My grandfather, as I’ve come to remember him, has attained an almost mythological place in my well of childhood memories. To phrase it with little hyperbole, Grampa was one of the kindest, wisest old men I’d ever known. And I was a greenhorn still as this story begins—just out of high school, individuated enough to finally look with doubt upon my Catholic education, finding little solace in the antiquated tribal lore of a prescientific people. I was the kid hot-boxing a cigarette in the February cold outside the hospital; meanwhile, inside, cancer had all but eaten Grampa whole. He might have made it one or two more painful days, if memory serves. And then no more.
Losing anyone or anything dear to us is indescribably painful, regardless of the paradigms to which we subscribe. But for the first time then, I’d found myself taking on loss with full cognizance of life’s irretrievable nature. I’d felt like a cripple who’d lost his crutch, forced now to march upon quivering ground. I’d shed tears copiously for that man, and now and again I still do. But roughly twenty years later, I’ve learned that a life without faith is no mere resignation to be forever inconsolable. As it turns out, we, the supposed heathens, are a people who can still marvel at the good in life and know joy. And I suspect we know it in ways to which many believers are blind.
I would not have thought so then, though—not in the days before his funeral, nor for some years after. Further traumas surfaced in life just as they do for every person, and under such emotional duress, I still found myself indulging in some magical thinking. Not two years following my grandfather’s passing, a good friend of mine died a sudden, violent death—and the comforting dream of her that followed had all the emotional resonance of an angelic visitation. Surely there must be something more behind the veil, yes? Good golly, that’s such a comforting thing to think. When the chips are down, we indulge ourselves in whatever comforts we can summon, even if our particular poison flies in the face of all earthly logic and experience. As it’s been said, there are no atheists in foxholes, right?
But hang on. While that phrase is oft parroted by those making the case for belief, take a step back and consider what a damning indictment of faith that maxim is. George Patton told us flatly that war is hell, and I’m inclined to take his word for it. So imagine yourself in a scenario that our veterans know too well, a no-man’s-land kind of tumult where hot death rains upon you at a rapid-fire pace. With no time for deliberation, you’ve got only your own grit to keep you moving, or perhaps mere animal kinesis. When left with nothing else—maybe not more than seconds to live, who knows—we go ahead and let ourselves grasp for the magic feather. So that adage about the battlefield might as well state: God is the last recourse of folks who feel like cornered animals.
Please mistake none of this for a slight against those who’ve served. But be it on the global scale or something more personal, not one of us has been without a battle to fight. As alone as we might feel in the thick of it, the vulnerability and desperation that come with our struggles are common to us all. That helpless panic can come upon us in a foxhole, behind the wheel, in an alley in the seedy part of town—or in the small hours awaiting your grandfather’s funeral. No atheists on the battlefield, whatever that battle might be? Perhaps. But let’s keep in mind another old truism, this from the Appalachian tradition: just because you think something don’t make it so.
Yes, I still miss the heck out of Grampa, and that friend who passed without warning, and so many others who are no longer with us. No, I do not believe that I’ll see them again in anything other than photographs and dreams. But a hair of mine turns pure white every time I try to explain this next part to committed theists: no, I’m actually not miserable. The truth is that I’m nothing less than profoundly grateful. What’s more is that mine is a gratitude I could never have arrived at if I thought earthly life was just the lesser part of our experience—that the Lord withholds all the good stuff until after you’ve died.
Here I ask that we examine another unspoken argument I sense in the theists who recoil at the idea of a finite life. “How could you possibly want to go on without the promise of an eternal hereafter,” they ask, a unio mystica, “with all your old loved ones and pets?” What’s rarely said aloud here, if even consciously acknowledged, is that such sentiments are predicated on the idea that transience is tantamount to worthlessness. I wonder of the believer: would all the greatest joys you’ve known, every experience that left you in awe, be robbed of all significance if they could not be resumed again someday in the sky? Would any beloved person from your past ultimately mean nothing, to you or to anyone, if the past is where that person must remain? Or might we admit that some people have been so dear to us that we treasure them for exactly who they were, on their terms, and that’s more than enough to be thankful for?
So here, folks, is an atheist telling you what he does believe in, and that’s the worth of human life, of our warmth, our loves—of our stories that remain within us, if you will, even after the keys players have long since left the stage. If the world is a chaotic, unscripted mishmash of quantum collisions in a universe that cannot care one way or the other about anything—how thankful we ought to be to find ourselves privy to any of those moments that have nourished our being. If we can use the term “luck” without summoning any metaphysical implications, I know that I have been profoundly lucky. I’m personally lucky that eons of aimless natural processes at one point cranked out this, my life, my window to the human experience. I’m lucky to have been adequately fed and sheltered, lucky to have swerved just in time to miss that school bus, and incredibly lucky to have known such a fantastic personage as my grandfather. That’s the thing about the luck of the draw—it operates on blind, unfeeling chance, nothing more. So when you’re dealt a fine hand, don’t bemoan that finer hands might not be awaiting you in heaven. Love it for the singularly great thing it is—and don’t confuse impermanence with meaninglessness. If you’ve known happiness, friends, then you have known this kind of luck. And what that luck imbued in you, how it enriched you, can never be diminished. It does not to have clamor at the gates of St. Peter or weigh justly on the scales of Anubis to have meant something real to you. I don’t believe we need to ask for more.
Grampa, I still miss you so, so dearly. But I know whatever strange electric anima that moved your body is gone. And that does nothing to invalidate the time I was lucky enough to share with you, what it meant to me, what it means to me still. I don’t need an endless procession of promised tomorrows to feel this kind of gratitude. I carry you with me still, on my own finite sojourn. And that means more to me than anything else could.