I have a friend, who was once my downstairs neighbor, here in Wilmington. We shall call her Claire. She does not know that I am writing this, yet would certainly recognize her unique story if she happened to stumble across this blog. Claire had to move away from the apartment that was underneath mine, back to her parents’ home in the North, because of a host of medical problems that have dogged her since birth. In the last few years they have worsened significantly, taking away her ability to work or live independently, leaving her frequently bedridden and in pain. She has difficulty walking, eating, breathing, and sleeping, is subject to regular migraines, allergies and sporadic infections, and requires constant trips to the emergency room when one of her ailments threatens her safety and demands immediate care. She takes myriad daily medications, always subject to change as her body develops adverse reaction to them. The worst part of all of this is that her doctors, the many, many of them that she has been through, do not know precisely what causes her condition.
As humans are social creatures and we live, at least in the West, in a digital age, my friend has established a web page through an online service called CaringBridge that caters specifically to the chronically and severely ill. Through it, she constantly updates all those who care to know about her condition. Her resolve and good cheer, given her truly appalling luck in the genetic lottery, is remarkable—almost obscene, really.
Claire’s secondary (or perhaps primary; it’s difficult to tell) reason for using this web service is to connect with other severely—frequently terminally—sick people and to share the attendant sense of community derived from living with all manner of truly malign afflictions. It might seem peculiar (or even ghoulish) to the healthy to surround oneself with the imminent death of new friends, but that is what Claire does.
I suppose that all of the above is merely a preface. Claire maintains her good cheer in the face of pain and fatigue and illness, tragedy and loss, through constant reference and recourse to her faith in a loving God. She uses an acronym (I do not think it is her invention); “F.R.O.G.”: fully rely on God, to explain her overall attitude toward her misfortune, and that of those who she meets and loses with a frequency that would almost certainly sap the spirit of most of us.
I hope that it does not make me seem unfeeling to declare that I think what she believes to be eleven flavors of absurd. Her constant requests that we pray for her newfound friends—frequently children—that God might relieve them of their afflictions leaves me strangely wondering why anyone might expect reprieve from the kind of God that created childhood cancers in the first place. I could oppose faith in a loving God—particularly in such circumstances—from so many rational angles that I might instead lose the argument from a paralysis born of too many options.
But this isn’t really about that, at least not exclusively. On a certain level, I envy Claire’s faith, envy it intensely. Were I to be in perpetually ill health, still in my 20s, I know that I would not have her good cheer, or the inner nature and acquired belief that supports it. I would have a difficult time getting around my bad luck, ultimately because that is all I would know it to be. No redemption. No afterlife. No celestial bargains or plans or purposes. Nothing beyond shitty genes and a short, painful life. That is what I would be left to deal with in her shoes.
It has occurred to me that perhaps this is not so; that reduced to a particular level of physical helplessness, I might find some kind of belief, the “no atheists in foxholes” version of the inner life. That I do not think so is not something that I take as a mark of intellectual integrity or courage or anything of the sort; in fact, it is simply that I am made, to steal a line that I cannot properly attribute, so that I cannot believe. There is a point in the progression of certain nonbelievers, particularly the recovering theists like me, in which we see belief as a world ago, a lost tongue. We miss it, sometimes, a little like a dead friend, and are as unable to bring it back. I have heard every shop-worn argument for deities, and ultimately realize that the best ones are heaven and hell, and even then only directed at children: not because they are ever good arguments, but because we would all very much so like them to be, and are all so hopeful and afraid that they might be true.
But mostly I don’t miss belief at all, and so I shouldn’t really overstate the point about loss. Because something comes with that loss, that does not come with other losses: a profound power, and, to paraphrase Stan Lee, an equally invigorating responsibility. The realization that life is short, and that the rest is silence, is terrifying only as much as it is enlivening—the understanding that life’s rarity in the cosmos makes it the ultimate pearl, a thing valuable because of its rarity and not despite it.
And so, contemplating sickness and death as a person who believes that the world as we know it probably about all the world that there is, I have written my own brief meditation on the end. We can call it an atheist’s prayer for the dying:
May I have lived long and well, so that I leave behind happy memories and good effects for others, and few regrets in my final hours. But if I have not lived long, may I still have lived well, wasting few moments of the few I have had. And if I have lived neither long nor well, may I have the courage to realize that the pageant of life continues happily without me, and realize finally that others will have the joys that I have had, and the dreams that I will lose, and that neither I nor the world are the worse for my having gone. And if I must dream of a future at that most fearful and most hopeful hour, may I take comfort in the awesome grandeur of my journey: not from birth to death (what a pittance!) but from the stardust, the heavy elements that blaze at the heart of celestial engines, the remnant stuff from the explosion that hatched the universe; to the formation of a tiny, molten world; through billions of years of life, branching and snaking its sublime way up into niches and nooks of magnificent, artistic, and utterly inefficient complexity; to a minute as man; to another eon as earth and water; and to finally return out into the space from which I came; to know, at last, that while the part I played was infinitesimal, the drama itself was magnificent. And in that beauty, let me sleep.