Non Eram, Sum, Non Ero
(I was not, I am, I will not be)
by: Rev. Douglas Giddens
New Hampshire, USA
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Many people turn to religion out of fear. Maybe they hear a fire and brimstone sermon, or maybe they are simply considering their own mortality, but they begin, for whatever reason, to think about what will happen to them after they are dead. Every religion has its own afterlife: to follow its precepts is to live in bliss in heaven, Valhalla, Elysium, or some other paradise; to disobey its strictures is to suffer in hell, Niflheim, Tartarus, or an equally unpleasant abode. They turn to a god, not because they believe it’s real, but because they’re afraid that it could be.
Setting aside the obvious contradiction of the Judeo-Christian tradition that a being, who is pure love, is such a sadist as to make all who fail to grovel at his feet writhe in agony for all eternity, why should anyone suspend reason to blindly act on fear of the unknown.
Humans, by our very nature, have an innate fear of the unknown. We fear the dark of night because we don’t know what could be out in it, and we imagine the worst. Likewise, we fear the “Great Unknown”: what happens when we die.
Much like our fear of the dark, we tend to image the worst, then someone tells us that there is a way out of our imagined horrors. He tells us that there is a loving, benevolent being that will protect us when we die and will take us somewhere safe and comfortable, where we shall be as kings.
The same thing happens when we tell our children that angels will watch over them while they use the dark path through the woods at night. They believe us because they want to believe us. They overcome their fear, trusting us that they are safe. They navigate the dark path, maybe with some trepidation at first, but after a few trips, when no night gaunts get them, they take comfort, knowing that we were right: the angels protected them.
The same is true with us. We overcome our fear of the ‘eternal night’ by allowing ourselves to be convinced that a god is going to take us to paradise. It’s an irrational belief, no more real than the angels watching over our children, but it’s comforting, so we accept it, suspending reason and reality in favor of faith and fantasy.
We, as humans, can’t wrap our heads around the idea of not existing. We exist, and the idea that we may, at some time, stop existing doesn’t compute and gives way to fear.
This fear of not existing, which often follows an experience of coming face to face with our own mortality, leads us to believe in our own immortality, that there must be something after this life. To some, it’s a heaven or hell, in which we will spend eternity in comfort or misery, based solely on our decisions in the here and now. To others, it’s a new life here on earth, a never-ending cycle of lives and deaths until we reach perfection. No matter the religion, the result is the same: Immortality.
There are, however, those of us who are content with this life. We are not happy with all of the decisions we have made, and we do not necessarily feel that where we are in life and in the world is ideal, but we are content with this life being what we have. We, too, want immortality, but we’re not searching for a fountain of youth, an elixir of rejuvenation, or a Christ.
What is immortality? Immortality is not being forgotten and being able to effect change, even after death. Julius Caesar achieved immortality as a conqueror, Judas Iscariot as a traitor, George Washington as a revolutionary, Thomas Edison as an inventor, and Adolf Hitler as a genocidal dictator. All of these men have been immortalized in history; some as examples to be emulated, others as warnings to be avoided.
We, who accept that we don’t know, that we can’t know, if there is anything after this life, live our lives with the hope that we will achieve immortality. We live in such a way, as best we can, so that, if we are remembered, if the world’s memory of us outlives our physical bodies, we will be an example rather than a warning. Instead of waking up each morning and trying to be better than the next man, we wake up each morning and try to be better than we were the day before.
Because we cannot know if we will be remembered after we die, the surest legacy that we can leave behind, the most certain form of immortality, is through our progeny. In our children lives the immortal history of all of us who came before them. Our decisions affect our children and their children ad infinitum.
Each of us has a very rich, proud ancestry. Everything that our forebears did is part of who we are: good or bad. All of them have achieved a form of immortality because they live on in us, in our names, and in our bloodlines.
Is there any life after this one? We don’t know. If there is, then we’ll worry about it when we get there. For now, our concern is for the life we know exists. We will not sacrifice our reason because of our fear of the unknown.
The faithful can have their heaven and hell; we’ll live in this life, every day endeavoring to be better than we were the day before. We will do our best to achieve immortality, not in the eternal night of death, but in the here and now, in the legacy we leave, both through the sons and daughters we have and through the memory that we leave behind.
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