In Case I Die: Godfatherhood

Hey buddy,

You’re asthma is all messed up today. I’m super sorry. It sucks that someone whose chief joy in life is constant motion has lungs that push back like they do.

Anyway…

I’m your godfather. I don’t know if you know that. Your upbringing hasn’t involved any church, save a funeral here and there. Nonetheless, a Catholic priest poured some water on your head when you were a baby and charged me with overseeing your education in a particular conception of the spiritual world. 

I’m fine with that. I think I’m well suited, actually. I’m good at doubting, and when thinking about God, doubt is important. 

The prior generation of your family were all brought up in the Catholic church, but everybody stopped caring about it at a certain point, which is for the best. Regardless, that particular version of God was a foundational concept for me in trying to figure what living and dying were all about. 

When you’re a kid, it’s very easy to see things in black and white, and my experience of religion in my early life was very much in keeping with this. God was absolutely and categorically real, and what my elders had to say about him was absolutely and categorically true. 

Of course, as I aged and encountered more people I came to realize that there was no consensus on anything related to God, and that there were people who didn’t believe in such a thing at all. It was a profound crisis for me, to realize that it was possible that God didn’t exist. I felt like I was putting myself in grave danger to entertain questions about it. And despite all the other uncertainties, I was sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if God existed he was extremely punitive and very jealous. 

I think that the weakness of this conception was revealed when I realized that Santa Claus didn’t exist, because if an elaborate untruth had been orchestrated to convince me that a superpowered man brought me presents via reindeer, than an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent being that cares about me so much that he’ll send me to hell was very likely a fiction. 

Regardless, I wrestled with it for a long time. The idea that death might be the end seemed even more threatening than the prospect of spending an eternity in agony. 

I learned to live with this fear, and then, gradually, apathy set in. I didn’t engage with the idea of belief in something greater than myself until I woke up in a smoking crater in the middle of an AA meeting, which forced me into a reckoning with the subject all over again. 

It took decades to develop a way of thinking about the world that allowed me to engage with the possibility that the life I was living would end, and that my consciousness would end along with it, and that this was acceptable. Coming to this acceptance required that I think about my place in the unfolding complexity of biological life on planet Earth, and then about what role, if any, my species played in the greater physical process of an expanding universe. 

Out of this, I built almost no faith, but I did acquire some hope. Hope can be flimsy, but it’s sturdier than faith. 

In 2022, we are careening toward a catastrophe (several, actually), and it appears that these are existential catastrophes. The organization of the world is such that despite widespread acknowledgement of the terrible crisis of climate change, nothing will be done to avert it, despite a great many people wanting there to be a concerted effort to do so. 

I became aware of this as a pressing and existential threat when I was about the age you are at the time of this writing, and I learned it from a wildlife magazine called Ranger Rick. It’s fascinating to me that in 1989 the magazine’s editors were able to communicate this horror in language a seven year old could understand.

This scared me terribly and I tried to communicate my fear to adults and the adults mostly thought that I was an idiot. 

Dune is a book, and now it’s also several movies and a limited TV series and by 2028 will probably also be a line of action figures and phone games and some other crap. 

I loved the book. There are tons of things about it that are dumb, or played out, or that could be construed as reactionary, but regardless, its an interesting story and one of the major themes is the survival of human beings as a species, and the terrible weight of creating a scenario in which we are protected from extinction. 

Early in the first novel, the chief protagonist is presented with a trial that is intended to determine whether he is a human or an animal. Here’s the scene as depicted in the most recent Hollywood enormity: 

Now, I don’t so much like these blanket statements about the virtues of animals, but in terms of what’s happening here, I’ll communicate the ethic that is being imparted: Paul is in excruciating pain, and is told that were an animal trapped in a similar situation it would chew off its leg to escape, while a human would wait in the trap in order to attack a threat to the species. 

So, Paul has to choose. Is he a human or is he an animal? Does he have a sense of responsibility to his species? 

By the metrics of the Gom Jabbar, the people calling the shots on our planet have abdicated their humanity.

What does any of this have to do with Catholicism, or God, or anything? I’m getting there, but at this point, I want to say that I think that there is something about our species that is special. We are unique in our ability to direct energy, create controlled explosions, and circumvent death. I don’t think this grants us a superiority over all of life, but I do think it bestows upon us a responsibility to facilitate its propagation throughout space and into the future. This isn’t a fact or a foregone conclusion, it’s just a hope that I have. While I don’t believe in God as such, I think that perhaps in some distant future it might be possible to create such a thing. 

For this thing to come to pass, above all things we must not go extinct. I experience a spiritual despair at the thought that we might stop existing. I want us to get there, and for us to redeem all the suffering and striving of the past. 

Over the last decade I’ve been slowly making my way through a collection of correspondence by deceased science fiction author and fascinating madman Philip K. Dick. I don’t feel capable of telling you what exactly it is that the book is about, save that it began after a hallucinatory religious experience. I’ve never encountered a similar work. He took this odd experience, one that I think many people would have simply chalked up to a comedown from dental surgery, and hammered away at it with every odd tool he could find. 

I’m almost certainly going to mangle this, but he speaks at length about his sense that there is a godlike presence (that he calls ‘Zebra’) that is benevolent, and playful, and is somewhat analogous to a sort of alien Jesus, who intercedes on behalf of the world by imposing itself on the reality we’re currently experiencing. I like this idea, that there might be a thing that could look out over the whole of existence and soothe all the hurt. 

I haven’t talked to you about Marx in any of these ‘when you get older’ things. I don’t think you really need to read him directly to understand capitalism, and Marx himself didn’t seem to think that it was necessary for anyone to understand capitalism theoretically for it to work as a historical process. Like a lot of other things that I love and return to frequently, Marxism hasn’t made me any happier, but it has helped me to feel like I understand the world more. 

Though it’s brief, he writes about ‘species being’ in an early piece of writing. It’s not a very specific or paired down thing, and I won’t quote it, (although I’ve linked it here) but (in my reading) it postulates our species as a sort of God-in-waiting that will, if and when we get over our shit, be capable of doing amazing things that aren’t horrible and that don’t drive us toward an apocalypse. 

Until then: Stay hydrated, use sunscreen, assert your right to remain silent, never get in a fight that you’re opponent knows is going to happen, rock early, and (obviously) rock often. 

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