My birthday is December 21st and our wedding anniversary is New Years Eve. This juxtaposition of major milestones in my life has always made the holiday season a bittersweet time for me…a time for retrospection and introspection: What have I accomplished in my life, and what do I still want to accomplish? The contact with distant friends and relatives via Christmas cards, and family newsletters always brings back a flood of memories…of lost loves and missed opportunities, along with those glorious times of youth.
I am often a little depressed by all of this…reminded that I have spent another year of my life, that the bank account that I was given at birth with a seemingly infinite number of years in it is slowly shrinking. Am I wasting it? Should I have done more with all those spent deposits? I do not have the solace of the Christian believer, who basks comfortably in the certainty that his “soul” will live on forever. I don’t know that mine will not, but I cannot see any reason to expect it.
What is this thing called “soul” anyway? Is it just consciousness of self? The ability of the life process to examine itself? It is an extraordinary capability when you think about it. We are made of the stuff of exploded stars…part of the Cosmos itself, and so we are the cosmos regarding the cosmos.
When I was out doing my daily run/jog the other day, I was looking at the river that flows next to my regular route, and I thought, “The water molecule right there…yes, that one: How many times has it been here at this very spot? Does it have a memory of being here before?” Now you might think that’s a ridiculous question. Water is inanimate, right? Well, do we know that for sure? Maybe this thing we call “soul”, this consciousness of self, is in everything. If that were true, then my soul will live on after my death…the water and calcium and salt and iron and all the other molecules that make up my body will be recycled into other animate or inanimate assemblages. Nothing is lost. The principle of Conservation of Matter will see to that.
But will that soul be “me?” I don’t see how it could keep my individuality, my sense of self. But what do I know? I know that I am a collection of molecules meandering around this unthinkably immense, mysterious, unknowable cosmos on this little speck of dust that we call Earth. A speck on a speck, that’s me. It’s easy to see why people flock to religions. Thinking about our utter insignificance is humbling…and frightening.
I think the nonbeliever has an extra burden, an urgency, in his life. He must assume that life is a one-shot deal. When it’s over, it really is over, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. So, he must make the most of it, accomplish as much as he can, treasure it, value it. It has always seemed to me that religious people tend to devalue life here on the earth by viewing it as a mere transitional interlude, preparing us for the great eternity to follow. I think the nonbeliever feels a greater need to “make hay while the sun shines.”