June 15, 2015
Fourteen years ago I was sitting in an airport lounge waiting for my flight when I opened a notebook and began jotting the outlines of a memoir about mortality and age. I was 62 at the time, which is not that old under the standard that modern medicine has set. In fact, medical advances have kept me alive since then. I conceived the memoir in the spring of that year and months later was diagnosed with a prostate cancer, which would surely have killed me but for the skills of the surgeon who attended me.
It also transpired that the book I had begun was the first of four reflections on age and death I would go on to complete over a ten-year period. The last of these has just been published under the title, “You’re Going To Be Dead One Day: A Love Story.” The paradoxical title startles people, but that is because we all feel more comfortable sweeping this fact of our existence under the carpet of our daily distractions.
The mordant Czech novelist Franz Kafka once wrote: “The meaning of life is that it stops.” This is the dark view, and also an incomplete one. For even if one were to accept Kafka’s view as a cosmic statement about the human condition, there are still the lives of individuals to account for. How does the perception that life merely ends affect the meaning of life for a single person? How does it shape our individual ends?
Since many people do not believe that life merely stops, another question presents itself: How does belief in an after life-affect the way we live now? What is the intersection of mortality and faith? And that is what – without premeditation on my part – the four volumes of these memoirs eventually came to be: a meditation on mortality and faith.
I am an agnostic, a believer in mysteries that we cannot solve. Being an agnostic does not mean I am closed to faith. On the contrary, it is the humility to recognize that we do not know the answer to the fundamental questions of our existence – whether there is a Divinity that shapes our ends or whether life has no meaning other than that it stops. Atheists are closed to faith. Or to put it more accurately, atheists are devotees of a faith that God does not exist. The atheist faith fosters contempt for religious belief and denies itself the ability to understand why religious people believe as they do other than that they are credulous or mentally disturbed.
Since atheism is also a faith, the only meaningful question is how this faith – or any faith – affects the lives of its believers. Does it enrich or diminish them? Atheism constricts the vision of its adherents and flattens their thought, denying them access to many inexplicable dimensions of human experience. Agnosticism is skeptical but also keeps the mind open, making its adherents curious about the impact religious faith can have on the meanings of individual lives.
The love story at the center of my new memoir concerns a skeptic and a believer, and looks at how their lives are affected by these questions of faith. My wife’s spirituality inspires a compassion for others that has led her to become involved in the rescue of abandoned and abused horses. Forming a motif of the memoir are my observations of how her faith works, how it motivates her, and – equally important – how it affects our life together. As it happens we both recently faced serious health issues – my wife as the result of a car accident that nearly killed her, and myself as the result of a botched operation to correct a bad hip, which left my foot paralyzed and me bedridden.
What I encountered in the course of a very slow and still incomplete recovery was the power of love to enhance even a diminished life, not only mine but also the animals who became part of our family along the way. Life may be a downhill affair, as one writer famously put it. But even on the downslope it is filled with discoveries, and for me a youthful passion for the woman who has been beside me for twenty years, as though our romance had just begun.