Saturday, January 21, 2006

A genuine good reason for religion--written 1.26

Though I was baptized Catholic as a baby and "born again" at an Evangelical Christian summer camp after sixth grade, I've been a committed atheist since my sophomore year of college. Even in high school I was strongly drifting away from religion and the notion of God. I found the testable certainties and theories of science more appealing and as I studied history was very much disgusted at the role religion played in war and conflict. I once told a student that a belief in God was simply a way to bury a human fear of death.

In college once I started studying philosophy it became really clear to me that while God was the Answer from some people, the notion of a higher power was not for me. My "faith" in science and the near infinite bounds of humanity's potential was enough for me to sustain my optimistic sense of the future. And nothing has happened in the subsequent years to change my mind. Well, that is until recently.

One of our students at L.A. Youth recently passed away. She was just 17 years old. It was heart-breaking to learn of this. While she was involved she was one of our most prolific participants--she wrote, shot pix, reviewed music. Everything. Unfortunately in the past like 10 months we started to lose touch with her. She had some shit going on in her life, so she stopped writing and coming to our meetings. But, we did hear from her from time to time on e-mail or with a phone call, and in our last communique (a few months ago) it sounded like she was doing OK.

Then we got the call that she had died. Her mother and sister called (on a Tuesday) to share the bad news. They knew how much she had been involved and how close she became with us. The call while we were on deadline for our January issue, so I got knocked over momentarily, but then comparmentalized the information. I didn't do this, of course, to be callous, but I knew that at the moment I didn't have the time or energy to grieve. The wake was scheduled for Saturday.

On my way to the wake her death started to hit me. The traffic on I-10 east was practically a standstill. And as I trailed behind the flashes of red brake lights, it sort of hypnotized me and I couldn't help but think of the fact I was headed to a wake for someone who was just 17. An amazing, beautiful girl who cast a spell over everyone who I'd ever seen her interact with.

When I got to the funeral home and saw the dozens upon dozens of grieving friends and family, it finally connected with me. Her death seemed an affront to any sense of cosmic justice. How could someone so loved, so cared for, so beautiful in the collage of smiling pictures be gone? We walked into the small chapel and saw a room with occupied pews with some friends and relatives stone-faced (almost as if in denial that such an amazing light was prematurley extinguished) while others were crying, trembling, some almost uncontrollably. I couldn't believe it.

After a few minutes I noticed that it was open casket. Suddenly, I was 17 again at my dad's uncle's funeral. Back then I was so NOT gonna view the body in the casket. The thought just freaked me out. That was just not my idea of how to grieve. Fortunately, I was allowed to personalize my grief. This time though, I felt like I had to approach to say a sufficient good-bye. As I got closer I found my steps getting a little more deliberate and smaller. I wasn't freaking or anything, but I was a little uncomfortable. When I got about a foot away, I was (fortunately) blocked from getting any closer by a copule of her friends who were really devastated by this. I could see her, though, lying there with a perfect stillness and a look of serenity unlike any I've seen before on anyone--except perhaps a buddhist nun that I met. I said a small good-bye in my head (and also my heart). And that was that.

Over the couple hours we saw probably close to 100 teens, who she knew from gigs at a local all ages club, as well as other friends of the family. When I saw so many people who clearly loved her and who were so clearly wrecked by it, I was angry, hurt, sad. How could someone who touched so many people in such a positive way be gone? It once again affirmed my atheism--no way that the great benevolent deity would take someone whose life was lived so ultimately unfulfilled.

As we stood outside the funeral home in the brisk air, I felt something different though. That image of her lying peacefully, perhaps with a peace she never knew in life, made me think that it wouldn't be fair for her NOT to be going somewhere "else." It just seemed so useless for her to finally find a sense of peace and not be able to experience it. Suddenly, I had an almost epiphany-like thought: perhaps the comfort of believing a loved one had blinked out of existence did have an important place in people's lives? Part of me for an instant, honestly, wanted it to be that way.

I've struggled with this over the past few days. However, I haven't swung away from my atheism. Instead I've remembered something I heard (on Star Trek: The Next Generation): "Death is the state in which we exist only in the memory of others. So it is not an end ..." (or words to that effect.) That idea has brought me comfort, because now she does live in our memories and there it will always be peaceful and filled with amazing music.


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