If you want to know what it feels like to be under a power, it is exactly to be possessed by the desire to get out of life alive…
First, I will acknowledge that Hauerwas goes on to say that Christianity is the alternative to this subjection, which is basically the opposite of what I’m about to say. But, I like this quote, and it’s an idea that Hauerwas repeats often – that like modern approaches to medicine, American Christianity tries to offer “getting out of life alive,” which is of course impossible. None of us will get out of life alive, but we often do whatever we can to escape that reality.
Last night, I cried for the first time in more than two years. My grandfather, who I was close to, died six years ago right before Christmas. My grandfather’s favorite holiday treat was Almond Roca – we would all buy him a stash and my aunt would make him her homemade version. Since he died, I haven’t eaten Almond Roca, mostly because I was never really a fan to begin with. But yesterday, a client of mine gave me a candy mix for a holiday gift, and about half of it was Almond Roca. Just looking at the wrapper sent chills up my spine – I hadn’t had Almond Roca since Christmas 2007 with my grandfather. Then, tasting it for the first time since his death brought me immediately to tears – not a reaction I was remotely expecting…it just happened. For the first time since his death I realized that I was never going to see him again.
This might seem like a weird realization to have a whole 6 years after his death, but this is the first Christmas where I’m upfront with myself that I don’t have faith. Before yesterday, I had always assumed that someday I’d see my grandfather again in the afterlife. But now that I’m uncertain, to say the least, that there is an afterlife, I realized that I have seen him for the last time – that when we spread his ashes in the Puget Sound over 3 years ago was the last of him I will ever see. I had emotionally dealt with the fact that his time on this earth was over, but I hadn’t reconciled that with the likelihood that this is all there is. It was an extremely sad moment, not only to realize that, but to realize someday I will cease to exist and I will never see my children again. But, it was a necessary moment. For the first time since I started doubting, I felt something. And, coming out the other side of the experience, I feel much freer.
I get why religions came up with the idea of an afterlife. It’s a way to deal with the depressing reality that all life comes to an end. If there’s something beyond death, it’s much less daunting – there’s hope that this isn’t all there is, that the last breath doesn’t bring an end to everything leading up to it. But, after we take our last breath, the effect of how we spent our lives is out of our hands – and it doesn’t matter for us anymore, because it’s over. But, I’m not saying that physical existence is the be-all and end-all – we can live on through our children, through how we’ve improved things for others, etc., and I think that is beautiful and gives us something to live for during our short, fragile existence. And that is what is empowering – even after I’m long gone and no one remembers who I was, a part of me can still exist if I choose to make my small corner of the world better for those around me, and if they continue that trend, I will still be making a difference after I’m gone. That mentality is better for everyone than privately praying to a deity, doing everything not to masturbate or fornicate, and voting for oppressive policies just so that I, individually, can hope that maybe I’ll make it out of life alive. We could collectively realize that we won’t make it out of life alive and try to make our short, precious time here better for everyone around us.
Last night, I also realized why communion is so attractive. Regardless of which theology of the Eucharist one follows, communion is beautiful – sharing in the same elements with each other, and the same elements shared by Christians for two thousand years, and the same elements Jesus shared with his disciples. It beautifully connects Christians, past, present, and future, with each other and with Jesus. It’s absolutely beautiful and powerful. In a certain, less triumphant way, I felt that connection with my grandfather last night – partaking in the Almond Roca gave me a sensory experience that connected me with my deceased grandfather. I think that communion is important regardless of religion or lack of religion – the sharing of food and drink, a family recipe, or something else material that links us together with our fellow humans, past and present. And, it’s liberating, more liberating than giving up who you are to obey a “higher power” to attempt to get out of life alive.
I will never see my grandfather again. But, my connection with him and with his life is still alive, and a small part of that connection will be passed to my kids and to their kids, and someday when no one remembers him, my great-great grandchildren will commune with him and me through winter treats. Who knew that a sugary dessert could be so powerful?