Matt’s daughter killed herself last week. When I listened to him on the phone today, I felt such terror that I had to monitor my breathing so I wouldn’t hyperventilate. My terror came from my awareness that there was next to nothing I could offer that would make things even a tiny bit better.
Matt is my opposite in many ways. Most notably, he’s Christian and ultraconservative. Yet, he’s also a gentle and patient man who is out somewhere, helping someone, everyday.
I had a big tree cut down recently, and I decided to give it to two friends. One of those friends was Matt. He had been splitting wood for hours before he mentioned that he didn’t really want any; he just wanted to help me out by splitting it. I informed him that the ten cords he had in his shed would only last him a couple of years, and so he was jolly well going to take some wood home. He said he would give it to his daughter. She died the next day.
I feel so very small right now, and Matt’s grief is so very big. I haven’t known him that long or that well, but I like and respect him, and I’ve learned from experience that it’s not necessarily our closest friends who stand by us the best through hard times. Also, grief is something that I’ve always felt both honored and honor bound to embrace despite the times I’ve given even less than the little that I had to give.
Given my atheism—and assuming that you know something of the Bible—you might guess that my favorite book is Ecclesiastes. I sometimes wonder how it got into the Bible because the author’s conviction that life lacks objective meaning—that is, a god-given meaning—is completely out of harmony with the rest. This is Chapter 7, Verse 12:
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”
Fifty years after I first read Ecclesiastes, it occurred to me that I would like to change that verse to:
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for the house of mourning is where you’re most needed.”
If I were to make a list of things that I would like for believers to know about atheists, the first one would be: “To deny god is not to deny the possibility of meaning. Kindness, patience, nobility, a passion for truth, and every other virtue are no less important to atheists than they are to theists. The difference between them is simply that the one attributes our knowledge of right and wrong to god, and the other to the social evolution of the species to which we owe our existence.”
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