Guest Blogger Danio:
When I began to seriously question organized religion, years ago, it didn’t take long to conclude that the myths I had been taught as a child were no more tractable than any of the other thousands of belief systems that have come and gone throughout human history. While I quickly and cheerfully discarded all god-belief without regret, the concept of the soul, a consciousness of some kind that could persist beyond the physical life, was significantly harder for me to relinquish. The idea that the essential ‘me’ would cease to exist upon my death was not nearly as disconcerting as the realization that my departed family members, of which there are, regrettably, many, were no longer present anywhere, in any form.
Science and reason helped me overcome this sense of loss, and appreciate the importance of accepting life, brutal and exquisite as it is, as an ephemeral, purely biological process. Reading Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain and various other works helped me to clarify my feelings on mortality. PZ has also written eloquently on the subject, when, for example, he discussed the brevity and relative insignificance of human life on a geological time scale.
Most of all, I have arrived at this acceptance as a lover of science, contemplating the wonders of genetic transmission through lineages. I can easily envision a connection, a common thread that runs through the years, linking my life to thousands of others. I see the ghosts of countless ancestors flit across the faces of my children, with all their various expressions of youthful joy and consternation and everything in between, and recognize that my offspring represent the distillation of innumerable contributions to the molecular constitution our flourishing family tree–the joining together of humanity at its most elemental.
I felt this connection keenly as I stood in sorrow over the casket of my grandmother six years ago after her sudden death from an aortic aneurism. Even in my deepest lamentation, I was aware of the bouncing, fluttering, shifting movements of the girl-child in my womb, still several months shy of her birth. The front of my hastily purchased black maternity frock rippled and bulged extravagantly, and while others in the chapel prayed for their god to accept the departed soul into heaven, I stood apart, a placeholder between past and future, a biological bridge between the inanimate human cells in the pall before me and the exuberant new life within me. I felt overwhelmingly comforted by the realization that, though I had given up the ghosts upon whom all the other mourners were focused, I was the willing conduit through which the genes of my forebearers sought eternal life.
Today, my most treasured piece of jewelry is my grandmother’s engagement ring, which she wore every day of her adult life. When I wear it as a tribute to a bygone existence, as I am doing as I write this, I do not seek to comfort myself through summoning the image of her benevolent spirit hovering nearby, or a belief that the object that accompanied her through so many years of her eventful life must have been imprinted with her psychic essence. I need not even reminisce about the countless loving human moments we shared during the 34 years in which our lifetimes overlapped, although that is indeed a pleasurable journey in its own right. The knowledge that informational fragments of the human that she was still dwell in me–and in my children, to whom she is but a cheerful image in an aging photograph–enables me to comfortably dismiss the possibility of an ‘after’ and savor the impermanent ‘now’. I find abundant solace in the realities of the natural world when I pause to remember those who have gone before, and those who will live on after I depart, beginning with the still exuberant girl-child who will, someday, inherit her great-grandmother’s ring.