Thursday, December 22, 2011

Keep on moving

The recent death of Christopher Hitchens, whose writing and intellect I enjoyed very much over the years, brought up a predictable line of discussion on the interwebs that focused on two questions: (1) was he going to have a deathbed conversion from a lifetime of atheism** to belief in a higher power? and (2) depending on the answer to the first question, was he, ultimately, in some sort of afterlife where he regretted (or reveled in) his lack of faith (or newfound faith)?

Neither of those questions hold much interest for me. The first seems rather insulting -- as if to think he would change the very core of who he was at the last moment out of convenience or fear. Indeed, in an interview with Anderson Cooper, Hitchens specifically rejected the notion of a deathbed conversion, going so far as to say that the only possibility of such an event would be if his medication caused him to lose his mind. And the second question, obviously, presumes an afterlife -- an idea for which which I am not onboard, not out of any sort of militancy; I just can't wrap my brain around it, and I can't "believe" in something that simply does not compute for me.

But, despite all that, the second question got me wondering nonetheless, just in a different direction: about how belief or non-belief in an afterlife affects one's ability to "move on" when grieving the death of a loved one. Being a "here and now" sort of guy, as well as a libertarian-ish sort, I don't care whether you believe in an afterlife (or a god, for that matter, but we are focused on the afterlife question, which doesn't hinge necessarily on belief in a deity). That is your gig. Rather, I am curious how that belief, or lack thereof, affects your life in the here and now. Does it get you to a better psychic dimension in terms of coping with, and overcoming grief, or does it simply prolong the suffering?

I think the reflexive response that most believers in an afterlife would have is that it gives them great comfort to know that their dead friend/relative is "in a better place" rather than simply "gone." But I wonder. "Gone" is stark, but it is also: (a) absolutely factual in terms of your ability to interact with that person in *this* lifetime, and (2) because of its starkness, the first step toward "moving on" in the here and now. The believer treats the dead loved one not as "gone," but as living in a place where he or she cannot interact with the living and, so, one's thoughts about the deceased are not merely confined to happy memories, but rather necessarily extend to suppositions and mental machinations regarding just where the person is ("heaven" or otherwise) and what the person is currently doing. As a result, there is not merely the loss of death to deal with, but the ongoing separation of the living from those "living" in the afterlife. You haven't just lost your son/daughter/wife/husband/friend. You've lost them and they are living somewhere else where you can't see them in this life. And imagine the even greater, more awful, complications in the case of suicide; some religions do not believe in a happy afterlife for those poor souls. What then for practitioners of such a faith who have lost a loved one to suicide, and now have to cope with thoughts of so much more than just the loss in the here and now?

Ouch. What a burden. It's not one I care to bear. In fact, it seems unduly painful. When a friend of mine died a few years back, it hurt, but I can't imagine how I would have moved past that moment if I thought he were taken away to be elsewhere where I and his other friends could not see him. It would be as if he'd been shipped off to North Korea.

Instead, yeah, I miss my friend, but I have, for lack of a better term, "compartmentalized" his death. He was "then"; he is not "now." None of my "now" thoughts include him. Sure, I think about good times we had. I even occasionally think how much he might have enjoyed something-- a band, an album, whatever-- from the present, but I never think about how or what he is doing right now. He isn't doing anything. He's dead.

Harsh? Yeah. But I have moved on. I suspect I wouldn't have done so very well if I believed in an afterlife.

And I am not claiming to have all the answers on this question. I am just offering a point of view that you may not have considered. Like I said, I don't care where you are at on this issue. You might, for instance, say that it gives you great comfort and even a thrill to envision the reunion you will have in the afterlife with your dead loved one. My only answer to that is that it has little to do with the here and now, which is my concern. It strikes me as a horrible shame to spend one's days focused more on the ethereal, unknowable aspects of the future than on the issues of the present day. Life is wonderful; live it.

I keep returning to this theme, but it's a short time we have on the planet. Do your best. And that may not be possible if you get hung up too long on anything that, ultimately, you need to get past.

**A short digression: I am not an enormous fan of the word "atheist" as a label because it describes a person based on what he or she does *not* believe in -- a very odd notion, if you ask me -- but it is such common parlance at this point that I have used it here. Any "atheists" that I know believe so fervently in so many things (often so many *different* things, depending on the person, but, almost always, in science and reason) that it seems like an insult to label them in the negative based upon what they do *not* believe in, as if their core is a black hole of non-belief in anything.

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