October 20, 2009

grief apart

Recently found out the fiancee of someone in Allen's programming circle has been hospitalized with (as I heard it) pretty much zero hope of ever leaving it. He told Allen that they were getting married this evening. It's one of those situations where you don't know what to do and it feels like every possible course of action is wrong. We're planning to get them a wedding gift as soon as we can figure out what to get them. A nice vase or some crystal candle sticks seems pretty silly and useless when you know the marriage is going to be all too short, but giving them a new mixer just emphasizes the disparity between what is and what they wanted. It really doesn't help any that they're atheists. Death and hope in the face of death are pretty hard subjects for Christians and atheists to grapple with over a hospital bed. All the old sticks about love being eternal ring pretty hollow when you're talking about people who don't believe in God or heaven. I'm really trying hard not to think about the alternatives here. It's kind of ripping me up inside that there are two people who love each other and are standing by each other through one of them more horrific things two lovers can experience, and I'm over here praying desperately "Lord, have mercy." I truly believe that love is the ultimate defiance of death because love is the only thing is this miserable, fallen love that's large enough to reach eternity. As the Bible says, "and the greatest of these is love." "Love never fails." Love existed before creation, and it will exist after this heaven and earth have faded away. To Christians going through pain this can be a comfort. I know for a certainty that if either Allen or I died tomorrow we would be with each other again. Can't say that either of us would really feel like living through that reality, but it would still be real. Atheists don't know this. It's not the way their world works. When you give up the sacrifice at the cross you give up its hope too. I wish God would look into this couple's lives and make the pain stop. I wish God would "prove" Himself, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible says He already has. God gets to decide what constitutes evidence -not us. I can't say I blame Him either. Jesus said that people who didn't understand Jesus and His mission from the Law and Prophets wouldn't believe even if someone where raised from the dead. Well you had Lazarus, and you had Jesus. These events didn't take place in some little backwater town where no one knew what was going on either. Here you have Jesus and Lazarus walking around talking to people and people who should have known still didn't believe. We ask God to prove Himself and forget how many times He already has proven Himself to a people intent on going their own way. This includes me. The reality of God is sitting there in front of us, and we can't even see it. Our lives are filled with pain. With defiant eyes we raise our futile hands to the sky and condemn the Maker we hate for not giving us parents that loved us or life instead of sickness. The only difference between me and the rest of them is that I'm searching for, waiting for the God who loves me not just enough to die for me but to put up with my sloppiness, my temper, and my inattention. And I desperately wish I could give hope to people going through these kinds of situations. How do you give hope, though, to someone saying "God, if you're real, you can make it stop, and if you could make it stop but you don't then you're no kind of God at all." I don't know what to say. I've asked time and again "God, why does it have to hurt so much?" I still don't have an answer, but I do have hope that one day I'll be beyond all this hurt and sorrow.

So enough with all this rambling. What am I going to do? Well someone closer to this couple has offered to get some information for us about suitable wedding gifts, and I'm going to pray really hard that God has mercy. It's the only damn hope any of us have.


Serena said...

Oh my goodness, Natalie, I know. I know. You have no idea how much I needed to hear this. Lately I've been crying, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" because there's so much crap in this world and it's so hard to reconcile it with a loving God. (I'm not talking about anything that is directly affecting me, just, you know, the lives of certain other people that I know and love.) But He has proven Himself and I just need to get that through my thick skull.

Anyway, I didn't mean to sound so self-centered. I'll be praying for this couple. There's still hope. God doesn't desire that any be lost.

glyph said...

This isn't really the place to defend or advocate my particular belief system, but I feel like it might be helpful to explain one particular atheist's take on things, to explain at least one coping mechanism that we have which might not be obvious to the casual observer.

When I was young, my mother died. We were an atheist household, which plenty of organizations - not least of which our synagogue - found difficult to accept. Most religious folks tried to console us with the usual lines; "she's in a better place now", "everything happens for a reason", "God has a plan". These comments were kindhearted, but as a child I didn't know to take them that way, and they made me very angry.

You have to understand that at the time (and, for that matter, well into my adult life) I wasn't entirely convinced of the non-existence of God. In fact, I still try not to keep my identity too tied up in the idea of "atheism"; I am an atheist, but someone who identifies with being an atheist is more concerned with a sticking to a particular point of view than believing what is true. I identify as an empiricist, or if I am feeling pretentious, a scientist. If the experiment to demonstrate God's existence were repeatable and verifiable, I'd definitely be a believer.

So, these comments didn't bother me because they were "preachy" or because they were challenging my belief system during a trying time. If that were so then I would have simply known them to be false, and what would be that irritating about a kindly falsehood at a trying time? What bothered me was that they might be right, and death has a way of making one question one's belief.

If you believe in a divine plan, then you have to believe that God sat by and murdered my mother. That God is murdering the woman you wrote about here, right now, in an excruciatingly painful way, at a very young age. If our deceased loved ones are "in a better place now", then why do we have to stick around in this crummy place waiting around for them? Isn't that cruel, too?

The intervening years discussing this stuff with Allen have taught me that there are, in fact, answers to these questions for these questions, so there's no need to repeat those here. I obviously don't find those answers entirely satisfying, as I'm sure you won't find what writing here satisfying either :).

One of the interesting things about atheism is that one is free to admit that sometimes, bad things happen, for no reason, and there is nothing we can do about them. My mother died in a car crash. That was horrible. My wife's parents died of terrible diseases. That was horrible, too. But these things weren't inflicted on us; no malevolent demiurge sitting in judgment, no crafty devil trying to screw up God's plan. There's nobody to be angry at. Nobody gave this woman cancer; she just got cancer, because that's a thing that happens to human bodies sometimes. Hopefully, one day, some researchers will figure out why, and fix it so that it won't happen to people any more.

In a way, even the ephemerality of love is a comfort. My father found love again, and my family was made whole, making my adolescence a good deal less miserable than it otherwise might have been. If he hadn't been able to let go of my mother, let that love fade, at least a bit, that wouldn't have been possible.

I love my wife completely. The thought of losing her makes me literally nauseous; this incident has given me plenty of cause to contemplate that eventuality, so I know I'm being honest there. I know that she feels the same way about me, and I certainly appreciate the affection. But I hope that if I were to die young, I really hope she would be able to see through the grief, let me go, survive, and find someone else. I hope that our mutual friend can do that, too, and be happy again one day.

Natalie_S said...

Hey, Glyph. Thanks for coming out of the woodwork :) You're right that I hadn't really picked up on that aspect of atheist thought, and I do appreciate you writing this out for me.