Dear Surly Amy,
My husband and I are atheists and we have raised our 3 children as atheists. As a youngster, my oldest forced my hand when it came to declaring myself as an atheist. He pushed me to examine my beliefs. He insisted we stop celebrating Christmas and rename it “Presents Day.” The guy is no hypocrite. I respect his intellectual integrity and willingness to look at the hard questions without rationalizing. This child had an existential crisis at age 6. My oldest is an adult now, and is doing well, yet he still struggles with his own mortality. How does one comfort a young child/young adult/themselves with regard to the finality of death? And the individuals (in)significance in the universe? Who among us doesn’t sometimes have fear and heart palpations at 3 AM when thinking about our own mortality?
This questions you raise immediately bring to mind a quote by Carl Sagan:
For me it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
Humans are aware of our own mortality and yes, it can be a difficult concept to wrap ones mind around in the wee hours of the night or even in the bright light of the daytime. We, every one of us, are going to die. That is a fact. Religions do a wonderful job of taking that fact and using it to weave a blindfold over the eyes of the faithful. Are those people happier? I don’t know. I suppose they are numbed to some of the pain and fear associated with losing a loved one or facing their own demise but I don’t think that the trade off is worth it at all. I agree with the words of Dr. Sagan and I would rather focus on the beautiful reality that all around us and the amazing statistical unlikeness of us even existing at all.
In the words of Richard Dawkins:
Excerpt from Chapter I, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,” of his 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow
To live at all is miracle enough.
— Mervyn Peake,
The Glassblower (1950)
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
So to me, the question is not how do we deal with the crisis of our own mortality but how do we deal with the tiny amount of time we are lucky enough to have? Live life to it’s fullest. Be grateful for the people you get to spend this wonderful tiny amount of time with and do the absolute best you can. Don’t spend your time focusing on the end of the path. Embrace the now.
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