This is the second in a series of posts about my growth in learning to challenge conventions, explore the world of religion, science, spirituality, philosophy, and more. In these posts, I am candid about my experiences and thoughts on these topics. I hope it generates conversation in a productive and civil way, not in a divisive way. I consider my role as a writer to be somebody capable of broaching heavy topics in a gentle way. I hope I’ve done so here. The following parts will be posted over the next few days. Part 1 is here; Part 3 is here.
I want there to be more to this life. I will be 25 in a couple of months, where I will celebrate a revolution around the Earth without my sister for the second time, but it will be more clear to me this time around that I will never see my sister again.
What does forever mean? To somebody that subscribes to a belief system with an afterlife, forever is relatively short, coming immediately once our bodies go cold. To somebody that doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but rather believes that our consciousness – and therefore our soul – is the result of trillions of neurons interacting with one another in our brain matter, forever is, well, forever. This dichotomy doesn’t really matter much, but I wish it felt more satisfying.
I am trained in the jargonistic, precise language of science but my brain’s natural way of thinking is romantic and spiritual. In that way, I feel like an artist, though it took me many years to actually call myself that. Surely, there is something more to life, but that something has to be logical. My trained mind refuses to accept something simply because it sounds nice, but my natural mind wants to feel connected to something bigger.
I don’t believe in miracles nor do I believe many Biblical stories. Then I walk in a park with Duncan. I stare at a leaf and realize that leaf, utilizing the sun’s energy and its inherent chlorophyll, creates energy, essentially sustaining its life force in a way that humans could never fathom doing. That product of millions of years of evolution in a universe that is billions of years old feels like a miracle. When we remove ourselves from our close, distracted lens, we can observe the sheer beauty in the existence of the world around and within us, of time, of evolution, of humanity, and even of science for figuring that out. What is a miracle? Is a miracle something that occurs that breaks the laws of nature? Or could it be a product of the laws of nature, like that leaf? A miracle is defined by our present perspective of the universe around us; for some of us, that is a religious lens, and for others, it is one dominated by science.
My sister’s existence is over. I know in the depths of my mind and my heart that I will never see, hear, or feel my sister’s physical presence ever again. That is a scientific fact. She will never again be alive in the future like she was in the past. I realize how cold-hearted this sounds, but I refuse to deceive my mind by using language that doesn’t properly convey the truth, and I feel that it is only a disservice to myself to view it in any other way. More than anything, I want to believe that in the immediate moments following my death, I will be embraced in paradise by the arms of loved family members and pets that preceded me in death, just as hopefully every one of them felt in their moments after life. Most of all, I want to believe my sister is at peace, and I believe she is. I want to believe in the Heaven that I was raised to believe in. But belief is not something we can will into existence. Like the Red Pill in the Matrix series, once we’ve shed the beliefs of our young or previous selves, there is no going back, at least to that exact same prior belief system.
I should rewind. Forgoing a belief in Heaven is not something that people willfully decide one day. Our beliefs change and grow due to the circumstances that happen in our lives on a day-to-day pace. I don’t think we necessarily “choose” our beliefs; I think our beliefs are based on the neural pathways we form by the way we think about things and the way we think and perceive life (I could and will probably digress into these ideas at some point). After my experience freshman year, where I saw somebody who decidedly believed he was living life in the correct way with no apparent self-awareness that the very people he believed he was living “better” than also probably felt that way about him, something in my view of the world changed drastically overnight.
The idea of a hell had scared me since I was a kid. I’d commit some heinous crime – like chewing gum in school which was breaking the rules or telling my parents I finished my homework when I hadn’t completely finished it yet – and would be flooded with guilt. As a child, I believed small “wrongs” like that would lead me to Hell. (To be clear, my parents did not raise me in this way. They didn’t intentionally scare me, yell at me, or any of that. I don’t know what caused this thought process! I can’t track it in my memory bank. Pops and momma, y’all did fine.) This notion that small wrongs in the grand scheme of things would accrue, and thus lead us to Hell, was one that I couldn’t really fathom once I got older. It became clearer and clearer to me that Hell was either reserved only for the worst of the worst, truly evil people that weren’t capable of emotions, or for everybody that wasn’t damn near perfect. If it was reserved for anybody that strayed even a bit from God’s light, that didn’t feel like the God that was supposedly so loving. And if it was reserved only for the worst, that didn’t lend itself to encouraging an extraordinarily pious life that obeyed every edict in the bible – especially the ones that didn’t jibe with my moral code.
It occurred to me that I wasn’t comfortable with the concept of Hell. As I saw more of the world, learned more about the brain, and contemplated religion, morality, philosophy, and science more, it seemed that the world wasn’t black or white, and establishing anybody as wholly good or evil wasn’t such a simple task. Of course, to a monotheistic religion’s God, that wouldn’t be a problem, where he/she/it determined somebody’s worth simply by what they define is good or evil. Philosophy tries to answer this: Is something good because a god defines it as such? Or is something good because it is inherently good, therefore a god views it as such? Put more concretely: Is kindness good because the Christian God and Jesus say it is? Alternatively, the same question can be asked of evil. Is all murder bad? Looking at this abstractly, the line of questioning doesn’t make a lot of sense, but when put it in concrete terms, it does. Is murdering somebody that is going to murder one of your loved ones “evil?”
I also thought about the alternative, where things are good and bad because God has ordained them to be. Wouldn’t it eliminate the kindness of an act if we only do something because we know it to be good, as in because God says so? If I begrudgingly give money to a homeless person, ughhh, because I know I should, is it the same thing as cheerfully doing it and recognizing their worth as a human is not defined by their economic value? From a bystander’s perspective across the street, the same act looks exactly the same, but the thought-process in the donor’s head is definitely not. Are they equally as good?
Let me be very honest: one of my greatest wishes is that there is life after this one. I so desperately want to believe that my sister’s soul, her energy, her spirit are around, not just in quirky circumstances that remind me of her, but her true soul. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a skeptic; through my desire to become a doctor and scientist, I wanted to examine and understand the universe from a scientific perspective, but I also wanted to influence the world in other ways, which required spiritual exploration.
I haven’t completely renounced a belief in spirituality or an afterlife. The reason I haven’t is precisely because of that feeling I explained in above where the wonders of the world I observe in a park with Duncan overwhelm me with the feeling that I am connected to something greater, something ethereal, something forever, something almost religious.
Part 1 is here.
Part 3 is here.