When Grief Grows into Existential Wonder

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Gripping my mother’s hand, I curiously peered over the coffin’s edge, finding a pale sleeping woman inside. Her eyes were closed and dusted with pink eye shadow. Her lips were pressed into a delicate smile. Prior to seeing my dead aunt, my mother warned me that she was gone. But how could this be? Her hands looked plump and warm and she was wrapped in her favorite cashmere coat. She did not look dead. But I still felt odd: unpleasant, uncomfortable, and squeamish like my primitive instincts understood a grotesque truth. Even a four year old knows when the soul is absent from the body. The idea that life is finite will always follow us. Some, like my mother, will comfort themselves from the impending idea of death by turning to religion. She squeezed my hand, explaining that we will see my aunt again in heaven. In other words, death cannot erase my aunt. The American physicist and mathematician Brian Greene elucidated,

“Some soothe the existential yearning through commitment to family, a team, a movement, a religion, a nation — constructs that will outlast the individual’s allotted time on earth.”

Society and community lives on far longer than an individual life. Some believe that the greater our achievements within the community, the greater imprint we leave behind, the more our life holds significance. When I think of my aunt today, however, the most vivd memory I see is death. I cannot say I miss her terribly every day and my children won’t know of her existence as well as their children. Her legacy will soon be buried in years of familial history. This leads to the existential question of life and death’s significance. The end is inevitable. Yet we as humans zealously search for purpose before our inescapable death. Many of us, in the midst of our grief, wonder about the mechanics of life and death and turn to religion for answers. Why and how was the universe created with certain evolutionary laws that offered such a diverse world waiting for those to explore its endless mysteries, while the same laws fabricate sophisticated diseases, illnesses, degeneration processes, and ultimately death? How can we make sense of this phenomena?

“Imagine,” I said to some of my friends, “that you are filling a paper cup with orange juice. The bottle of orange juice is a gallon, while the cup is only 8 fluid ounces. You have so much to give before the cup is used up and thrown away. When you have filled 8 ounces, there is still 0.9 gallons left. So the thing is, you have so much to give this finite, disposable paper cup. But it is filled and thrown away before you could give it all you desired to offer.” I ended my speech triumphantly, convinced that I had perfectly explained how death appears. Specifically, loved ones and people are finite and will pass before we can offer them all the memories and love we long to give them. The paper cup will be thrown away and forgotten the next day. Is this the reality of human existence? The same could be asked about life itself. Greene discusses the impending doom entropy inflicts on the universe: anything organized will become disorganized overtime. From the vast undiscovered oceans to the unreachable stars, it seems almost poetic to believe the universe longs to fill our paper cups with its immeasurable wisdom, but our finite souls leave before it can share all it possesses. Furthermore, is there an Intelligent Designer who yearns to share their infinite wisdom with the universe, only to be abandoned and once again alone due to the finite entropic nature of the universe they first created?

It is clear that the world has many mysteries. In a religious sense, it would appear that God has placed these limitless cosmological enigmas for our enjoyment on earth, giving the highly inquisitive minds purpose. Similarly, prior to the invention of the telescope, people would stare into the heavens in awe of each star’s dazzling orb, selfishly convinced that the universe was only made to be admired by humans. British author and journalist Arthur Koestler explained the story of early cosmological inventions and discoveries during Galileo’s time like the telescope. Koestler describes the intricate dips and curves of the moon’s surface and the endless stars scientists saw through the telescope lens. He writes, “The unsuspected number of invisible stars made an absurdity of the notion that they were created for man’s pleasure, since he could only see them armed with a machine.” Looking at the universe through the lens of science seems to strip away religious wonder. From the idea of entropy, natural selection, evolution, and the stars, our world seems to simply be surviving. There are no intentional mysteries hidden for us to hunt like Easter eggs. The intricacies of life are only complex because natural selection threatens death and evolution is a tonic that offers biological enhancements to survive. The philosophical grandeur of the universe suddenly deflates and we are left with a bleak organic explanation for the mysteries of life.

“Suppose that tomorrow all humans became convinced that their most cherished beliefs are ultimately the product of their genes alone. Wouldn’t all the poetry and piety that had reassured our ancestors lose their power to comfort us today?

— John F. Haught, American theologian

In other words, if society only chose to see science, we would gain empirical certainty but lose something equally as precious: religion and its philosophical truth. As humans, we are truth-seeking creatures interested in discovering what is. Darwinism holds the belief that organisms simply evolve to survive due to the effects of natural selection, gene flow, genetic drift, and mutation. Evolutionary scientists and scientists in general are able to empirically test theories and understand the finiteness of the cosmos. While religion on the other hand, is the backbone to the construction of society. Our ancestors built long-standing societies that outlasted generations. Many religious people are able to answer the world’s most complex inquiries that science cannot. True, science provides observational surety, but religion handles philosophical truth. What makes Darwinism so distressing for people to accept is not the evolutionary mechanisms behind such science, but the existential message that accompanies it. The existential fear that Darwinism insinuates brings forth questions that only religion can answer. Evolutionary science seems to be, as John F. Haught would argue, a “fresh invitation into the depth of nature, a depth that can also help us understand both ourselves and the divine more profoundly than before. But the quest for nature’s depth cannot stop with Darwin. For the sake of truth, it must keep digging deeper.” Therefore, science and religion cannot individually answer the intent behind the creation of the universe, the reasons for death, or evolution. Both areas fervently search for truth and both truths are valid.

If this article were given to a chemist, they might reduce it to micro-pixels on a screen with certain frequencies and wavelengths giving the illusion of color. But if this essay were given to a philosopher, they may speak about the readable content and logic of this paper. In summation, both areas of thought are correct and both are needed to complete the grand picture that is life’s purpose. The answers to these existential questions will be different. Death will continue to occur so long as life begins due to the evolution of the universe and its need to survive as much as its inhabitants. Death also opens spiritual gates into realms that outlast the human life. Religion tells us that our souls are reborn after death. In a way, science and religion both agree that death gives way to new life. The chemist and philosopher must learn to understand and accept each other to more efficiently solve life’s mysteries. Throughout history, separation of church and science has been proven to be the opposite of societal progression. This separation will either stunt scientific growth or muffle philosophical reasoning, which can ultimately create a dichotomy within individuals that leads to dissatisfaction of the quality and purpose of life. A holistic mindset not only progresses society further, but also enables us to broaden the ways we search for closure surrounding the end of existence.

Once again, when handling the concepts of death, it is important that we not only look at it from a scientific perspective, but also a religious one. I will encounter death once again, whether it be through my family members, friends, or myself. We can reduce death to the slow degradation of one’s physiological ability, synaptic functioning, and capacity to continue replicating healthy DNA. We hear hospital beeps echoing through a room while we clutch the cold hand of a dying loved one and watch their soul depart. Science cannot explain where they go after their time on earth. It also cannot explain the grief we feel or the sense of morbid wonder about life’s purpose. We can view the world as cold and emotionless with the pure intent of survival by relinquishing old life to bring in the new. And we can continue to quench the human longing for philosophical truth and wholeness.

I can imagine that death serves as a bridge between two worlds. The earth, with its beauty, also holds death in the palm of its hands.

While science searches for cures to debilitating conditions, religion searches for closure to accept its inevitability. There is no definite reason as to why cessation of existence occurs, but we can continue to search for truth by utilizing these two worlds.

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