Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Faith Is the Name We Give to Our Secret Terrors

As if things weren't frustrating, infuriating, and depressing enough already, many people chose to spend the past year throwing tantrums every time a celebrity died.  I've been wondering whether more famous people have died in 2016 than usual, or entertainment media have made sure that we hear about them, but it doesn't matter.  Someone (a friend of a friend, not anyone I know personally) posted on Facebook yesterday that 96-year-old Richard Adams, best known as the author of Watership Down, had moved "to a higher plane," and then cursed the year 2016 for killing off so many sublime artistes.

I decided to chicken out, and not comment under the post that inspired it.  I decided not to rain on someone's funeral, even though the poster didn't know Adams personally.  I also didn't feel like taking the spiritual hate that such people indulge to show how awakened they are. (Or "woke"? WTF is that about, anyway?) This time. There will be other times.  Choose your battles.  I'll just post it here as a more general reflection.

I always wonder when people use jargon like "leaving this plane" as a euphemism for death. If we don't really die, if we really go on to another, possibly better place, what is there to be upset about -- except for those of us who are still stuck here? It's one reason why I doubt whether people who claim to do so really believe in personal or other immortality. C. S. Lewis once argued that everybody believes in immortality, so it must be true -- something like that, I don't have the quotation to hand. I immediately thought that it cut the other way: those who claim to believe that death is not The End don't really seem to mean it, they still see death as something fearful and final.  Even those who claim to believe that Heaven is their destination are, for some reason, less than eager to cross that lonesome river.  Very well, but they don't want anyone else to die either, no matter how aged, infirm, and suffering they may be.

Some years ago I audited a summer course in the philosophy of religion.  Only two or three other people had signed up for it, so the professor welcomed another participant.  The student I remember best was a young woman who seemed determined not to learn anything from the course, but to get her spiritual preconceptions confirmed; we had some lively exchanges.  I learned something from her, though not what she probably expected.  I noticed that she alternated between seeing death as a sign of spiritual failure (rather like the apostle Paul) on the one hand, and as a sign of spiritual advancement on the other (like the person who thought Richard Adams had left this plane, but was still really pissed about it).  I pointed this out to her, and she spluttered and thrashed around for a moment, but couldn't reconcile her contradictory views.  I believe she said that it was both.  That doesn't work.  The class moved on to other topics.

As Sappho so wisely wrote over 2000 years ago: We know death is an evil; otherwise, the gods would be mortal.  I can say that, atheist though I be.  But it's also inescapable.  Everybody dies.  We don't have to be happy about it, and I'm not, but it's annoying to see so many adults, their voices amplified in a chorus of panic, trying to deny human mortality.  If you scream and stomp your feet and hold your breath till your face turns blue, will you live forever?  Or as I did ask a couple of Facebook friends who anticipated that things would be better in 2017, did they mean that in 2017 nobody will have to die at all?  One replied, saying that only really terrible people would die.  The people he considered terrible, of course. Oh, my aching head.