Saturday 20 March 2010

Being an atheist insomniac

Next week on Facebook, the "A" Week begins, asking atheists and freethinkers to display the scarlet "A" on their profiles. There are a lot of people who don't believe in the supernatural out there, and still many who feel somewhat alone in their community.

There are a lot of positives on abandoning superstition and religion in life - how you regard each day as a treasure can be one - but there are also downsides. I want to discus
s one aspect of being an atheist that has caused me sleepless nights and how that turned around. With the help of Star Wars.

Recognizing that there is no evidence for an afterlife (and that mainstream religions' claims are flimsy appeals to a sense of comfort) is not comforting.
Recognizing, as Richard Dawkins eloquently wrote,
"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?"
This is wonderful, and most days I do feel it. However, many nights I can't escape an existential angst so primal I cannot sleep. I feel silly; I feel like I'm failing; yet I cannot shake the feeling I am one day going to die, and sometimes later no one will ever remember me - there may be no one to remember me. I know I have an ego that drives me to be remembered.

I'm an artist, I seek to create things which will be exalted or at least pique interest beyond my numbered days. The street-artist Banksy once said, "
The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it." I don't delude myself into thinking people when spend 20+ hours pouring over trilobites with fanciful wings, but I hope more hours will aggregate looking over those paintings over many years than it took to create them.

Simply: many nights I cannot sleep. I feel anxiety over dying. Over things not finished. Over beauty in the world I've heard of and never seen. Of leaving my wife and family behind. I lay awake, freaked out that one day I won't be here. Sometimes I have to get out of bed and pace a little, or play video games to distract myself.

Having moderate persistent asthma doesn't help. Wheezing, tight-chested, thinking about mortality. It's where this painting comes from

Asthma Incubus:

Once, I was informed by a (well-meaning, I'm sure) atheist Buddhist transhumanist that my fear of dying was not a very mature response that I would have to come to terms with. It surprised me people could come to terms with it: how to do it so you aren't just ignoring it?

A couple of years ago, when the sleep-loss was becoming a particularly acute pro
blem, I read my way through book after book, hoping for some sort of atheism-based mental anaesthetic to help me sleep. Didn't find it.

Until I re-read one of my favourite Star Wars series. Star Wars came out when I was 3 years old. My lifelong artistic fascination with creating living things that don't exist is hugely influenced by Star Wars and the artists like Ralph McQuarrie (and so many more!) who breathed life into ideas.

I was re-reading the X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston (cover art by the awesome Paul Youll.) The series doesn't focus too much on Jedi and the Force, instead it focuses on the pilots that won the war, and are continuing to fight while dealing with attrition in their unit.

I got to Aaron Allston's first book in the series, Wraith Squadron, one sleepless night. I came to a part where the unit's commander, Wedge Antilles was in the uncomfortable position of writing a letter to a deceased pilot's family about her death.

I read this (p 242):
"I no longer believe that the momentum of a life headed in a worthwhile direction ends when that life does...(the pilot) shot down five enemies, all of whom served evil men. Had she not done so, their actions would have led to further evil, but her actions take their place instead, broadening like a firebreak into the future theirs would have occupied...I will never know how much good surrounding me is a legacy of Jesmin's life. Her future will be invisible to me. But invisible is not the same as nonexistent. I will know that her deeds and accomplishments still move among us, phantoms..."

I feel asleep, pondering this immortality.

I still turn to this passage on occasion when the silly, primitive part of my mind looks at the dark of night and sleep and feels fear. I know some of the comfort comes from it being part of a childhood fable I remember fondly.

But that idea, that whatever actions I take may ripple outward into the future, hopefully for the better gives me comfort enough to sleep. As Dawkins pointed out, I have existed, and I'm lucky to rise from the bed, to do good work and enjoy the universe. Allston's writing points out to me that my existence can never be removed the history of the universe.


- - - - - - - -
Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery
*** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

Star Wars: X-Wing: Wraith Squadron, by Aaron Allston is published by
Bantam Books and may be purchased here.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is published by Bantam books
and may be purchased here.


Anonymous said...

We achieve a natural immortality through having existed, through having acted in this world and through our bodies being physically reabsorbed by the planet.

Like Alan Watts said, 'our fundamental self is not something just inside the skin', but our perceptions and, as Allston writes, the domino effects of our actions.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks Karen.

One hope I have is that if there is a sort of an afterlife, it resembled the "Void that Binds" in Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos series.

Unknown said...

I can guarantee you, right now, that your existence is timeless and permanent. No one and nothing can extinguish you.

(According to the laws of physics. You may die, turn to ash, reform into something else, even turn to pure energy, but you will always exist. That's a comforting thought.)

I like to listen to some Daft Punk when I get thoughts like these.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks Djordje! Daft Punk, totally.

Unknown said...

The other option is to willingly delude yourself that a space daddy will take care of you after you die. Frankly, Daft Punk has less guilt.

By the way, did you see their Interstella 5555 series? It's very good animation, and the songs are nice.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Glendon,

As a fellow insomniac, you have my sympathy. Me? I prefer to dwell on my personal shortcomings or current state of pique than my mortality, but I understand where you're coming from.

I also am in tune with your desire to live on through your work. I want to do stuff that's worth looking at in a hundred years.

The thing about an afterlife? I do not believe it's at all intellectually supportable. So I don't believe in it.

But I've had enough weird stuff go on around death and ghosts and so on so that I do believe in it.

As an example, I had a dream last week where I heard some music my dead brother was playing on a stereo. It stuck in my head; I woke up trying to figure out what that guitar hook was from. Drove me nuts all day long.

That night, I watched a few episodes of Metalocalypse -- and the song was on one of them.

Evidence? No. But it was enough to feed that superstitious node at the base of my cortex.

My own consolation against death is this; the part or parts of ourselves that have self-awareness are insignificant next to the rest of us. And the distinctions between the world and the individual are actually quite arbitrary. We're part of the whole, and it wouldn't be the same thing if we weren't here. Despite all human judgment, there is a perfection to existence, and we are a part of that as vital as any other part. More arbitrary judgment -- but it's as valid as any other.

Not too far from your position in a lot of ways...

Saffy said...

I remember first coming across the concept of non-immortality, it involved a program on black wholes. I got so worried that our entire planet re: solar system was going to be randomly swallowed and I couldn't sleep. I was about 5.

This has continued through out my life - even when I was doing nothing but being made to to church there was part me going 'yeah but what if that's not true?'

My dad was very good with this he told me that our actions reverberate down the years (and then went on about Chaos butterflies! and storms), the fact we are all made of stars and all those bits of us there are could find ourselves being other stars or planets or what ever. And most importantly for a scared 5 year old - that black wholes where unlikely to just suddenly appear like that but that even if it did maybe we'd end up as part of another universe and if not then we wouldn't know about it anyway so it wouldn't matter. This eased me far more than being told we'd all go to heaven which was my mums answer (this didn't work as I percieved heaven as being part of this universe and the black whole sucks you out of it - remember I was five!).

Thankyou for sharing this :)


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