Thursday, September 20, 2012

Atheists and the unknown...

If there is one thing we all face with equal parts of fear and anticipation it is the unknown be it death, be it the future, be it the unplanned and the always comes back to wishing we either could affect the unknown or wishing we could plan for it.  Ultimately, however, it is called the unknown for a reason.

Today I received news that we all knew was coming; my mom received confirmation that within the next month or so she will be having open heart surgery to replace all four of her valves.  As you might imagine it has had me pretty worried.  My mom and I do not agree on a lot but one thing we do agree on is that we love each other very dearly.  My mom is a conservative, old fashion Christian and I am a liberal atheist.  Needless to say, religion and politics are one of those things we do not discuss often! The thing is that my mom has always been a big part of my world and has always been a guiding light in my life.  My first wife, after we divorced, often told people that I am a momma's boy, and I guess when it comes down to it I have had moments in my life when I was.  When people ask me about my mom I always tell them that she is half Puerto Rican and half Italian, born and raised in Brooklyn! I love that woman with all my heart, but trust me, you do NOT want to mess with her when she gets pissed!

In conversation with my wife, I mentioned that all I can do is wait now and she said that it was really all I could do, but she would pray.  I love my wife, Mandy, so very much and she is literally the axis on which my world spins, but those that know us know that this is one of the areas where we are not on the same page though it has never been a problem.  I chuckled and let it go at that but it hit me as I thought about it after words, while the effectiveness of prayer can be argued by some and rejected by others, such as myself, the point is that it lends a certain comfort to the person that does it. 

Here is mom and I, I was 16
we were at Ghost Town in the Sky
an amusement park that used to be in
Maggie Valley, North Carolina

So how do atheists deal with the unknown?  I mean face it...this is a big unknown and it does scare me.  Facts and reality are little comfort in a situation where your mom is going to be right on the door of death.  How do I deal with this situation?  

First, I take into consideration the advancements of science and medicine. On a logical level I understand that the process of open heart surgery has come a long way and that her health will be so much better when it is all said and done.  Articles I have read say that the survival rate of heart valve open heart surgery is between 97%-98%.  These are great numbers and they provide me with a lot of confidence in knowing that the odds are in her favor. (

Second, in this situation, I take into consideration the competence of the doctors involved.  My mom's surgery will be at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, one of the leading hospitals in the Southeast. Their reputation as a hospital, and particularly as heart specialists, is something that can give me confidence. 

Third, I accept some facts that are hard but are relevant.  (1) There are things I, and nobody else, has control of.  Life happens along with everything that goes with it.  I may not like that but my not liking it does not change the facts.  The only way to deal with reality is to accept reality.  (2) I will not always be happy with the outcome of how things go in life.  I would like to think that I will get my way every time but that is simply not the case.  Raging against that fact will be as effective as shaking my fist and screaming at a hurricane. (3) the only thing that I can count on in life is death.  I don't want to think about losing my mother, but I have accepted the fact that it is possible, that this could happen.  

Fourth, I hold my memories close.  My mom and I have disagreed often over the years but when there was nobody else that would stand by me, I could always count on her.  I have never questioned her love for me; even when I questioned her methods I could never question her motives.  My fondest memories of childhood all star my mother in them, and those are memories that I will hold dear, that I will pass on to my children.

How do we as atheists deal with the unknown?  The unknown, the future, is a mystery.  A mystery is not necessarily a bad thing.  Carl Sagan once said that, "it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."  His wife, after he was deceased said, "the tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again.  I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl.  But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is.  We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting.  Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous as in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural.  We knew we were beneficiaries of chance...that pure chance could be so generous and so kind...that we could be together for twenty years.  That is something which sustains me and it's much more meaningful...the way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived.  That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday.  I don't think I'll ever see Carl again.  But I saw him.  We saw each other.  We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful."

In conclusion, I will use an example I have used frequently.  Did you ever watch the movie "The Matrix?" In the movie Morpheus tells Neo that in order for him to discover what the Matrix is he must make a choice...the blue pill you go to sleep you wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you choose to believe, the red pill you get your answers and discover how deep the the rabbit hole goes.  Neo, of course, chooses the red pill and begins his journey.  After he wakes up and Morpheus takes him into the construct and shows him the reality, that his entire life had been a fantasy, a delusion, he passes out.  He wakes up a little later with Morpheus sitting on the floor next to his bed.  Neo looks at Morpheus and says, "I can't go back, can I?"  To which Morpheus replies, "No, but would you want to?"  That is how I feel about my journey from blind faith to reason, logic and, ultimately, atheism.  I have discovered truth and no matter how often, in a weak moment, I find myself asking, "I can't go back, can I?"  I always come back to the truth matter how comforting faith and prayer may seem...I wouldn't want to...

How about you?  How do you cope with the unknown?  And if you could go back...would you?


Leslee said...

I'm sorry about your mother. My one bit of advice is to make sure she is ready to leave the hospital before they discharge her. My sister's MIL was sent home after open heart surgery too soon and ended up with a terrible infection and subsequent surgeries. The insurance company was just trying to rush her out. So speak up and make sure they allow her time to properly heal. My sister's MIL is doing ok now but it has been a looong and scary journey for her.

On another note, I am not atheist as you are and though I have my own spiritual beliefs, I do not subscribe to any religion. Sometimes I think it would be so much easier to go back and just be able to buy it or at least fake it. I can't do either anymore and it is sad when I struggle to connect with my family on these matters, but there really is no going back.

Glad you are blogging again.


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