Friday, October 25, 2013

How Do Atheists Deal With Death?

The only way to speak of death is flippantly. Death is what makes life ironical – it eludes you when you want it the most, and seeks you out when you desire it the least.
-Krishna, before he became immortal from the novel Govinda by Krishna Udayasankar
Occasionally a piece will appear online talking about the lack of meaningful insight atheists have regarding death. Broadly speaking, the pieces take one of two tacts: atheists either have the tools they need to deal with the issue of death, or those tools are inadequate. Most recently a piece on the Huffington Post by Ali A. Rizvi has taken the position that atheists have tools adequate to the task. Rizvi explains a sense of continuity for a deceased loved one that is not dependent on that person being somehow “alive” in the afterlife.

Rizvi speaks of the continuation of the atoms that make up the person (or “worm food” as Texas Representative Mike Conaway recently opined,) the memories we have of that person, the continuance of our DNA in offspring and relatives, and even the possibility of multiverses where we might be called into existence again.

Whatever poetry or comfort an atheist might take from these ideas, they are all meaningless to one dealing with the loss of a loved one. Rizvi is not looking at the problem as one in which an atheist is comforting another’s loss, he looks at it as the way in which atheists comfort themselves. Rizvi admits this when he says, “Processing a horrific experience like the loss of a loved one using rationality and logic does help when you're trying to make sense of things, but not as much during those times you're feeling helpless and emotionally vulnerable.”

The blunt truth of it is that atheists do not have an “answer” for the death the of a loved one that makes it less painful to bear. No one does. As humans, we see the death of an older person as often easier to bear than the death of a child, because we can see a life well lived as better than one in which all potential is wasted. The death of a person, even a child, with a painful, terminal illness can be seen as a relief from the suffering and from the emotional toll care of such a person entails.

Through such rational calculations, we can sometimes dull the pain of loss but this kind of rationality and logic does not answer the question we really want answered, which is “Why?”

Why were twenty children and six adults senselessly murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary school?

Why do people die of cancer and other awful diseases?

Why is there so much suffering in the world?

Rationality and logic only gets us so far in answering these questions because the questions are poorly phrased. There is no “why.” In asking these questions we are attempting to ascribe a motive to an uncaring universe, and there is no motive. The universe just is, and we endure. Whether we comfort ourselves through pious lies or somehow accept the grim reality, the fact is we ultimately all have to deal with the reality of pain and loss, unless we are somehow lucky enough to precede all our loved ones into death.

We endure the pain and keep moving, until we ourselves die.

The real question that needs to be answered is not how atheists respond to death, but how we respond to another who is dealing with death. How do we comfort and support the living when they are grieving? Logic and rationality only go so far in answering this question, and I believe they fall far short. We need to better understand the nature of comfort, if we are to answer this question. When a child falls and skins a knee, a good parent holds them, tenders to their needs and sits with them as they cry. We tell them that someday, their knee will be better, with just a little scar.

The key, obviously, is compassion and love, (two words Rizvi does not use in his piece) not logic and reason. The key to compassion is to recognize that the experience of losing a loved one can only be dealt with by the person feeling those emotions at the time. As human beings we have empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of another, and we need to learn to trust in our empathy and develop it. As a friend, all we can do is comfort a person in pain, hold them, cry with them, feel with them and ultimately share their pain, making some small part of it your own. No one should have to bear loss and pain alone.

This is why we bring ready to cook lasagnas and shepherd’s pies to the homes of those facing such loss. We call these dishes comfort foods for a reason. We laugh and cry and remember the good times and the bad and we allow the person in pain to lean on us as they get used to a life absent their loved one. We give them our strength, our love and our compassion. It might not be enough, but it is all we can do.

Facing death is not about the philosophical and religious battles concerning our willingness to engage in the fantasies of gods and heavens versus the twin poetries of entropy and nihilism. Instead, it is about coming together to help each other navigate the terrors and wonders of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment