Right Here, That’s Where

Imagine for a moment a small child with an incurable, degenerative, but relatively painless disease. He probably won’t live past his teenage years, but for now he’s at least able to go out and play with his friends. His basic needs are taken care of, although his family is not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. They live in a rundown but functional house, and most of their meals are healthy but bland. No one outside his neighborhood knows who he is, and the odds of that changing are virtually nil.

You come upon this child as he is playing a game with a few other kids. It’s just a game, serving no real purpose beyond the children’s amusement. This child is smiling. He appears quite happy.

Is there something fundamentally wrong with him? Doesn’t he know that he has very little time left? Doesn’t he know that if circumstances had been different he could have had so much more? He could have been healthier, richer, better known. He could have had educational and career goals. He could have looked forward to someday having children and grandchildren. What reason does this child have to be so happy?

I would say that he’s simply enjoying what he has. It may be far more limited than what anyone would like, but who are we to tell him it isn’t enough to bring true happiness? Why should we assume that he should be somehow unable to enjoy his limited time in this world?

I wrote that little story in response to this article. Besides being smug, condescending, and needlessly insulting, the author just flat-out misses the point. First of all, wishful thinking doesn’t make something true. Second, most of the gods human beings have come up with really don’t strike me as preferable alternatives to the reality we live in. But my main objection is this: who are you to tell me I shouldn’t be happy?

Yes, I’m aware that I probably have about fifty or sixty years left to exist — a blink of an eye when compared even to human history, let alone the existence of the cosmos. Most of the people on this tiny, insignificant planet don’t even know who I am. I matter much less to the universe (if the universe were some sort of conscious entity, that is) than any particular cell in a bug you might squish matters to you. If you find that depressing, I’m sorry. (That’s not a sarcastic “I’m sorry,” either. I don’t like to see people depressed. Keep reading; maybe it will console you a bit.)

You know what, though? I think it’s kinda cool. Trying to contemplate the universe on a macro scale, something our little brains aren’t really wired to do, is fun for me. I like to picture what else might be out there, and imagine what possibilities human beings might find in the future. Or whatever evolutionary descendents of humans exist by then. Or whatever other sentient creatures exist, here or elsewhere. See? Isn’t this fun already?

It also helps that I’m loved. Not by some big, mysterious creator, but by other people. Sure, they may not matter anymore to the cosmos than I do, but at least they care. For that matter, they understand the importance of spending some face-to-face time together and reminding me that they care. If the people in my life have figured out that saying “I love you” from time to time is important, even when I already know they do, you’d think a god could do the same.

In any case, I enjoy the people in my life. I know that, barring unforeseen circumstances, I have a few decades to enjoy this little blue and green rock of ours. I know that after that, I won’t exist in any sort of self aware sense, although there are bound to be people who remember me at least for a while (I will try to make those memories good ones). When it comes right down to it, I don’t care whether that’s “supposed” to depress me or not. Maybe you need more than that to be happy. Fine. But that doesn’t mean I have to.

So where are the honest atheists? I don’t know where to find them all, but there’s one right here. And whether this fits into your worldview or not, I honestly don’t need a god to be happy.

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