By Tamim Ansary
I got a letter last year from a woman who was putting together an anthology about The Big Question: God and all that. She said she was soliciting pieces from all three camps–believers, atheists, and agnostics. I said, What if I’m not in any of those three? She said, “What else is there?” I thought about it and came up with a phrase: secular mystic.
It’s how I’ve described myself ever since.
What do I mean by secular? Let me answer that with a story. I once knew a woman named Stephanie Strand; she was a member of a writing group I ran for twenty-two years. When Stephanie was about 40, she felt a vague pain in her abdomen but was too busy to see a doctor. When she finally found the time, it was too late: she had advanced uterine cancer. She did everything she could to stay alive: surgery, radiation, chemo—but nothing worked. I was with her the day the doctor told her there was not more medical science could do for her. The next day, she checked out of the hospital and went home to die.
She had a hospital bed at home, and she got hooked up to nutrition tubes and medication tubes, but she needed someone to be with her around the clock, and she had no family except a young son who had just joined the army and couldn’t get leave to come home. So our writing group rallied. Working in shifts, we made sure at least one of us was with her day and night for the last few months of her life, keeping her company and attending to her needs.
It sounds lugubrious, but it wasn’t. It was luminous, actually. Stephanie was good company right to the end, and being with her put us in closer contact with one another. In her last month, Stephanie wanted to throw a goodbye party, and with the help of a friend who was a chef, she did. So there we were, Stephanie in bed hooked up to her feeding tubes, all of us milling about, chatting, eating, drinking…the music played… the food was great—it was quite a good party, believe it or not. Afterwards, Stephanie began hallucinating and a few weeks later she died.
Stephanie died young, it’s true. But who’s to say she died before her time? Most of her ambitions remained unfulfilled, nothing she wrote ever got published, and yet her death was a good one. She left the world surrounded by friends and managed to make none of us feel awkward or uncomfortable about the fact that she would be soon be dead and we’d go on living. And she left us with the memory of what she’d called forth in us.
I never heard any God-talk in Stephanie’s house. I never heard anything about an afterlife. I don’t know what she believed in that regard. Whatever she believed was fine with me. We were not a church, we were a writing group—a secular group. But we took care of her because we’re all human, and in the end that’s what it’s about: we’re human beings, let’s take care of one another. To me, ethical and moral questions belong strictly to the realm of human interaction. They’re part of the never-ending negotiation among human beings, which is a conversation that must not ever end. The problem I have with scripture, any scripture, is that it wants to end that conversation. I say, the values we live by must enable us to live in perfect harmony with our fellow humans while letting each of us fulfill our highest potential. When I say I’m a secular mystic, that’s what I mean by secular.
Then there’s “mystic.” What do I mean by mystic? Let me try to get at this ungettable thing with one more story. Many years ago, my family and I went camping on Mount Lassen. My daughters were four and ten years old at the time. It was July, but winter had lasted unusually long that year, so parts of Lassen Park were closed by snow. We camped just below the snow line, on the border between summer and winter. Twenty minutes uphill from our campsite, we could ski and sled and snowboard. Twenty minutes downhill, we could swim in a warm lake drowsy with dragonflies, lily pads, and honeybees.
Next to our campground was a large pond encircled by a path, and that afternoon we decided to take a walk before dinner. Along the way, we stopped at a small cove to enjoy the view. When we were ready to move on, my four-year-old Elina resisted. Stoutly. She wanted to play some more right there. I felt some impatience. I had entered upon this walk with a sense of purpose, a goal (to get back where we started). But oh well; I told Debby and Jessamyn to keep going, I’d stay with Elina and we’d catch up.
Elina went on squishing mud under her toes, and I sat peacefully by the water, and gradually, my impatience subsided. I relaxed about my goal. I allowed myself to just appreciate. I was grateful to Elina for making me linger. But then at last, I had seen everything there was to see here and had done all the appreciating a man can do in one spot. Time to go.
Unbelievably, Elina was not ready. She pleaded with me to linger longer. I sighed and said okay, a little longer. She went back to the mud and I went back to the view. I thought I had exhausted what there was to see, but it turned out there was so much more—subtleties I had not noticed before: the way ripples of light caught the tips of the waves to form a single shimmering pattern … the composition formed by snow-capped Lassen looming above the trees … and the smell of the air, a moisture in which snow and pollen were mingled… Wow, I would never have experienced all this had I hurried on. Okay, now we were done. Now we really had used up this spot. Night would be falling soon. We had to get dinner started. I said, “Come on, Elina. Let’s go.”
But: “Nooooo!” she howled. “Not yet, Daddy!” This time, her resistance was downright exasperating, and I was going to put my foot down, and yet … for some reason … I succumbed to her pleading once again. Just a few more minutes, I thought. But this time, when I sat back down, it was as if I had fallen through some screen and suddenly there were layers upon layers here, such depth, so much going on. In the air between me and Lassen hovered a shape-shifting cloud of gnats. Down at the water’s edge, little water bugs with paddle-like legs were skimming the surface, busy with their tiny lives. From the branch of a bush hanging over them, a spider was constructing its web. A fish jumped in the water. The light on Lassen had changed because the sun was moving. A breeze across the waves ruffled those ripples of light. The color of the water had changed and was still changing because time was passing, night was falling, and now the gnats were dispersing…
How could I imagine I had exhausted this place? Or any place? Every place was inexhaustible. And that’s when something popped. Until that moment, I had been living in a stream of the events that constituted my life. Before I was here, I had been at the campsite, setting up our tent. After I left this place, I would be back at our site building a campfire. Things had happened yesterday and the day before and on back to the beginning, and things would happen tomorrow and the next day and on until my death. Being here was one moment in a string of moments, and the string through all these beads was me.
But this spot had an ongoing life of its own. And just as this spot was an event in my life, I was an event in its life. This spot was here before I arrived and would be here after I departed. Things had happened here earlier and things would happen here in the future. And what was true of this spot was true of every spot. The entire everlasting everything was going on right now, and would go on going on. At some point in the future, I would stop existing, but not the universe. And to the extent that I was part of it all, I would not be gone either.
That thought gives me a comfort I have never gotten and could frankly never get from the prospect of an afterlife in which “I” will go on living. I do not want to go on living as my individuated self forever, even if it’s in heaven. It pleases me to think that I will eventually be shuffled back into the deck and that new hands will be dealt. The deck is forever, and that’s good enough for me.
A longer version of this piece did appear in an anthology called Faith, Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists, edited by Victoria Zackheim.