better part of their lives to be somehow honoured or rewarded. The nostalgia of memory just doesn’t cut it. Part of you hopes there’s a heaven, or a place of peace and happiness; reincarnation; or something. My belief system had no room for this. What happened to my dead?
Little by little, experience has softened me. I began to see why people – even those who aren’t particularly religious or observant – cleave to utterances of their loved ones being in a better place. It gives them hope, not just for the deceased, but for themselves. The idea of nothingness, the acknowledgement of the absurdity of human endeavour relative to the vast indifference of the universe, can be pretty confronting. Personally, I don’t think choosing a lie for the sake of comfort has much value in theory, but in practice, I see it can be the difference between moving on and debilitating despair and hopelessness. But for me, this isn’t about comforting for myself: I feel myself softening because I hope there is somewhere, some life after all this, for Steve, Annie, and my Nan and Pop.
It’s funny to come back full circle, from absolute certainty, to ambiguity and a world of greys, to another kind of absolute certainty and then right back again to doubt and ambiguity. The reason I came to hate organised religion is the very reason I’ve begun to soften my perspective: dealing in absolutes shuts one’s mind from the ability to cope with conflict, grey areas (which make up probably 98% of life, I reckon) and the spanners life throws at you; and sets an eclipse on our heart that would bring about the death of hope.
I’ve been reconsidering my beliefs for the umpteenth time recently. I’m still an atheist, but part of me hopes reincarnation is real – because if human souls recycle and we’re born again, then at least there’s a chance, however minor, that I might get to meet my loved ones again in another form. I can never prove that idea, but hey, it’s a nice thought.