Tag Archives: death

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

  • Genre
    • Nonfiction
  • Summary
    • A mortician describes her early years of working at a crematory, blending her experiences in the industry with insights into the human struggle to deal with death. 
  • Information
    • There’s a little of everything in here. There’s biology, history, anthropology, economics, and a fair bit of practical philosophy. She explores what actually happens when the body dies, how our attitudes towards death have changed, how different cultures around the world deal with death, and what our knowledge of our own imminent demise does to make us human beings.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • If you’ve watched her Youtube channel, you’re probably well prepared for Caitlin Doughty’s style. She’s funny and poignant all at once, mixing wry observations and weird anecdotes with some of the most beautifully existential musings you’ll ever hear. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I love her descriptions of the people she meets. She can simultaneously make you smile at someone’s human foibles and deeply empathize with them as people going through one of the hardest experiences a human will have to bear; burying a loved one. 
    • I also love when she talks about non-Western attitudes towards death. There’s a bit where she describes the cosmology and beliefs of a certain cannibalistic society, and what that act actually means to them, and soon I was thinking, “aw, that’s really sweet.” I got teary when I heard about how the colonialists came in and made them stop. Stupid imperialists.
    • If this book has a main goal, it’s to make you think more complexly about death and how we deal with it, and to see how our society in particular has gotten seriously bad at providing ways for people to cope. I keep wanting to say something like, “this book isn’t for everyone, but if it sounds like something you’d be into, you’re definitely right.” But I also want to recommend this to people who wouldn’t think they’d be into it. I want this book to be read by people who are afraid of death, afraid of thinking about it, afraid of examining their reaction to it. I feel like, with all the disturbing elements, this book will make you realize that you can see the realities of death and, afterwards, you’ll still be okay. Death is inevitable. It doesn’t have to be terrifying.
  • Content Warnings
    • Descriptions of decomposition and dead bodies. How they die is mentioned but not generally described in detail. 
    • She also reflects on her own mental health experiences. Some of this might be triggering, especially for those with a history of suicide.
  • Quotes
    • “Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”
    • “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.”
    • “The great triumph (or horrible tragedy, depending on how you look at it) of being human is that our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to understand our mortality. We are, sadly, self-aware creatures. Even if we move through the day finding creative ways to deny our mortality, no matter how powerful, loved, or special we may feel, we know we are ultimately doomed to death and decay. This is a mental burden shared by precious few other species on Earth.”
    • “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”
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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Where is Thy Sting?

This episode begins very shortly after the last one left off. Connie and her mother are going through Mildred’s things, and they discover a lovely music box that plays “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” is inscribed with “From Bill, First Timothy 6:17-19, in my prayers that you may find true treasure.”

Then they go pick up Connie’s father, Bill, at the airport. He is surly, but rather than rest up at a hotel, he wants to go straight to the funeral home and discuss arrangements. They meet with the funeral director, a local pastor and Mildred’s pastor from New York. As they talk, Connie says that she wants the funeral to be more than just a standard dour experience. She has been thinking about how hopeful Mildred was at the end, and how for Christians death isn’t an end, but a transition to a new and better life. She wants the funeral to focus more on celebrating that. Bill is furious.

“If you’re thinking that my mother’s funeral service is going to be some kind of a party, well then you’re on the wrong track.”

The others try to calm him down and suggest a balanced service, in which they talk about the sadness of her loss but also the hope she felt for a life afterwards, but Bill isn’t interested. He continues to mock Connie’s idea, accuses everyone else of ganging up on him, then storms out.

Now, usually I give a full summary and save my thoughts for the end. This is going to be one of the exceptions. There’s just too much to talk about here, and too much that changes from scene to scene, so I have to give my analysis as I go. Here, Bill is clearly being an asshole, and I don’t think his grief is an adequate excuse. Everyone else in that room is grieving too, with the possible exception of the funeral director. What’s more, all of them will need different things to help them through. That’s a pretty normal situation after someone dies. Connie shared the thing that is helping her through this, and how she would like to incorporate that into the funeral. But she didn’t demand it; she merely brought it up, which is what this meeting is for. Bill clearly needs something else, and doesn’t seem to know exactly what that is, which is rough. But his first response is to attack Connie, who is hurting just as much as he is. That’s only okay if you’re about five.

Afterwards, Connie talks the situation out with Jack and Eugene. It’s Eugene, of all people, who takes it upon himself to explain how Bill is probably feeling.

“Alas, take it from one who has explored many philosophies of life and death. If he considers death a void, then it may make him wonder if life itself is a void as well.”

This introduces us to the idea that, without God, there is no such thing as coping. They illustrate it with Bill, who is not only an atheist, but a nihilist. Contrary to popular belief among fundamentalists, most of the time those two don’t go together. I’m not going to say it’s never accurate, only that nihilism is not a sustainable ideology. We don’t do well with lacking meaning – it’s a human thing. To be a nihilist is to crave for a reason to be anything else. But that reason is not necessarily found in religion. I find it primarily in the people I love and the fight for social justice. I’ve known atheists who find it in a futurist’s utopian vision, an artist’s work, a family to care for, or a never-ending search for self-improvement. All of these things have value, here and now. It’s just a matter of discovering what speaks to you.

The idea of a nihilistic atheist being the norm is common. Fundamentalist Christians cling to it particularly hard, I think partly because they spend so much time putting down the worth of the world we have here. It is constantly compared to the value of the glorious, eternal afterlife. The present world is, at best, a pale facsimile, and at worst an active distraction. Switching mentalities from that to one where earthly love and human well-being is a perfectly valid reason to live and have hope is well, a bit awkward to pull off, even if you’re just switching your thinking temporarily to empathize with an unbeliever. I also think there’s a bit of confirm bias and survivor’s bias mixed in. Confirmation bias because fundamentalists want to see atheists this way, rather than consider that someone might be satisfied and happy without God, so they assume any happy atheist is lying. Survivor’s bias because the rare nihilistic atheists are the most likely to convert, and thus are the former atheists Christians are most familiar with.

This idea is impressed on the audience more when Connie’s mother talks to Bill, back at the house. She tries to reiterate Connie’s point about the balance of life and death, and the reward for believers.

“Well, that’s great, but if you believe the way Bill Kendall believes, you live and you die and the people you leave behind spend years trying to get over losing you.”

She also shows him the music box, and asks if he knows what the inscription means… kind of a weird question, given his clearly expressed disinterest in the Bible. He doesn’t know, he’s annoyed by the whole thing, and he goes for a “walk,” and isn’t seen until the viewing is almost over.

When he turns up, at the very end of the viewing, he is staggeringly drunk. He cries, snarks, and waxes poetic… if you expand the definition of poetry to slobbering doggerel.

“I am grieving the loss of my mother the only way I know how. You do it by having happy funerals and I do it by trying to forget.”

I have mixed feelings about this scene. On the one hand, I love how, despite his relentlessly dickish behavior, you are made to feel for Bill. He’s no simple villain. He’s a human being who is expressing his pain destructively, but you are made to feel his grief along with him nonetheless. On the other hand, it’s clear that the writers of AIO struggle to understand how a non-believer truly thinks and acts. Even for a nihilistic atheist, Bill’s statement is a little too on the nose, too perfectly aligned with where the writers are determined to take us.

Bill manages to behave through the funeral, and afterwards he goes up with Connie and her mother to view Mildred one last time. He reflects that the service was actually quite beautiful, contrary to his expectations. He also reveals that he and his second wife are getting a divorce. He feels like a failure on every level; he can’t keep his marriages together, he missed his mother’s final days because he was off on a cruise, and he can’t help making a mess of the mourning process, swinging his grief around like a club that keeps everyone at bay. Connie comes in with her solution. He needs to become a Christian. She emphasizes that the Bible verse on the box was an exhortation to pray for unbelievers, especially those obsessed with money and fancy living, and how it proves that Mildred wanted nothing more than for Bill to accept Christ. Bill reiterates that he can’t believe, and can’t forgive himself either. Connie tries again, and Bill runs off. Connie’s mother reflects that they probably won’t see him again, and how she’s realized that she has a choice between handling life the way Connie does or handling it the way Bill does, and it’s about time she became an official Christian.

I’ve already explained how bad that dichotomy is, so I’ll go into the other big problem with this scene. Based on my experience, there are two ways to deal constructively with someone acting like Bill; someone full of pain who is simultaneously incapable of caring for themselves and lashing out at others. First, you can put up some boundaries to protect yourself from their attacks, and focus on your own healing. Second, you can sit down with them, listen to them, let them vent while taking nothing they say personally, and hope that somewhere along the line you both figure out what they need. Both are valid choices. The latter can be noble and admirable, but when you can’t juggle your pain and theirs at the same time, which is typical, there’s no shame in the former. Better to successfully heal one person than try and fail to heal two.

What’s not okay is to insist on this being the moment the other person radically change their worldview, so they can grieve correctly and heal in the way you’ve decided they need to. Healing is complicated, beliefs are complicated, human development is complicated, and all of the above are incredibly personal. In the scene at the funeral, what Connie does is like trying to collect an insect with a sledgehammer. She is saying he can’t heal and grow unless he somehow acquires a belief in God. He doesn’t believe, and can’t will himself to accept it, because nobody can even at the best of times. Bill is too raw for her statements to do anything but drive him deeper into a feeling of hopelessness.

I do agree that, in the long run, Bill needs deep, transformative change in order to become a functioning adult. But Connie, at the end of this episode, expects him to convert entirely to her method of coping, and offers no other way to help him. In a way, she’s doing the same thing he did to her earlier in the episode. She goes about it in a nicer way, but she is still more hurtful than helpful, for exactly the same reason; she’s refusing to acknowledge that his pain needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

Final ratings

Best Part: When Jack and Eugene go to the funeral and are just their adorable selves. Which is to say, Jack quietly listens and hugs and makes everything feel a little warmer, and Eugene goes on a ramble about “the historical development of necrology and it’s impact on Etruscan archaeology…” and then remembers he’s at a funeral and apologizes a few thousand times. It’s sweet. 

Worst Part: It’s a tough call between the various lines that oversimplify the nature of unbelief, and how unbelievers can cope with death. The worst, I think, is actually Eugene’s. Eugene is a kind of intellectual jack of all trades, and at this point in the series he’s actually something of an agnostic. Eugene is probably my second favorite character after Connie, but all too often, AIO uses him as a legitimizing mouthpiece. He confidently asserts something that we are to assume is well founded, because A. he’s smart and B. he’s not a full-fledged believer so it’s also coming from an objective perspective. But of course, those statements are written without any actual research. His statements don’t follow his character or a coherent philosophy, but are simply what the writers want him to say, dressed up with the aide of a thesaurus.

Story Rating: Honestly, if I just look at the bare bones plot, without the ideas explicitly discussed, it’s a pretty good idea for a story. The central conflict is between two different methods of grieving; that’s interesting. The execution isn’t all bad either. Many of the scenes are well constructed and much of the dialog sounds like how actual humans talk. There’s still a bit that’s stilted, but overall… B – 

Moral Rating: “If you don’t believe in my exact religion, clearly you can’t cope with death and you’re doomed to misery forever.” D – 

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

Bellman and Black

  • Genre
    • Drama, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of William Bellman, 19th century English entrepreneur, starting with the day when he was ten years old and killed a rook. On that day, he attracts the personal interest of Mr. Black, a man with a strange connection to death itself. That interest, for good and for bad, will follow William through every joy and every tragedy of his life.
  • Character Empathy
    • These is another of those books where even the minor characters get unexpected layers. The main characters, meanwhile, are some of the most nuanced and engaging that I’ve ever read. William is a great protagonist; bright, warm hearted and gifted, yet relatably flawed. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It has a richness of language and theme, a luxurious pace that doesn’t get boring, and a naturally developed Victorian countryside setting. I discovered Diane Setterfield a year or two ago, and she immediately became a favorite. Her books make me feel like I’m reading Wilkie Collins or Jane Austen back when they were first published. That is, I don’t feel like I’m reading a modern author mimicking classic literature. I feel like I have been transplanted back into the 19th century, and am reading something contemporary in the past. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • This book is full of death, but it’s not a depressing book. It’s a book about a brilliant man who can conquer nearly everything, except death. It’s about how that can destroy you, but also how rich and beautiful life is between birth and death. It’s about hope and rebirth as much as death and decay.
    • The magical elements are ambiguous without pretension. I love some mystery in my fantasy, but in so many books, the mystery doesn’t conjure up a sense of wonder so much as an image of the author wiggling their fingers and saying, “woo-oo-ooo-ooo!” Not so here. In this book, everything is warm and happy and logical until suddenly it’s not, because that’s death. It’s not mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. It’s mysterious for the sake of being honest about the thing that takes us all by surprise.
    • Sections are broken up with passages on the biology and mythology of corvids, told by an anonymous narrator. It’s creepy and fascinating and cool as fuck. 
    • Most of these I review after one read, but this is one I re-read within a few months, and caught approximately three thousand things I missed the first time around. I already want to read it again.
    • A minor gay character who is really likable and has a moderately happy life. It ends eventually, but for once that doesn’t feel like gay erasure. It’s just that the entire point of this book is that, eventually, all lives end.
  • Content Warnings
    • One attempted suicide. Lots of deaths, mostly not graphic.
  • Quotes
    • “The rook is a skilled survivor. He is ancient and has inhabited the planet longer than humans. This you can tell from his singing voice: his cry is harsh and grating, made for a more ancient world that existed before the innovation of the pipe, the lute, and the viol. Before music was invented he was taught to sing by the planet itself. He mimicked the great rumble of the sea, the fearsome eruption of volcanoes, the creaking of glaciers, and the geological groaning as the world split apart in its agony and remade itself.”
    • “His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her tea cups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.”
    • “People remembered. They wept and they grieved. In the spaces between, they were glad that the leeks were doing well this year, envied the bonnet of the neighbor’s cousin, relished the fragrance of pork roasting in the kitchen on Sunday. There were those that registered the beauty of a pale moon suspended behind the branches of the elms on the ridge.”

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twenty-Three

This is it! The final chapter of The Screwtape Letters, where the Patient dies and Wormwood gets eaten. I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned it before or not (probably not, as it’s actually a fairly minor point in the book) but in this version of hell, instead of being eternally burned by hot coals, or whatever else you imagine hell to be, damned souls simply get pureed and consumed by demons. Any demons who fail to bring human souls back get to be food themselves. They’re not real big on learning from your mistakes in hell.

The majority of this letter is a description of the contrast between Wormwood’s experience of the Patient’s dying, and the Patient’s own experience. What is exhilarating to the Patient is toxic to Wormwood, his metamorphosis is Wormwood’s decline, his homecoming Wormwood’s doom.

“How well I know what happened at the instant when they snatched him from you! There was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognised the part you had in him and knew that you had it no longer. Just think (and let it be the beginning of your agony) what he felt at that moment; as if a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like tetter, as if he shuffled off for good and all a defiled, wet, clinging garment.” Screwtape rails against the unfairness of how the Patient is now able to perceive heavenly spirits and God himself, while the demons remain forcibly separated from the rest of the spirit world. “What is blinding, suffocating fire to you, is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man.”

It’s well scripted prose, but on a storytelling level, Lewis’ worldbuilding caves in on itself. Screwtape is describing two perspectives which he cannot possibly have any basis to describe them in the visceral, sensory detail that he does. First is Wormwood’s. If demons who fail to provide human souls are eaten, and Screwtape is an experienced tempter, logically he has never lost a human soul. If he had, he would not be an experienced tempter so much as a well-digested tempter. Then there’s the perspective of the Patient, which is even stranger. It is repeatedly impressed on us that demons cannot witness what the Patient is witnessing without agonizing pain. Could you describe a nuclear blast from the perspective of an alien who thrives in them? Perhaps a lifetime of study has given Screwtape a good basis to imagine these things, but Screwtape doesn’t strike me as being very poetic or imaginative, at least not on the level that this chapter requires. Furthermore, the power of this chapter depends on it being an accurate description of what entering the kingdom of heaven is like, and if that is only unreliable guesswork, that robs it of a lot of it’s power.

My feelings on this chapter mirror my impression of the book as a whole. It is not a terrible book. Lewis’ phrasing is wonderful; light and casual but still educated and witty, full of descriptions and observations that are interesting and delightful. He affirms good things, like logic, courage, patience, humility and everyday kindness. When you don’t examine any of the implications of his statements beyond what he spells out, but when you start analyzing him more critically, you can see the holes; the times when he claims to have proved something that he has not, the places where he turns his opponents into strawmen and the “facts” that don’t hold up under examination.

There was a selection of chapters near the beginning of this book in which Wormwood tries to tempt the Patient away from his new faith by making him befriend atheists. I discussed them all in one passage, and so skipped a point he made about using humor in tempting. The point was that real fun and joy and jokes are either neutral or contrary to the demon’s purpose, with the exception of flippancy. “In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies they have already found a ridiculous side to it…. it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect.”

This is a terrific point, and absolutely true. When you get a lot of people who all disagree with or dislike something, it’s the easiest thing to make them all act dismissively towards it, without ever considering whether that disdain is deserved, much less whether they are critiquing genuinely flawed ideas or being disrespectful towards actual human beings. It displaces philosophical disagreement based on an understanding of the other’s point of view into knee-jerk dislike of the other based simply on their being the other. It turns normally compassionate people into bullies and intellectual analysis into thoughtless mockery.

For example, when Lewis talks about scholars who don’t agree with him on the question of free will, he states that if they had all read Boethius properly they would have it right, but they haven’t because “when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what is said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers… To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge-to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior-this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded… great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk.'”

The only atheists he bothers to portray in the whole book are “superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism.” As for how you get people to become atheists, Screwtape states repeatedly that “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.” Atheists are portrayed as stupid and unthinking, and their morality comes from fashion and pride, not from love or compassion or empathy.

He is dismissive towards the analysis, values, and reasoning of people who disagree with him, and furthermore he is flippant towards their experiences as well. In the last chapter he argued that demons confuse us by making us think that ugly, doubt-inducing experiences are reflective of reality while happy, spiritual ones aren’t, but back in the first chapter he also dismisses everyday, pleasant experiences. Screwtape tells a story about a former temptee who had spent a bit of time in the library with spiritual books and was starting to wonder if there was something to it all. Screwtape counters by suggesting he go outside for a bit. “I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a N. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with all those books, a healthy dose of ‘real life’ (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all ‘that sort of thing’ just couldn’t be true.”

When dry dusty books lead to atheism, they’re wrong, but when they lead to Christianity, they’re the moral source of truth and reality. When everyday life leads to atheism, it’s a veil obscuring the deeper, esoteric nature of our world, but when it leads to Christianity, it’s dry intellectualism and excessive spiritualism that really gets in the way of seeing how our ordinary lives are where the battles of heaven and hell are actually played out. Which leads me to a question; if all paths, intellectual and practical, emotional and rational, can lead to heaven or hell, how was the Patient ever supposed to come to the right conclusion? Lewis doesn’t explain how all these contradictions work out and how people are actually supposed to find the truth, if the same paths can lead either way. Instead, he speaks with glowing prose and solid logic when he’s talking about Christianity, and with dismissive mockery when describing atheism, so we are left with the feeling that there’s something logical about one and not the other.

I find it oddly encouraging to see this hypocrisy and blindness on his part. In the circles I was raised in, Lewis was more than just a Christian writer. Some people could quote him more readily than they could quote the Bible. I personally considered him essentially a modern prophet. When I left the church (but before I became an official atheist), there were two figures in my head who disapproved of my departure; God and C. S. Lewis. I’m not sure who I was more ashamed to disappoint. Now, looking back, he is suddenly no more than a person. A good person, in many ways, a good writer, often capable of fantastic insights, but also with blind spots and prejudices and points of view he would rather mock than try to understand.

Coming up soon; Veggie Tales!

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twenty

Bombs are expected in the Patient’s neighborhood. At the beginning of Chapter Twenty-Eight, Wormwood is delighted at the imminent destruction he will be able to witness, but Screwtape is not so thrilled. He is even a bit anxious. The Patient, he says, if he were to die now, would be dying at the worst time possible.
“He has escaped the worldly friends with whom you tried to entangle him; he has “fallen in love” with a very Christian woman and is temporarily immune from your attacks on his chastity; and the various methods of corrupting his spiritual life which we are trying are so far unsuccessful.”

In short, if the Patient dies right now, he will almost certainly go to Heaven. Screwtape goes on to speculate that Wormwood is excessively absorbing the human point of view. He says that God only allows a few humans, relative to the masses who die young, to live until old age, because he knows that time is on the side of tempters.

“But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it – all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.”

Perhaps, Screwtape thinks, God wants a few people in heaven who have certain spiritual qualities that can only come from a lifetime of resisting temptations, for he can’t think of another reason for this to happen. Death is entirely an advantage of God’s and it is the demons who hope for long life for their “patients.”

“How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious to him that human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.”

This is an inversion of how we normally think, but not one that was entirely unfamiliar to me when I first read this book. I’ve heard versions of it in sermons and other religious writings. At my Grandfather’s funeral, I was told that he was dancing with the angels in heaven, and that he would laugh to see us all so sad for him. To a Christian, life is just a brief time when humans are forced to be a little further from God, and, provided they live a good life (and, according to most but not all Christians, attend the right church), death is the time that they get to return to God. Death is not sad for the dying, but only for those who are left behind.

Whether this idea is optimistic or pessimistic, and whether it’s healthy or toxic, really depends on the person holding the belief. For some, it leads to a Puritanical dismissal of earthly pleasure, or worse, an excuse for rejecting human beings. There might be plenty of nice atheists and homosexuals and godless liberals out there, but hanging out with that sort of people might lead you down the wrong path, and isn’t eternal life in heaven worth missing out on being with some nice people who are just going to end up in hell? This is the reason I wasn’t allowed to go over to the house of my next door Chinese neighbors. I might come out Buddhist or something. But for others, the view of death as the part where life really begins doesn’t diminish the importance of the life we have here. This part is important too, even if it’s finite, and the idea that death just brings people back to God is comforting, particularly to those who have lost someone.

Some atheists, I’ve found, are as offended by the idea of death as a good thing as Christians are offended by the atheist belief that death is the tragic, inescapable and irreversible end of consciousness. Atheists find the idea of death as good as unempathetic towards those who have died. Christians think that the atheistic perspective on death is unbearably depressing.

For the Christians out there, I think I’ll take a moment to express my own beliefs about death. Honestly, I hate the idea that death is simply the end, and that nothing happens afterwards. However, I think it is foolish and cowardly to convince myself to not believe something simply because I do not like the implications. I don’t see any good reason to believe in an afterlife. I can do one of two things with that. I can exhaust myself trying to change my beliefs, through some sort of intellectual dishonesty or self-delusion, or I can be honest about what makes sense to me, and find a way to be hopeful anyway.

I find hope in this; I am alive now. I am one of the few privileged people who gets to be alive now, as opposed to all the people who are no longer alive, and all the people who have not yet come to life. As a living person, I have not only the ability, but the responsibility, to live. Life is full of opportunity. There are people to love, books to read, beautiful autumn trees to see, foods to eat, dreams to dreams. I get to philosophize, to write, to find ways to make my mark on the world while I’m here. When I die, the world will, in some small way, not be the same world I was born into, because of my actions, and I get to choose what those actions are. I have very little control over whether the life I live is long or short, but I do get to choose whether, for the time I lived it, it was worth living.

In a strange way, that leads me to a conclusion that is not dissimilar from Lewis’s. We both agree that the ultimate good is not a long life, but a worthwhile life. The short life of someone who helped others and enjoyed their time is better than the long life of someone who hurt others and lived in bitterness. The difference is that Lewis thinks that the short life was more worthwhile because it might lead to an infinite amount of time with God in Heaven, and I think the short life was more worthwhile because, to borrow from The Fault in Our Stars, it was the short infinity that person had, and they used it well.

All of which has little to do with the Screwtape Letters itself. I have mixed feelings about this chapter. Some of the thoughts it raised in my mind were interesting, but once again, I am bothered by the cosmology. We have been told that God and the Devil are in combat for this man’s soul, as they are for every soul. This chapter made me think about an aspect of that battle that I had not considered before; God, if we believe he has control over when people die, which the chapter implies he does with the talk of him allowing people to live long or short lives, can pick whether he wins any given soul. We are lead to believe that there are a number of people who went to hell, not because they never believed, but because they believed, and then lived long enough to fall away or reconsider, and happened to die while they were backsliding. In other words, God could have chosen to kill them ten or fifteen years earlier, and guaranteed that they were allowed to go to Heaven. Instead, they were condemned to Hell.

In fact, I myself am an example of this principle, assuming that Lewis’s perspective is right and that I never reconvert. If Lewis is right, I am going to Hell, but God could have guaranteed that I avoid that fate, simply by killing me off as a teenager. It wouldn’t have been bad for me at all. It might have been terrible for some of my friends and family members, but all of them were Christians so they would have all met me again anyway. Instead, he let me live, and I grew apart from him, and so I’m going to live for an eternity apart from him. You know, because of love.

The more I read this book, the less I miss this particular brand of Christianity.