[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask: AskAWK@villagevoice.com]
Dear Andrew W.K.,
I’ve recently accepted the fact that I’m an Atheist. I realize most everyone in my family would be very upset by this, so I’ve kept it to myself. But now I suddenly feel very isolated. I’m having a very difficult time understanding how to deal with death knowing that there isn’t a heaven in which those I love will be seen again. Please help me with the constant fear of losing my loved ones for forever.
Life confronts us with an endless series of dilemmas and pressures. The most challenging of these almost always involve that unmistakable yet mysterious quality best described as “the unknown.” Maybe the supreme puzzle isn’t in figuring out the ultimate secret answer to solve all the unknowns forever, but is in solving the need to figure out an ultimate secret in the first place. In this way, and perhaps as you’ve already done, we can accept that there are areas of life that we simply don’t presently have the necessary faculties to process or understand. Through this acceptance, we gain a type of transcendent knowledge in itself, one that’s both humbling and enlightening. An ultimate understanding of existence may be almost intentionally beyond our reach for all kinds of good reasons, but in considering this possibility, we don’t necessarily need to feel frustrated, discouraged, or belittled. Perhaps it’s beyond our grasp for a reason that is ultimately helpful, like a hot stove being out of reach from a child. Or perhaps it’s like a carrot being dangled in front of a rabbit, or a dog chasing after a false rabbit at a race track — perhaps there is something motivating about not getting it, and not knowing.
Maybe that lack of knowledge creates an intrinsic and propulsive energy that in some basic way connected to the very roots of our survival. We’re propelled by our trying to know; we strive and thrive as human beings in that pursuit. But what if we did know it all? Would we even be human anymore? Would there be a reason for us to move or go forward or exist?
When questions remain unanswered, it means there is more living still to do. Collectively and individually, we must earn our understanding through our efforts and be worthy of the shreds of truth we claw out of life. And perhaps we will never get to the One Final Truth buried behind it all, because that would stop the need for things to keep unfolding, and growing, and revealing themselves to us. We are revealing ourselves to ourselves, and the world is revealing itself through us, and us through it. If everything was known, there could be no revelation. The more we discover, the more we discover there is to still be discovered. As the great saying goes, “as veil upon veil is lifted, we find veil upon veil behind.” Maybe the veil gives shape to what it obscures. Maybe the onion is never meant to be peeled to its absolute center, for then there would be no onion to enjoy peeling. Maybe the absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth — or maybe not.
Fear can come from having the answers as much as it can come from not having any answers at all. The known is often even more frightening than the unknown. And regardless of what anyone believes or claims to know, we really don’t know very much about what living is really all about — not to mention what really happens when we die. What does it feels like to no longer feel?
One thing we do know, even in the face of all these unknowns, is that we can experience genuine moments of heavenly beauty in our own time living in this world. We can realize true moments of undeniable happiness, if we pay attention enough to notice them as they happen. We can even imagine a version of heaven that simply consists of what we already know and love about life right now.
Like many spiritual concepts, the idea of heaven can be explored as a symbolic illustration of many genuine aspects of our own day to day reality. It can be contemplated by believers and non-believers alike, and can offer us extremely valuable insights into our true self and the nature of what it means to be human right here and now. In this way, heaven is a state of true perfection which is already present and at the same time always in front of us. It’s something to unfold and reveal and work towards and to earn. Those precious moments of happiness will eventually slip through our fingers in the same way in which our loved ones will eventually slip into the unknown, as we ourselves will too — as all things must.
But ultimately, none of these looming and inevitable experiences with the unknown are to be feared or dreaded — they are meant to be questioned, explored, celebrated, and ultimately faced with a sense of awe and humility, and if we’re really strong, with a sense of humor.
Let us recognize heaven when we find it around us. And let us work to make heaven here and now for one another, as much as we can. It’s quite possible that when we die, that will be the moment we realize we had already been in heaven all along.
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