A Nontheist’s Ash Wednesday Meditation

[F]or dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. – Gen. 3:19b

[A] man who dies is not a living man who enters into death. – Alain (Emile-Auguste Chartier)

Lent begins today. I will perform no acts of penance; not because I have not sinned, but because I have no fear of knowing divine wrath after death. I have, in fact, no fear, or hope, of knowing anything at all after death. The dead – to use an absurd but necessary expression – know nothing, for knowing requires a knower, and dying is the destruction of the knower. When one’s existence has ceased, one cannot know that existence has stopped, because one no longer exists: there is no one to know. The stopping itself may be horribly painful, and we fear it naturally. But, after the stopping, the actual absence of being: our fearing of that seems foolish. And yet we do fear it, perhaps because we cannot imagine not knowing that we have lived and died. Reflexively, we feel that “being dead” must be some kind of experience.

But to “be” dead, if it were possible, is to experience nothing, not even that one is experiencing nothing. Death is the inevitable actualization of the seemingly impossible: the sheer nonexistence of body, mind, soul, and spirit. The living mind can think in the shadow of nonexistence, but it cannot comprehend the reality. Death – the absence of presence, the absence of absence, the absence, even, of nothingness – is the absolute limit, the transcendent, the inaccessible infinite.

Zen master Bunan said, “While alive, be dead, be thoroughly dead. And then do what you will.” The good master must have been misled, or seeking to mislead: one cannot be thoroughly dead while alive. One can approach death; one can perhaps even die metaphorically. But not thoroughly. Not really. As monk Mamiya’s master said, “Dead men do not speak.” By speaking, Bunan belied his advice. He thought, perhaps, to show us an escape from life and death, but the door is trompe l’oeil.

One who speaks exists, and one who exists is not and cannot be dead, because death is the extinction of be-ing. We may say that one who is dead does not exist, but in fact no one is dead, no one does not exist. There is only a name, a memory, within those who continue, for a time, to exist. They who were do not somehow live in that memory: a memory is not that which is remembered; a name is not that which is named. Memories and names may remain, but beings cannot.

A being is but the opening and closing of a moment of time. “Afterlife” and “beforelife”: nonexistence. In a moment between them, in a brief irruption out of the eternal not, we exist. We may feel, to our horror, that we are trapped in time, but in fact time is what we are. When the time that we are expires, we are no longer. It is only now, in this moment between not and not, that I am. What do I do with this shrinking moment that is I?

One thing I need not do is worry about nonexistence: that would be to worry about nothing. Because I exist only now, because I will not exist after my last moment, and because there is no experience without existence, I am, for myself, eternal. Absurdly so, but eternal. But I do feel concern, because I know that I will someday be dead for others. I am not alone: my disappearance will cause enduring anguish for a few people. True, that anguish will vanish soon enough, as if it had never been, when those people, too, have ceased to be; but if, thrown into existence in this moment, I impart any meaning to life at all, it is in and through solidaric relationship and compassionate response to other beings. That everyone and everything is ultimately void does not mean that all is thoroughly void now. Our importance is not negated by our impermanence; on the contrary, it subsists there. For all of us.

No one gets out of this alive; therefore, no one gets out. But in our present, in the time that we are, we’re all in: whatever this is, however frightening and painful and pointless it may be, we are in it, we are it, together. Because our suffering, which is all the more intense and horrible for being meaningless, cries to a deaf heaven, we have only each other, and many of us have no ears to hear. But some hear, and some who hear respond. Otherwise, to be would be unbearable.

Deep in our hearts, we know that ultimately we are nothing. But the humane heart, because it also knows and responds to the reality of the present in its depths, says Nonot now – to nothingness. And, cherishing living beings in their frailty and impermanence, moved by their plight, it says No to the suffering that it sees and feels. To be true to that heart is the best I can do. Moreover, because my every day is a kind of Ash Wednesday, a prolepsis of extinction, it is for me the difference between life and death.

Now, while I am not nothing, I make something of myself, something that is as real as a moment of consciousness can be, something that says Yes to life and, therefore, to acts of love that honor and harbor life and being. With eyes and heart open, I allow myself to live deeply and responsively; despite the pain, I will not attempt to live as if death were life. That would be to search for a back door, for a way out of the depths into dissociation and unreality; to indulge such delusion would be to waste this brief time that I am. Dead people do not know or speak, because there are none, but here and now I exist among other beings in the stark knowledge of life and death. Here and now I speak and hear, offer and accept, love, without which I would be nothing.

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