02 April 2012

A beautiful sentiment

One of the supposed benefits of religious belief is that it gives comfort to those whose loved ones have passed away. The thought that they will be reunited in the afterlife no doubt gives some ease to the crushing sense of loss felt by the bereaved. This is entirely understandable, and I will never mock a grieving person’s need to believe that one day, they will see their deceased wife, mother, brother, or friend once more.

But those who do not believe in the existence of an afterlife, who reject dualism and its concept of a mind or soul that survives our physical death, lack this comfort. They acknowledge that death is implacably final. They know that their last cry of “goodbye” to a lost loved one will not be assuaged with the possibility of a joyous “hello again”. Given this, why would anyone choose to disbelieve? I would like to think that it is because disbelievers like me would rather swallow bitter truths than sip sweet illusions. We draw strength and courage, if not comfort, from hewing to the principle that it is the very finiteness of a human life that makes it so precious. Since each of us only has one ride on this rollercoaster before its eternal termination, we should cherish every moment – and every person sharing our journey – while it lasts.

The brave stoicism of the disbeliever when faced with the death of a loved one is exemplified by author and science populariser Ann Druyan, widow of the late astronomer and educator Carl Sagan, who died in 1996 after a long battle with myelodysplasia. Druyan’s words below testify to the fact that disbelief in an afterlife, far from diminishing the value of our love for others, can actually enhance its worth by letting us see the special bond between two people for what it is – an amazingly lucky gift that was given to them just once, and when broken by death, never given again.

“When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me — it still sometimes happens — and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous — not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance… That pure chance could be so generous and so kind… That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time… That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful…

The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”


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