I lost one friend last week. I nearly lost another last night. I want to tell you about both of them. (Names are changed.)
First, there was Bret. Bret was what a lot of theists think of when they imagine atheists. He was angry. Very angry. He felt — sometimes rightly, sometimes perhaps not — that religion had intruded into his life to such an extent that he had no hope of being who he wanted to be. Everywhere he looked, he saw Christianity and blind faith. He felt that it had ruined his family, his relationships, his jobs.
Some of us knew his other side. He was viciously funny. He could take even the most horrifying thing you could think of, and find a way to make it funny. Conversely, he could take the happiest thing you could think of and find a way to make it awful. He was a master of perspective in that way. He was very self-deprecating in his humor. I wish I felt comfortable telling you some of the stories he told about his failures at love and sex.
Bret was also a raging alcoholic. He drank to forget, to go to sleep, to calm down. He rarely if ever went a day without alcohol, and when he drank, he drank to considerable excess.
There was a core group of friends — all atheists — who I believe kept him alive for a lot longer than he might otherwise have lived. We encouraged him, talked with him, and more than once suggested that he could be happier if he wanted to be. In the end, we respected his desires, but we were always there to help if he were to ask.
He mentioned more than once that he was rather keen on the idea of dying. He honestly believed that the world was too far gone to be helped, and that religion was going to destroy the world in one way or another. This thought was one of the main driving forces behind his ennui, his anger, and his depression.
Last week, Bret killed himself. Nobody who knew him well was surprised, but we were all still saddened. At the same time, we knew that it was what he wanted, and that he had not done it rashly. We all believe in self-determination, even when it means ending one’s own life. We also know that he would not have wanted sympathy. He would have wanted people to have a drunken party and tell dirty stories about him. As much as I am able, I have done so. (The Swine Flu has really put a crimp in the plan for me, but I fully intend to get a full-on drunk when I can and tell the worst stories I know about him.)
And then there’s Tim. Tim nearly died last night, through no desire of his own. Black ice, industrial equipment, dark and ominous road conditions… From his account of the event, a lot of Christians would have sworn up and down that God himself had intervened. He was very lucky not to have died instantly.
Tim’s been where Bret was. He was very angry at religion as an early twenty-something. As a teenager, he was a gung-ho Christian, and looking for a career in the ministry, but somewhere along the way, he used a little too much good critical thinking, and figured out that he’d been scammed. The pendulum swung, and Tim spent the next several years lashing out at religion and being the “angry young atheist.”
There were several setbacks in Tim’s life. His youth and anger upset a lot of people, and suddenly, he found himself the target of a great deal of criticism and personal attack. A couple of the atheist projects Tim started might have been a little more than he could handle at the time, and his opponents were merciless in exploiting his weaknesses.
Unlike Bret, Tim did not sink into depression and abandon hope. Instead, he looked for truth in what his opposition had said, and looked for ways to improve his own life in spite of the considerable opposition to his ideas. Where he found deficiency in his knowledge, he set about learning. Where his method of delivery was harsh and insulting, he studied rhetoric and the art of persuasion.
I spoke with Tim shortly after his brush with death. Still giddy and high on endorphins, he was telling me about how inspired he feels to continue with life, with his projects, and with the sublime experience that is each moment we experience.
These two lives stand in stark contrast, which is why I think their stories are worth telling. For those who will insist that atheism is harmful, Bret will stand as a shining example. For those who will insist that atheism is helpful, Tim will be the poster boy.
In truth, atheism wasn’t the cause of either of the turning points — Bret’s decision to end his life, or Tim’s decision to improve his. This isn’t a story about atheism. It’s a story about humanity. On either side of the aisle, there are pessimists and optimists. There’s hope and disillusionment. What is very different, I think, is the way both sides handle the realities of humanity.
It’s a lie that atheists don’t have any ways to cope with death, or that our ways are somehow inferior. For me, death is a very natural thing. It is both separation from and union with the universe. I have always been a part of the universe, and for a very brief time, I have been lucky enough to be aware, sentient, and capable of feeling. When I die, I will return to the state I had been in for billions of years before my birth. I will stay that way until the end of the universe, and perhaps beyond. There is nothing scary about being dead.
Like all humans, I fear the act of dying. It’s likely that it will hurt, and I don’t like feeling pain. But, it is inevitable, and when it does happen, it will be one big step, and then done. I like living, and will probably put off death until it seems a better option than living. But in this choice is beauty. I do not relish the thought of dying, but I can imagine far, far worse states of being alive. In death is nothingness, while in life, there can be unimaginable pain. To know that I have the option, should I ever need it, to end my own suffering — in this, there is comfort. I’m not afraid of being punished for ending my life if it should ever come to that. If I were afraid, I would not feel that I had a choice.
However, with the choice comes great responsibility. There are no do-overs, and I have no illusions of being aware after death. It’s a one time decision that cannot be taken back, and so I consider it only with regard to its immense gravity. If I am not completely sure, I will not do it. With luck, I will never have to make the decision, but if I do, I can make it in good conscience, and with no fear.
Bret believed that death was his best option. I cannot pretend to understand his decision, or to know what private thoughts led him there. However, out of human empathy, I cannot do anything but respect his decision, even if I disagree with it. It was not my life to live.
Tim believes that from opposition comes opportunity, and he’s embraced life when faced with immense opposition. I do not know if he will succeed or not. Again, it is not my life to live, and I can’t predict the future. I am thrilled that he’s still alive after his harrowing experience, and I am happy that he’s found yet another reason to love life, and to embrace each moment as if it is the most precious moment he will ever experience.
There is beauty in both of these stories. It is a grim kind of beauty to appreciate the fact that a very unhappy man can make a choice that will end his unhappiness forever. But it is beauty, nonetheless. His life had meaning to many people, as did his death. It is all part of living. It’s part of nature. There is life, and there is death. Both are precious in the right circumstances.
So to Bret, I bid you a fond, if bittersweet farewell, my friend. I respect your decision and will honor your life in the way you would have wanted.
To Tim, I’m happy beyond words that you’re still with us, and I can’t wait to see what you’re going to accomplish. Your life is a gift — not just to others, but to you as well.