Following the death of my wife, Nancy, in mid-February of this year, I have thought a lot about whether her soul lives on in some form. What follows are my thoughts at this point—24 May, 2022. By June they might change somewhat. I may, for example, read something new that alters my thinking. As Emerson once stated, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” One of my big takeaways is—as I have thought for years—that we should be humble about our own thinking, our own abilities. That saying of Alexander Pope’s—“to err is human”—applies not just to others but also to ourselves.
If Nance (as I usually called her) lives on somehow, it could be in two ways. The first I am sure of, and it was described well by Doctor Zhivago in that famous novel of the same name. “You in others—this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life—your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you—the you that enters the future and be comes a part of it.”
As I have written about Nance, as a wife, mother, grandmother, nurse, and friend she was a loving person, and one it was easy to love. Thoughts of me and our mutual love never completely died in her, even in her final Alzheimer’s stage; and I doubt that I will ever stop loving her or forget her, no matter what my final stage may be. (See here for some thoughts on love being immortal.) In addition, I have sometimes written of her, and will continue to do so, and at least some of those words will still be around after I depart. And then she will also live on, in varying degrees, in the memories of our three children, six grandchildren, and her friends.
And even if such memories dwindle or even cease that does not mean that all consequences of her actions are nullified. As a nurse for decades, for example, she made countless lives better, and how can anyone calculate the multiplier effect of all those kind actions, how many people might have in turn been kind to others because of her initial kindnesses?
Thus, about that first type of immortality—living on in others—I have no doubt. How much she will live on, I cannot say, but Nance will live on. The second type of immortality, the continuing existence of an individual soul after the death of its body, is more problematic.
In a Hollywood Progressive essay written just about a week before Nance’s death, I stated my preference for agnosticism, partly because both atheism and the belief that one religion is superior to all others seem to me to be too dogmatic, too lacking in the more proper “who-knows?” humility. I also mentioned my Catholic background and that I had occasionally taught a university course on comparative religions.
A few days after Nance’s death, I remember telling a Catholic friend that I desperately wanted to believe that Nance’s soul lived on. Coupled with that hope is the Catholic (along with other religions’) hope in resurrection—the Catholic teaching of my youth about hell and purgatory I choose to disregard, especially in Nance’s case because she deserved neither.
In my 1967 edition of the Catholic “Dutch Catechism,” it states, “it is good to learn to live with the firm hope of the resurrection and at the same time with our ignorance of how it will precisely be.” But the catechism also suggests that somehow the resurrection it hopes for will involve the body and not just a bodiless soul. I like that. I choose to hope that somehow Nance’s beautiful soul has been reunited with her still vibrant pre-Alzheimer’s body.
One of my favorite poems is “Eden” by the seventeenth-century Anglican clergyman and poet Thomas Traherne. It starts off:
A learned and a happy ignorance
From all the vanity,
From all the sloth, care, pain, and sorrow that advance
The madness and the misery
Of men. No error, no distraction I
Saw soil the earth, or overcloud the sky.
And then later, it adds,
Joy, pleasure, beauty, kindness, glory, love,
Sleep, day, life, light,
Peace, melody, my sight,
My ears and heart did fill and freely move.
All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me a universal world of pleasure.
Often, over the years, I’ve thought how wonderful life would be if we all were faultless like Traherne imagines in his poem—but, of course, we aren’t. But since in imaging an afterlife for Nance and dealing in the realm of hope I can imagine and hope whatever I want, I choose to think of her somewhat like Dante thought of Beatrice in his Divine Comedy. Thus, the resurrected Nance (of my imagination) is beautiful, kind, and loving (as she often was on earth) and is joyful. And while I’m at it, I also imagine her as something like the guardian angels we were taught of as Catholic kids—she stands beside me, smiling gently, encouraging me to be kind, loving, and patient--she was always more patient than I, and sometimes encouraged me to be more so.
If all of the above seems delusional, let me offer a defence of it. In essence, it can be summed up in one word—pragmatism. A decade ago I defended pragmatism in politics, and just a few months ago I urged it in regard to dealing with climate change. Here I hope to justify the pragmatic approach in dealing with death, faith, and hope.
The father of that method was the philosopher William James, who wrote many works including Pragmatism and The Varieties of Religious Experience, both books based on lectures he gave in the first decade of the twentieth century. What I like about James’ philosophy, as I’ve written before, is that it is humble, tolerant, civil, and empathetic. It seeks truth but realizes that it is complex and our individual circumstances lead us to see it differently. It also acknowledges that most people are moved more by their feelings than by reason and logic. Finally, it is an optimistic and hopeful philosophy that allows a place for religious feelings, but not religious (or any other kind of) dogmatism. In essence, at least as I interpret it, the test of its effectiveness is whether it works for us, whether it produces good results. It approaches problems with a truth-seeking, open mind, and seeks solutions that will work out in actual practice.
Having been raised Catholic, including over 20 years of Catholic education, and later having taught comparative religions, I am more familiar than most people with religious ideas. Ditto, for philosophers’ thinking about religion. In college, I minored in philosophy, and I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, “Vladimir Soloviev and the Russophiles,” about the political differences between Russia’s most famous philosopher and his conservative opponents. Within the field of history, it has been “Intellectual History” or the history of ideas that has most captivated me.
But now, after decades of reading and thinking about previous theologians’ and philosophers’ ideas about God, all I can say is “the jury is still out.” Whether a God— however we might define he, she, or it—exists or not, no one can say for sure. We can believe or hope there is a God, but that’s all we can do. In spite of thousands of years of religious and philosophic inquiry, that’s all we got. No matter how intense one’s faith or hope is, if there is no God, believing or hoping will not create one. Conversely, no matter how ardently one insists that there is no God, such insistence will mean nothing if one does actually exist.
So where does that leave us? All over the place, from doctrinaire believers to ardent atheists—and all shades in between. Where it leaves me is with my agnosticism—regarding God, maybe yes, maybe no—but also with my pragmatism. What shade of belief or unbelief will work best for me? As suggested above in regard to Nance’s death, the hope that some sort of Supreme Being exists and so too does some sort of immortality and resurrection.
And why will those beliefs work out best for me? Primarily because they will best help me complete the work I have yet to do—however much that might be—on this endangered planet.
Having just entered my mid-80s, I don’t know how long that will be, but as I see it my main remaining tasks are to do all I can to honor Nance’s memory, to assist in all ways I can our three children and six grandchildren, and (primarily through my writing) to contribute to progressive advances in regard to causes where I can make some contributions. Because of their importance and/or my abilities the three most significant right now seem to be climate change, peace (especially ending the war in Ukraine), and fighting racism and bigotry.
One of my favorite quotes regarding old age and death is from Robert C. Peck. “To live so generously and unselfishly that the prospect of personal death—the night of the ego, it might be called—looks and feels less important than the secure knowledge that one has built for a broader, longer future than any one ego ever could encompass. Through children, through contributions to the culture, through friendships— these are ways in which human beings can achieve enduring significance for their actions which goes beyond the limit of their own skins and their own lives.”
Remembering Nance’s loving nature (and knowing that for six decades I was loved by a wonderful woman), thinking of her as sort of my guardian angel—encouraging me to seek always the good, the true, and the beautiful—will best aid me to follow Peck’s advice. And, of course, while I’m hoping, I might as well also hope that when I die her smiling face will be there to greet me.