Guest Column by Edward Reid
The brief period of time I call my life is a personal passage between two vast and infinite unknowns, before birth and after death. Once I am birthed, I begin to die – the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Things fall apart at different stages. And no matter how much I meditate or pray or talk about it, death pursues me relentlessly. It’s the final act of my life. Death is the edge of consciousness. It sounds morbid, but it’s pragmatic. We live in a violent universe. There’s nothing peaceful about it.
Everywhere in the world, every minute of the day, death is occurring. So why devote time to something I have no control over? I live in a society where thinking about death is minimized. I stay busy, act, cling to the material, obsess about past events and potential fears, and invent and/or create. My actions, to a large degree, I hope, will live beyond me in a positive reflection of my conscience, compassion, and life. Aging humbles me and lowers expectations as I haven’t accomplished all that I’d like, so far.
Ernest Becker writes, “Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” So perhaps by giving myself a bit of immortality in whatever way I can, I feel I have some purpose?
Though I may temporarily shelter myself from it, the beast will appear, waiting patiently to devour my life. Oblivion is a frightening thought for me. And that’s why I stay busy.
I meditate on my life because of the mass shootings, the wars and the real potential of nuclear conflict, the mutations of diseases, and my aging that I see in the mirror hitting me rapidly, making it even more personal. How does prepae oneself for tragedy?
I question the problems behind why these situations are happening, but ultimately this is all about mortality. The deaths of others often spark my thoughts regarding this finality.
Although these deaths may be around me, I can compartmentalize them. However, compartmentalizing climate change and nuclear war are impossible.
I know men and women who have lost their families. And a couple of hundred years ago, the prominent British theologian and minister John Owen (1616 – 1683) would outlive all of his eleven children and wife.
With that kind of tragedy, it may be easier to hold onto a “simple” faith that there is a life after death. Perhaps that gives comfort in such trying times and helps the belief that those deaths had some meaning and purpose. Maybe or maybe not. Maybe there was more than that or less.
Death is the great equalizer, which may scare some more than others in our society of greed and envy. You will not take what you have with you when you go. You will die, and everything you have lived to collect will go on without you. This ending is there, and it’s not going away no matter how you try and avoid it. Such thoughts of life’s brevity have caused me to think about meaning and meaninglessness.
I remember at a young age reading through a Ripley’s pamphlet on mummies and grasping my existence. That thought sent sheer terror through my mind. What is that all about anyway? I will be dead just as they are, and that’s that. Becker adds to this and how life can be lived with such thoughts “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” That rumble was death.
Growing up in a religious household, I was skeptical. I wanted more than just a story that demanded I must believe in something based on faith. I was told to believe something, but then that something can often be manipulated into something it isn’t.
I am not fond of proselytizing any given religion. I enjoy reading about the various philosophies and religions. Buddhism is more of a moral philosophical tradition unlike the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Do I need religion or moral philosophy? Why? Is it based on insecurity and fear? In its purest essence for me, Christianity is about life after death. And I wanted to be comforted that this is not all there is. So, I developed a faith-based on my readings and search from biblical and non-biblical passages that supported my belief….my want of a faith by wiser people than me.
“I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 12 – 14
And Søren Kierkegaard writes, “And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.”
I’ve learned that man invents words and words are powerful tools.
I can find religious and non-religious quotes that are comforting to me. Then again, I ask who made the Bible or any sacred the final authority? All of them appears to come from inspired minds.
As a historian, I always want to ensure that I get my facts right. Truth is based on the facts. That is the quest in history. What are the facts? What is the evidence? I haven’t met any spirits of dead people yet. Or if I have, I haven’t recognized them as such.
We live by the stories we tell ourselves. Why do people risk their lives to carry on telling a false story? Perhaps because of hope of something better. Although many view the lie becoming the truth and the truth a lie. We have alternate truths and people who blindly follow cultish leaders in recent history. The 20thcentury showed the problem with cults. And Christianity, for a long time, was thought of as a cult. But cults tend to be temporary. Religions last for centuries, as does a faith.
We cling to our faiths in a violent universe. Whether resurrection or reincarnation or rebirth, believers want to be comforted with the idea that there is a better outcome to the harshness of life. I want another chance. And wanting another chance, I seek out wisdom both ancient and modern.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet says nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. And so, I gamble. Faith is a gamble. And if I am wrong, at least I can rationalize that I tried to lead a worthy life with a deep abiding respect for humanity and the philosophy of “love thy neighbor.” And for me, that’s an extraordinarily wise sentiment and perception of man’s existential aloneness and need for each other. Love thy neighbor births humility and humaneness.
And humility and humaneness are sorely needed today.