What good amid these, O me, O life?

Hannah brings up a question that I hear asked by those who have been deconverted from their life of religion…

Name: Hannah
Message: OK, so I suspect you’re right and I hate it. I’ve never exactly believed in god although I have felt a sense of something greater, some sort of karma, and that I have a soul. Now I am told science disproves anything that isn’t material and I can’t bear it. The only things keeping me going through life are that my self-develoment and learning to cope with difficulties means something – which apparently it doesn’t – and that I would meet a certain person after this life one day. Which si also apparently not true. So now all the joy and interest in anything in life has gone for me. Apparently I am here to breed – well, I don’t want children. So what point do I have? I’m not big or important, and I won’t be remembered, all I had was myself and trying to accept certain lessons which would make me stronger for – whatever reincarnation follows – and apparently that doesn’t matter. What am I meant to do? There’s no point to me making all this effort and expending this energy learning things only for myself because it doesn’t matter. I might as well sleep and drink all day. Either option is completely equal in value.
How and why do you even bother to wake up every day? Sincere question. Although perhaps you are just stronger and better people. Should I assume I simply don’t matter as I am weak, and either way it makes no difference as intelligence and individuality is just a cruel quirk of accident rather than each individual meaning something and having some base essence which is, in fact, them, and is worthwhile and eternal and worth developing as it will retain?
I cannot tell you how much I loathe my atheist (ex) friends who have given me these things. They have destroyed my sense of self and my sense of worth and I can’t understand why they bother with life.

This is an excellent question Hannah and thank you for writing. You see, I was at one time exactly where you are now. I had left my faith and felt that I had nothing to cling on to in this world. What was the point if there is no after life? Why do good if there’s no reward? How could I justify personal development if my life was so finite? I struggled with these problems for a while, and when I thought all was lost, the answer came to me. I was reading one of my favorite poets, Walt Whitman and I came upon a poem of his that I had read before, but right at that moment, it struck a chord in me that has carried with me ever since. Here it is…..

O Me! O Life!

BY WALT WHITMAN

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
  Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
I’ve memorized this poem, and I love reciting it to those who will listen because I think it’s a powerful message. “What good amid these, O me, O life?” is something that I think we all ask ourselves, especially those who have left their faith and don’t know how to approach a life without a religion or a belief in a god telling them how to behave and act. One of the scariest parts of letting go of ones faith is the freedom that comes with it. A lot of people don’t know how to deal with it, and in fact a common argument against atheism is that people don’t know how to give their life meaning so it’s better to believe the lie of heaven then to give meaning to your own life. I couldn’t disagree more.
What Walt Whitman is trying to say in his poem is that life, not just your life, but everyone’s life, is a small part of the bigger story of humanity. That the meaning that you give your life will become a part of humanities great story, and that you have the opportunity to impact the story with your own verse. It might be a small verse, or it might be a big verse, that’s up to you to decide. Think about that for a minute. The size of the verse you contribute is up to you. There’s no god that has already decided your verse. There’s no fate to which you are destined. The verse that you contribute, the meaning of your life, is whatever you want it to be. There’s more power in that truth then in any god belief out there.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to suggest that this poem is the answer to your problems. What I’m saying is that if you’re looking for something to inspire your life, there is a lot of wisdom and beauty out there to be inspired by. If you want your life to matter, then make it matter. It’s really up to you.
Lastly, your question seemed to have a lot of futility towards life in it. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious about the way your life is going, then you might want to consider seeing a therapist. Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in a rut in our thinking and a good trained professional can help you figure out a new path to your life. Just a thought.
Thanks for the email, and I hoped my reply helped. As always, feel free to comment below.

9 thoughts on “What good amid these, O me, O life?”

  1. So Erick, you are offering humanity as this greater whole we need to be a part of. It is a very positive attitude. All we truly have is each other and our unsung impact on future generations. Let’s leave them love!

    Still, the universe can crush humanity anytime, like an anthill in an avalanche. No cruelty in the event, no thought in fact, and that bigger story too will be over.

    Imho, the problem lies in judging the value of all things as a mean to an end. We live in a world of tools, where “useless” is a bad word. And as Hannah shows us here, you hardly get more self-destructive than that.

    If you think you detected sarcasm at any point in my comment, read it again knowing I meant every word.

  2. I think I’ve made a similar comment before, but here goes …
    When you’ve just left the comfort of your faith and you see reality for the first time without the safety or blinders of faith, it can be really scary and maybe even saddening/ depressing. “The dark night of the soul” is a phrase I’ve seen used to describe the kind of doubt and feelings of futility that one who is losing his/ her faith might go through.
    It can lead to real clinical depression as well I think, so one needs to be careful.

    When you “lose faith” you come to know that you are free but you must also bear the consequences of the actions you perform. And most of the times you have such limited information that you cannot possibly comprehend the consequences of all your actions. But you have to act anyway. A “terrible freedom” as the existentialists would say.
    And then there is the whole cosmic futility of our actions to deal with … from a cosmic viewpoint we are just specs of dust on a planet that itself is like a spec of dust around a sun that itself is a spec of dust in a vast galaxy that itself is a spec of dust in an incredibly vast universe!
    And you see people going about with their lives with this air of self importance. As if anything they do matters. Atheists debating theists, scientists fighting creationists, companies making money (pieces of paper that we print so that we don’t fight each other over food and property) … it all seems to silly and futile.
    There’s no comfort to be had here … is there?

    I like to compare losing faith to growing up. Each step of growth exposes one to complexities that one was shielded from before. For a teenager stepping into the real world is difficult and scary. Life as a teen (or a kid) is so simplistic most of the times. But then he/ she steps into the real world, starts working in it, understanding it, and then enjoying him/ herself in it.
    I think the analogy applies to a person who’s recently stopped kidding him/ herself about religion and decided to “lose faith”. It is a “growth event” in the sense of losing a “shield against reality/ complexity”.
    One needs to start understanding how the world really works, see how human existence fits (or does not fit) into it and start enjoying existence for the sake of existence (not for any reward that one thinks one will get after one ceases to exist !).
    There is much to be understood about the complexity of the world – the natural world (through the hard sciences), the social world that we’ve created for ourselves (economics, sociology, history, the arts, technology and engineering), our own individual worlds in our brains (psychology) etc. etc. And as one understands the complexity and comes to appreciate it, the feeling of futility dies down. As you get more and more interested in this complicated world around us, you start creating your own purposes and meaning and do not feel the need to rely on externally enforced aims/ goals.
    As you understand more about the world and it’s infinite variety and complexity the narrowness of the religious view of creation becomes so obvious. The religious view starts seeming to be a fairy story, or a dream … and you feel glad to have woken up to reality.
    Sure, the reality you wake up to is not perfect … but that compels one to act in a manner that makes the reality more hospitable for oneself and for others in general. We make changes in our environment and societies to ease our burdens (out of our own selfish interest, often), we learn more about the world, we make more changes … it becomes a self propelling cycle of goal creation and accomplishment.

    We might be mere specs of dust cosmically, but we’ve understood so much about the universe for e.g.
    Even though our planet is a spec of a spec of a spec, it’s ecosystem is infinitely rich and complicated.
    A gamma ray burst can end all life on earth … and gamma ray bursts are random (their cause, though speculated, is unknown) – one might just happen right now and the earth could be in it’s path!

    We might despair about this reality … or we might use this reality of our insignificance and wondrously tenuous existence to get (and give) the maximum out of the 70 – 100 circles around the sun we have of this complicated (futile?) existence.
    The choice is ours to make …
    And no sky-daddy / mommy’s there to help us out to make it !!

  3. Thank you for your kind words and taking the time to reply to me, as well. It is incredibly hard – on several counts, because I am not strong or talented, so there will always be a limit to anything I can contribute, and because I am without the only person I really ever loved, and the thought of him not existed somewhere where we will meet again is beyond hideous – I can’t bear it, I can’t conceive of it. I am – impressed and jealous of your courage and strength, and you I am certain have contributed a lot. It is also a beautiful poem for people who can be strong and able to be useful…it’s just too painful to face, for me, I think, at least.
    I am sure you’re right and I would like to think people can evolve to be strong and sure enough in themselves to be alone, but I just don’t think I personally at least ever can be. I don’t even want to be. I can live without a god, but not without some sort of ongoing soul. I just can’t do it, because I can’t imagine there are some people so good that they will not carry on somewhere…
    again, thank you – best wishes with everything in your life, and I hope you carry on making a difference – it is kind and helpful to have a voice out there answering questions and talking to people.

    1. Hannah you are stronger then you think. You’ve been able to get over, around, and through every problem you’ve had in your life so far. There’s no reason to believe that you can’t continue to do so again. If you see yourself as weak then you will be weak. If you see yourself as strong then you will be strong. It’s up to you either way.
      As for your loss, that’s always a tragic thing, however what would be more tragic is if the deceased had no one like you to tell their story. A soul doesn’t give your life value, you do. Stop being selfish and learn to see yourself so part of a bigger whole. Give your loved ones life meaning by sharing the influence he gave to you with others. Keep his memory alive in you and others.
      That’s true immortality.

  4. The pain of losing a really close loved one is tremendous, Hannah. I am sorry for your loss.
    If the person was really close and the loss is unbearable, you should consider getting some counselling on how to deal with it as well.

    A few thoughts, and I apologize if they seem harsh …
    At some level, loving someone also means having the courage to let go of them and also having the courage of taking care of the person(s) they loved in return – in this case you.
    You have to move on and take care of yourself – otherwise can you truly say that you are honoring the love you had for this person (if you do not take care of the person they loved in return)?
    Thinking that they may have a soul and that you will meet them again may give you comfort. But don’t you think that is a bit selfish? You can’t bear the pain of losing this person … the pain is strong since you loved them so much … and you want to reduce this pain, not by taking care of yourself and moving on, but by comforting yourself in the belief that they have a soul and that you’d meet them again?
    Isn’t that the easy way out of the pain instead of the harder way of growing by learning to live with your loss, honoring their memory, taking care of yourself and moving on? By taking the easy way (or by pining for the easy way), are you being true to the love you had?

    Most of us are stronger than we think we are Hannah. It may be difficult, but I am sure you will find the courage within you to deal with your pain and carry on, without seeking sentimental comforts (like seeking to re-unite with them in the afterlife etc.) that (in my view) will only lessen the value of the love and bonding you had in real life.

  5. Thank you all again for your thoughts and the kindness in replying to me.
    Sadly…I just don’t think I can live a life where there is nothing. I just can’t do it; it takes away too much. I need to believe in something and to be honest I haven’t seen an argument so coherent that it doesn’t leave at least the possibility of hope that there is a soul or reincarnation or something. So maybe it’s a tiny and false hope but it is better than nothing.
    Thank you all again and best wishes.

  6. Hanna,
    When I finally woke up and listened to what my common sense
    had been telling me for years, I also felt at a loss, for awhile. For
    me, it was not because there seemed to be no purpose to life, it
    was, rather, anger for accepting mythology and fantasy for truth
    instead of the fact and reality that we are no more than a branch
    of the many species of the ape family. Our level of awareness of
    who and what we are is what separates us from them the most.
    Why this all happened is evolution. Evolution has no purpose.
    no goal, no grand plan. It is simply mistakes made in the copying
    of the genetic code. We are what we are because of countless
    thousands of mistakes over thousands, even millions of years.
    So what is the purpose in life , you ask, if there is no god or
    afterlife. The purpose is what you assign to your own existence.
    For each individual it varies. For me it is to live as decent a life
    as is possible in the time I am allotted. No reward of heaven, but
    also no fear of hell for offending some jealous and angry god.
    There is much to live for, even if there is no god. My wife, my
    children, grandchildren, friends and etc. These are the purpose
    and meaning in my life, my brief existence on this planet. It is
    enough for me. I do not need to believe in a god to complete me
    or explain my existence and I would rather know the truth then
    to believe in supernatural fantasy and mythology even if it means
    that this life, this existence is all there is.

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