I am an agnostic who was born and raised in a very strict Christian fundamentalist environment. God was portrayed as a demanding enforcer who lashes-out and destroys if His demands are not met. People were viewed as evil beings that should not breathe God's air unless he gives them the right to do so. Ever heard the expression, "not fit to tote guts to a bear"? I did, as a child when it was orated from the pulpit during a sermon. The preacher was referring to people in general.
The central religious premise was "fear," fear of God, fear of life, fear of other people, fear of Satan, fear of....one's self. Everything other than going to church and reading the Bible was- or had the potential to be sin. We had no television set in our house for years because TV's were called evil, of the devil, and if you had one in your home, you were in danger of hell fire! The only music approved for listening was performed in- or condoned by the church. Certain hairstyles and makeup were sure to provoke the wrath of God on anyone who wore them. In my mind, God was a capricious being who watched everyone, relentlessly, and pounced at the first shadow of a transgression. I did not hear about love or a loving God until I was an adolescent.
By that time, I had grown weary of the confining environment I had endured as a child; it felt like a boa constrictor around my torso, squeezing the very life from me that it claimed to preserve and save. Instead of feeling liberated, and more importantly, supported and safe, I was full of fear, anxiety, and anger. I became an angry teenager and eventually an angry and confused young man. This anger carried over into my adult life, and I was the cause of misery for those I loved the most. Unfortunately, my pent-up anger led me to places I should never had seen, much less been a part of. I have been violent, and I have received violence. I've heard the wails from the depths of an insane mind and witnessed the violence of the criminally insane. I have been to the brink of suicide more than once in my life. It can be said that I have been to the abyss, where I looked into it, and even placed my head inside it, and lived to tell about it. While I have faced my demons (figuratively speaking) and I am at peace with myself, these events have left me with "baggage" that cannot be unloaded...only lightened, and then to a limited degree. A positive outcome is that I am now a more empathetic and compassionate person than my loved ones or I ever dreamed I could be.
Religion, when studied and researched from a historical and empirical standpoint, just cannot be proven as absolutely true. It was created by men and used by unscrupulous men to control the masses. I do not blame or demean those who choose to believe and practice religion, but most believers are merely following tradition and doing what "so-and-so" told them to do at some point in their lives. Who am I to question their faith if it brings them comfort and gives them a reason to live?
Until October 9, 2010, death was the only thing that still caused a twinge of fear in me. Despite having dismissed the dogma of a literal hell, I was still fearful of the unknown nature of death, and what might or might not be beyond it. What happens when the life force leaves the body? What pain may or may not accompany death? On that fateful day, I had a heart attack.
The evening began as a pleasant one. Dinner out with family, followed by a trip to a local go-kart track with my significant other, her daughter and the daughter's two-year-old son. After the meal, I noticed some discomfort in my chest, but I attributed it to indigestion. I spent the better part of thirty minutes on the go-kart track vigorously racing with a young man who was a skillful driver. As I climbed out of the kart and shook the young man's hand, I noticed the pain in my chest had intensified. Still, I thought it was only indigestion. It was my turn to watch the two-year-old while my girlfriend and her daughter had a turn at the go-karts. Suddenly, a crushing pressure in the center of my chest started to accompany the intensifying pain, and I became unable to focus enough to monitor the child and keep him safe.
All I can recall of the next few minutes are the faces of my girlfriend and her daughter. The daughter told me to lie down before I crumpled to the ground, and as I lay outside on the cool, hard concrete, the pain began to subside and the physical world began to blur and fade away. Now, I have been in accidents, been knocked unconscious, and thought I was going to die, but this was different. I could feel the life force literally draining from my body as I slipped into a surreal state, nor could I feel the cool, hard concrete beneath my body. It was as if I was suspended in space and time. The cares of this world were no longer a factor. I was at peace, a peace that was indescribable. All my former worries and concerns evaporated like fog on a sunny Sunday morning. I did not want to return. Suddenly, a first responder touched my wrist, and I returned to this world.
Since this has happened, I do not fear death. I know it is something all people must face, and it is the end of the turmoil we put ourselves and others through because we want to provide answers to questions without answers, and we want to control our destinies.
What I did not experience were supernatural beings there to meet and greet me. No demons were there to drag me to hell, nor were there any bright lights, singing choirs, or loved ones who have passed on before me. Life was slowly draining from my body as if it was shutting down for a permanent sleep. I believe that once the life force is gone, the body turns to dust. In other words, life as we know it is over...nothing more, nothing less. Our journey ends, and we no longer exist.
The irony is that instead of becoming more apathetic, I now live life as it truly is: a temporary state, a journey in which I am a vagabond just passing through. An afterlife does not factor into my plans or my current state of living. This is extremely liberating and empowering, not from a haughty perspective, but from a humble perspective of realizing this life is all I have. My conclusions about life and death are:
There are no permanent destinations to prepare for, so try to enjoy what you are lucky enough to have and experience while you are here, nor be obsessed with what will happen when you die. Help others along the way by making their journey easier. But most importantly, when you look into the eyes of the homeless, the addict, the insane, the sick and dying, someone who irritates you, realize that at least one of these will one day be you...and smile at yourself.