Thursday, October 29, 2009

Catching Myself in a Classic Lie, Part 2

Continued from the previous post: Why did I write “He paints the sky with stars” on the Facebook page of a respected non-theist who died earlier this year?

First off, the line comes from the title of a song by Enya. I listen to a lot of Enya, on Rhapsody and Pandora, as well as in the car. There are days when a good dose of “Only If” is the one thing that can ward off creeping depression. Enya is the sort of music you either love or hate. It’s perfectly formulated, commercially viable Celtic/New Age. It does exactly what the genre is set up to do. It calms, it soothes, it puts your mind at ease.

During my days as a believing Christian, I heard plenty of ominous statements about New Age, mainly that it was a “gateway” to occult or satanic practices. People like Bob Larson said it was “trance-channeling” music; he linked New Age with Hinduism, Buddhism, transcendental meditation, mind control, brainwashing and subliminal programming, all of which – and much more – are believed by fundamentalists to be in direct opposition to scriptural Christian doctrine. The list goes on and on.
I don’t listen to enough New Age music to tell you if any of the more sinister allegations have any basis whatsoever. But I have listened to Enya enough to say that I discern no “spiritual agenda” of any kind in her music. It’s the vaguest sort of woo-woo. Believe what you want, it seems to say. It’s all good. You can sail away amid Caribbean blue china roses, experience storms in Africa, dream you dwell in marble halls, even follow the Sappho comet. On your way home, the memory of trees invokes the Celts … and vice versa.

“Paint the sky with stars” has lyrics very reminiscent of, and probably inspired by, the nursery classic “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” But the music is slow, ponderous, and more than a little sad. The first time I heard it, I thought “This must get played at a lot of funerals.” It’s a song of rest and transcendence.

I had listened to this song on the way home from work yesterday, and it was floating through my mind as I clicked Bill’s Facebook page to offer my birthday tribute.

What did I mean when I wrote that? Do I really think Bill’s spirit is “up there” with a little paintbrush and a palette, creating a starscape for his grandchildren to wish on? Or does the “he” refer to a sentient power that breathes life into dust and creates humans, and dazzles us with his creativity and artistry?

In the words of Lisa Loopner, that’s so funny I forgot to laugh. No, I support and honor Bill’s assertion that death’s prevailing characteristic is absence of life, and nothing else. Stars are billions of years old, at least, and many of them are just as dead as Bill. Where do we “go” when we die? Probably nowhere.


The view that death is not an ending, just a transitional phase, seems to be the one that predominates throughout history.


To quote Sam Harris (verbatim, this time):

The fact is that our intuitions are not always a reliable guide to the truth; in certain situations, they can be relied upon to be wrong. So why should we think that our inability/reluctance to conceive of our own nonexistence offers an indication of what happens after death?

[Please take some time and read the entire conversation between Sam and Andrew Sullivan – it rocks, as you might expect.]

In indulging the whimsical notion that the supremely rational and earthbound Bill has, in death, transformed into a sentient and creative spirit, I’ve simply proved that certain customs and thought patterns are hard to get around.

What does this mean for us non-theists? Are we selling out when we address the departed in the second person (“I miss you, Bill”)? Or when we give any indication of belief in an afterlife, however improbable? And what if Bill had told us a different story in that forum session, like “Could have been a dream, but I saw my ol’ grandpa, and he said ‘Don’t worry, boy, we’re all here. Grandma made a roast turkey with all the trimmins, and she’ll keep it warm for you!’”? What if Bill had wavered at that moment, and said the vision, or dream, or hallucination, had given him the assurance that his earthly mission would not end with his last breath, but carry forward (or upward, or outward, or thence to infinity and beyond, etc. etc.)? Would such a statement carry more weight, coming from someone we knew had never before yielded to such fancies? Or would the rest of us hard-noses have shaken our heads and said “Poor Bill, they must have given him a leeeetle too much Demerol.”

My conclusion, at the end of this very long train of thought, is:

That such statements and sentiments, with regard to the departed, are not reflections of things we know.

They are not even necessarily reflections of things we actually believe.

They are not reflections of things we assume third parties believe.

They are simply … things we say.

They are things we say because we have not collectively given ourselves the time or opportunity or thought to come up with a new vocabulary on this subject that fulfills the purpose of those time-honored but meaningless woo-woo words.

- We need something that honors the memory of the deceased. Actually, I think this one’s in the bag – sit in on any halfway decent memorial service (not to mention a perusal of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations) and you’ll hear some great oration, much of it quite spontaneous.

- We need something that comforts the survivor(s). This one is considerably trickier, because too often, the survivor who needs the comfort is us. I’m convinced that losing a friend, family member, or even a celebrity who made an impact, is the one thing that’s almost guaranteed to play with our heads and bring out our long-buried vulnerabilities. I’m willing to bet even Bill himself, and many of the hard-headed veterans of the forum, have caught themselves uttering such clichés as “He’s in a better place,” “She’s probably crackin’ jokes up there,” and “Your dad’s smilin’ down at you right now.”

I suppose we could say “Odds are, you’ll inhale some of her ashes sooner or later, depending on the wind currents,” or “One day an archaeologist will dig up your uncle’s remains and make a note of his quintessential 1970s wardrobe!” But somehow, the spiritual symbolism, however absurd, shopworn or rote, does more to comfort us.

We might as well accept it for now – while we continue to work on a more rational approach.

More to the point, though -- there is one perspective that won't force us to nudge our thinking into any new slots, because it's something we DO know:

Life is unpredictable and when we love someone, we are NEVER prepared to lose them.

My last conversation with Bill took place a day or two before his last trip to the hospital. He called me to confirm that I would be ushering the following Sunday, as I had been scheduled. It was the most mundane conversation imaginable. It shows two things: First, despite his faltering health, Bill was completely dedicated to the mission he'd taken up for himself. Second, it pays to be mindful of every encounter, no matter how insignificant. On the other side of that moment could be a wish that we'd given it the weight it deserved.


goodwolve said...

I don't think we sell out when we miss those that have died - we miss them, it is part of the human experience. I feel like I sell out when I blindly nod when people have said things to me about my parents being in a "better place" rather then just looking at them and saying "if you mean dead is better, I guess so." It is with the silence that I sell out, not with the missing.

Volly said...

Been there, too. Who wants to get up into the face of someone offering heart-felt condolences, with an ideological debate. But then you're left thinking, when, if ever, am I gonna take a stand? So much easier, and expected, to bend to the pressure and conform. Chances are, though, that the person offering the condolences doesn't even believe what they're saying -- they just assume YOU believe it.

Feel dizzy yet? :)

Al Penwasser said...

I really would have liked Bill.
While I certainly don't believe in the cloud-bound, harp-crazy, afterlife all draped in white (even after Labor Day! The horror...!), I hope there's something more. Something about being unable to either create or destroy energy...probably just ego talking when I believe that the essence of ME can't just be snuffed out in the blink of an eye forever.
Well, we won't know until it's time. In any event, I seriously doubt I'll be having an orientation interview with a man with a long white beard (maybe that's Santa Claus...?) or be forced onto a Purgatory Escalator.
By the way, I have four Enya CD's. I love her music.
Great post!

Clergy Guy said...

Whether or not we believe in an afterlife, it seems like the presence of those we love lingers with us and we continue to love them.

I'm sorry you lost your friend, and I'm glad he was in your life.