There's nothing like a big unhealty dose of acute bronchitis to get you contemplating lack of a future. Reality, so called, sharpens to an almost unbearable sequence of images, almost all of them surreal, such as leaving the doctor's office and stopping off at the health food grocer's, there only to be accosted by a scruffy looking customer who apologizes in order to catch your attention. What does he want, I ask. "Are you a Christian?" Hesitant, I ask myself, what is this, a come-on? A guy I know in my profession, a devout Catholic who once told me I could have as clients all the nuns in the archdiocese if only I'd convert, regularly enjoys making fools of street people, e.g. telling the pan-handlers seeking money for lunch, "I'll take you to a nearby restaurant," knowing they'll almost invariably beg off, some with honest admissions they're only seeking the cash for liquor or beer.
Feeling lousy, I couldn't think of anything to say except "No, I'm not," adding, in a cold voice, "and I am not religious, either." Had I felt better I would have said something blatantly atheist, but as it was, I only wanted to be left to my own devices. I just wanted to get rid of him, fast. Bob Dylan in a movie made the sound-over point that American capitalism uses fear to get us to buy things we don't really need, but I think he copped that notion from Burroughs, who said that our government and that nebulous thing we called, in the 60s, "the Establishment," put out conflicting messages ("believe this, don't believe this") in order to put us in a perpetual state of conflict, such that we buy things we don't need, thinking they'll distract us from our fears. Then, too, Eldridge Clever said that we would never have another revolution so long as the supermarkets stay open.
Dis-ease does something else to you, too: it heightens awareness of the truths of atheism, including the explanation that we are not conscious of life before birth, nor will we be conscious of it after death. Also, that the moment of birth is the time we begin to die. Dylan said that, too. One also finds less hostility to Christians who say that they're praying for you. Burroughs said "Pray in one hand, shit in the other; see which one fills up faster." Knowing from my awful cough, wheezing, and spitting gunk into tissue, at least three of my clients this week have said, "We're praying for you." I could set them straight, telling them, for example, that actual studies of prayer for seriously ill hospital patients showed not that prayer helped them but that it caused the prayed-for patients to die in greater numbers. But when you are seriously ill, you are not exactly in a mood to pick quarrels with people. And all of the drugs I've been taken have rendered me ineffective in debate.
Facing death is harrowing for some. I hope I can emulate the great Christopher Hitchens, dying of a brain tumor, incurable. I hope I can go out like he did, without retreat to belief, especially belief in that other country from which no one returns. But will I? Will I have that courage. To me, religion preys on people more than it prays for them. Like the Consul in John Huston's film of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, I would like to believe but I can't. The scene of the Consul going into a cathedral and staring up at one of those waxy-faced Madonnas so prevalent in Mexican churches especially, is pure John Huston (the director of the film). In interviews, the atheist filmmaker said he wanted to believe but could not, that he actually envied those who could. He had emphysema and eventually died of it. I hope my acute bronchitis goes away soon without putting my lights out just yet. But I ain't gonna pray it away. If I die after their prayers, they can always say God works in mysterious ways. There's no mystery to me. You're born, you live, and you die. Life is what you make of it, and you don't need deity to get there.
I have recently been through some severe health crises. I had renal failure and pneumonia. At one point I was certain I was dying. All I thought of was getting help from my medical professionals. The whole idea of dying was very matter of fact. I lost two days of my memory I'll never get back. Never did it occur to me to have a conversion to religion.
I am very sorry to hear about this, Marcus. I can certainly sympathize, as I am just getting over acute bronchitis, and the horrendous coughing bouts had me gasping for air and keeping me up all night. I almost wished I was dead. Hope you are getting over your own period of distress. At least you did not summon a priest for "extreme unction." (What a curious term for such a silly bit of nonsense. One suspects that the priest is really hoping for a new will leaving all your possessions both real and personal to the Ratzinger.)
I'm sorry about what you had to go through Marcus. I hope you are doing much better now!
'Living' with depression I scare myself with thoughts of my mortality, it usually happens at night when I am settled into my nice warm bed and everything is silenced around me. I feel the smallness of my life compared to the whole universe and the Earth itself. The thoughts and questions of will I be lucky or will I suffer on that destined day, will it be sooner or later, natural or otherwise. smh I am morbidly curious by it but at the same time the blood seeps from my gums and my skin shivers with a chill. I am reminded of something Penn Jillette said I am not sure if he is the originator or if he was quoting but it was something like 'Are you afraid of 1860?' when ask about his mortality and if he feared death. Someone else had joked though I forget whom said it but it helps me feel a little more grounded that 'I am not afraid of death but of the act of dieing...death is final.' It helps hearing the same thoughts come from others, in the end I think to know that one is not alone in their mind's turmoils is kind of healing.
Hi Jenn, I suffer from anxiety and sometimes a little depression (I'm on meds!), but the worrying about dying for me is I want to go before my kids, and I want that to be when they're much older. They are 18 and 20, and I know they still need me.
I know no one gets to choose, but I agree with you about it being healing that others also worry, and also EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE has to do it. I try really hard to just make each day as enjoyable as possible and try not to think about it. I try and think of something pleasant just before I fall asleep.
Anyone who is not afraid of 1860 is due for a surprise: somewhere on the face of the earth people are living in the 19th century, and certain wars being fought as I speak are akin to our own Civil War (or, as my conservative friend likes to put it, the War of Northern Aggression). At the subatomic level, as one version of quantum reality has it, we are all linked, particle to particle, an implicate order, but we are infinitely connected not just in space but in time. It could even be said that some people in 2012 are acting as if the electric light had not been invented. Some Muslims are living in the 8th century. Or earlier.
Put in that perspective is intriguing and I see it as terrifying that there are cultures that live present time as if it were a distant past yet can reach out and touch a modern living place with destructive force. That said I love the idea that what energies we are built from never die and that is by far more awesome then any cloud god could bring to the table, I just wish I could retain a conciseness to explore along with it.
I offer you an article I wrote for the Humanist titled 'Death and the Skeptic'. I wrote it with people like you in mind.
Hiram, beautifully written. THanks.
Beautiful piece Hiram, thank you!
When I was really young, and my parents were forcing me to go to church, I use to worry about death all the time. Since becoming an atheist I hardly ever consider death. I think the focus religion places on death is extremely unhealthy and makes it easier for people to not get as much out of life as they should because they buy into the myth that real happiness doesn't happen until death.