This is a post about my Mom. It’s not intended to distress family members — I think I’ve written it with a modicum of sensitivity and tact — but it may. If you think you may be offended by my views on the implications of religious belief as they pertain to mortality, best to stop reading now, instead of making a scene at the funeral later. If, however, you’re willing to risk it, or you just want to know where I’m coming from, please read on.
Facebook friends will already know that my Mom passed away last week. It wasn’t unexpected — she hadn’t been well for a long time, and I’m glad she’s not in the pain and the frame of mind that she was in. I’d already done a lot of the emotional work and the ‘letting go’, but I was still surprised at how tender I felt that first day; I felt the fragility of my body, my heartbeat, the delicate chemistry of my consciousness. I walked and moved gingerly, as one does at the beginning of a cold. I’d always lived in a world where my mother existed, and now I didn’t.
It must have been a long time since we really talked, what with her being ill for such a long time. My memories of her come back in pieces. I’ll remember something she said, a conversation we had, something she taught me. If we went to McDonalds, we had a ritual where I’d wind up the straw, and she’d flick it with a loud crack! All with the most blasé expression on our faces. It’s much funnier if it’s your Mom. As I said on Facebook, “My mom was a great person. She always encouraged me to develop my mind and my talents. She loved me. And she taught me to shop.” She really was amazing, and I’m really going to miss her.
Subsequent days have been fine. I may feel different at the funeral (jet-lagged), but for now I feel like I’ve bounced back. In particular, I feel no desire to revert to the comforting myths of the religion of my youth. Quite to the contrary — when someone wrote that Mom was in a ‘better place’, I felt a quiver of very mild exasperation.
This has raised a question for me, though. I’ve often heard that stories of an afterlife serve to ‘comfort’ believers in times of death. So why are the religious members of my family so glum? Of course, we’re all sad because we’re going to miss her. But among all the condolences and the contacts I’ve heard and read, there has been precious little optimism (so far). Why are they expressing sadness at all?
They ought to be delighted! Right now, Mom’s wearing a robe, padding around in little white slippers, waiting to be taken to some kind of veil thing where she can give the handshakes and passwords. Whereupon she will be ushered into a bright white place with tasteful furniture, there to be with my father, her sisters, parents, Jesus, and everyone, for all eternity.
I believed in that story, and I talked with other believers for years, so I think I know the mindset pretty well. When you believe in the supernatural stuff, there’s always some vacillation between certainty and doubt. It comes in cycles. You can have a doubting period, but then you pump yourself up with faith until you’re ‘strong’ again. Maybe some people don’t let themselves doubt, but I’m sure many believers are familiar with what I’m describing.
For me, the conflict ended when I realised that the evidence for gods was poor. The concept of a ‘spirit’, or a little ghost inside of us, was equally unsubstantiated. The sensible explanation was that our brains were the things that produced the sensations of cognition and perception, and when the brain died, perception would simply stop and we would experience nothing. I wasn’t fond of this conclusion (and I’m still not), but I found it to be the explanation that best fit the facts. You could say I ‘took the hit’, and accepted its implications for my life.
As a result, I’ve accepted my Mom’s passing with an equanimity that I couldn’t have mustered in my believing days. I was taking all my time going between belief and doubt. Someone who believes in heaven and an afterlife is just dodging the inevitable conflict. They can’t do the work of accepting the finite nature of human existence because they think they’re going to live forever. Their religion keeps them from accomplishing this very important task of adulthood. They are prevented from growing up.
Me, I’m waking up today and feeling grateful. I’m enjoying all the sensations my body feels. I realise that my life is a tiny blip in an eternity that will go on without me, and I feel happy and amazed that I get to be here on this day that will never come again. I’m tasting food. I’m enjoying the touch of a sweetheart. I’m the guy you saw riding the bicycle too fast, shouting “I’M ALIIIVE!”
For so we are. All of us here today are alive. Let’s get out there and do it.