|Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Mortality is a sobering thought. Immortality is the insight of the inebriated.
My wife and I have known Peter for over 15 years. He was in a drowning accident. He apparently had a stroke, and was in the water face-down for 20 minutes before being found and given CPR. Knowing him pretty well, we thought he might have attempted suicide. He lost a young son many years ago by drowning, and the loss of a child is one of the most tragic of experiences, or as some claim, the most tragic.
We were having lunch (at the same restaurant where he dined with members of his church after Sunday services) with others who knew and cared about him, when we were told he died. He was 73. Both my wife and I had serious discussions with him over the years. We attended his wedding to, and the funeral of, his second wife. His obit was in the paper. His surviving sons were listed, (but not his imaginary friend Jesus, who died with him.)
There's a reason for mentioning Peter on this site. I wrote a letter to him once, critical of religions, and he being a religious man, replied with his objections and reasons why he was a believer. I shared his letter with WizenedSage, who wrote a commentary about it, which was published on this site ( http://new.exchristian.net/2015/05/god-must-not-be-tested.html ).
Peter was a very smart man, a graduate of Boston University. Those who knew him will tell you he was a gentleman, a sweet guy, and a substitute teacher. He hand made puppets, which he used to educate and entertain small children. But he was also an emotionally insecure and troubled man, seeking solace in his religion and in the companionship of others. Just a few months ago, we drove him to doctor appointments. When my wife went to pick up his medication reﬁll, the info with it described it as anti- depressive.
Playing with his faith, I remember a dozen years back asking him, "How did Noah get those animals like the polar bears and bison back to where they came from?" He answered, "Someday we'll know." Members of his church will tell us, "Well now he knows;" though there is no "he" to know. He went to his death, and they probably will too, never knowing the Noah story is a fairy tale.
I noticed nobody else at the lunch mourned more than my loving wife. And I noticed something else which seemed to escape everyone but me, the lone unbeliever: A woman bluntly said, "Well, now he's in heaven." I've asked myself about those words. I've heard them before, and couldn't explain why I’m disturbed by them. Now I wonder: Is this how they'd handle my demise if I were a believer like them? Would living my life as myself have no meaning, since the "heaven" thing will erase everything else about it? That's it, the meaning to my entire life - something fulﬁlled when arriving in their after-death fantasy land, no different a "meaning" for it than for any believer? That's it? Is that all there is? Does anybody truly believe it?
I don't know what those who knew him thought was the meaning of his life. Nobody mentioned the subject. And I suspect, few saw behind the person they saw him as being. We went to his church for a celebration of his life. Once again, my thoughts turned to a book written in the early l970s. Although I’ve forgotten the exact title and author, at the time I read it because its title intrigued me. I was raised with the religious belief of an after-death life as a given which nobody questioned. But this book posed the question: What if there's no afterlife? Page after page told of why there isn't any. The author asks, once we have a reality-based understanding of death, how, without religious ceremonies, do we conduct funerals? In one chapter, he considers alternatives for those who did not in their lives subscribe to an eternal afterlife belief, and those attending who also do not. His solution: a celebration of that person's life. Here I was so many years later, sitting in a Baptist church, attending a "celebration of life" among people who do not know a non-believer invented it!
He answered, "Someday we'll know." Quite a few speakers had very good memories of Peter, fond meetings, cute anecdotes to share and praise for his quirkiness and open-hearted caring. Nobody talked about eternal rewards and holiness; the emphasis was on his personality and effect on those who knew him (and maybe wished they had known him better). The service seemed more an opportunity for a feel-good gathering than a mourning for a lost friend.
What happened to their sense of loss and mourning? Someone created this fantasy substitute to mourning the death of a familiar human being, with the "he's in heaven now" attitude. I ﬁnd that attitude pathetic and unbearably inane. And yet this doctrine is preached as the ultimate purpose of human life. And why not? Those at the table believe it is not the life of Jesus, but his death, which is the meaning for his life, and theirs. When we recognize this fact, we see clearly why their religion is a death cult. The value, the purpose, of this Lamb of God, is the value of livestock raised for slaughter.
Peter was a devoted active member of the Christian Right. Church became his family. As a member of a tightly bound group, he was open to perceiving its sacred values as under attack, (Many, even more devoted, to Islam, are exploding themselves to death.) I see him as what is known as a "devoted actor,” part of a religious movement. Would his life, according to his fellow true believers, have no "meaning,” no "purpose," without such devotion?
What's "meaning” all about? I should care, already? Some outspoken individuals confess they're still trying to "ﬁnd myself." I don't think Peter ever did. It's understandable: It isn't only through reality, but by self-perception, that we interpret and place ourselves in the world, in life. For much of my life I, like Peter, saw myself as "different" and shunned by others. I also had low self-esteem, low self-conﬁdence. After all, at the age of 14, I did join a strict monastic community - another cult of "special destiny," with its "sacred values" and "profound meaning." There, I was literally ready to die "for Jesus." There at last, I was a member of a "family," to the extent that my individuality was nearly obliterated. That was 64 years ago. I got the feeling that Peter, like me then and there, felt he could never live up to his God’s expectations, and there's the tragedy.
So yes, I can personally understand where Peter and members of ISIS (and human rights movements) are coming from. I too was caught in that web .The "sacred values" he accepted and I soon rejected are used to exploit our vulnerabilities and lack of self-esteem, as they are used to exploit children in the same position. The religion pushers, addicts themselves, begin by making you untrusting of your own instincts and judgments, substituting their dogmas for what your conscience tells you is true and logical. These "greater than yourself” and "special destiny values," are traditional psychological manipulations.
In religions as we know them, our lives are merely a preparation for death. Far from giving our individual lives meaning and signiﬁcance, religion trivializes them in light of their promised after-death rapturous eternity. They teach that the meaning and purpose of life for you as an individual, is the meaning they decide it to be. Far from being the master of your fate, you become a servant to their determination of your fate.
If you leave religion and seek alternative "meaning" or "purpose" to your life, be warned: The exploiters are lying in wait. Stand on your own two feet and take responsibility for yourself. Don't relinquish it to others to make serious personal decisions for you. Be an individual, for there is no one else exactly you. You must live and die with yourself, so make yourself comfortable while navigating the world of problems, complexities, heartaches, the losses, laughter, failures and disappointments with yourself and others. Relish all of the discoveries to be found in living life every day. There are no absolute truths, absolute goals, no sacred and without moral error texts to guide you. Don't self-treat your problems using ancient books of sacred medicine. You must create your own meanings and purposes. The other choice is to not be yourself.
What is my meaning in life? It is to be myself, to love my wife, my kids, to honor ﬁdelity, friendship, to be a nuisance, to raise hell. And there is...music and romance, both intermarried. Most of us don’t consider the question at all. To some authors, writing is meaning. To Eubie Blake, who lived to be 100, Jazz is life. Louis Armstrong said, "If you have to explain jazz, you don't get it." If you have to explain what life means, you don't get it either. "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun" - Katherine Hepburn. "One has to resign oneself to being a nuisance if one wants to get anything done."- Freya Stark
You can make your own meaning. Suggestions: join peace movements, losing your identity that way, if you insist on being part of a "larger whole," or picket for moral causes, if that's your thing. Rescue people drowning. All the "band of brothers" things don't have to be destructive. Keep your conﬁdence in yourself and don't let go of your individuality of conscience. Join the family at ex-Christian - a harmless family (except maybe in the mentalities of Christians). Don't get stuck in trying to please everybody. As one man said: People worry about how they will appear to others when, in fact, others don't think much about them.
Forget about the "meaning" and "purpose" of life. Live it. Do you know what I mean?