Richard Handler is, as far as I can gather, the resident philosopher at the CBC, and I’ve come to enjoy reading his articles since I first came across him several months ago (officially, he’s the producer of the CBC radio program Ideas). This week’s article deals with the subject of death—our omnipresent fear of it and one way of dealing with it from an unbeliever’s perspective. The article is focused on the figure of atheist author and psychiatrist Irvin Yalom who, while acknowledging the fear and despair that accompany our peculiar ability as a species to foresee our own deaths, argues that the concept of “rippling” is a way of ameliorating these fears:
Rippling refers to the fact that each us creates—often without conscious intent or knowledge—concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations…. [Y]ou can leave behind “something from your life experience, some trait; some piece of wisdom, guidance, virtue, comfort that passes onto others, known or unknown.” The key here is human connection, which touches other lives in secret and untold ways.
There is, obviously, a measure of truth to this. The kinds of people we are have lasting influences on those around us. We leave a mark. The problem is, that while it is hoped that those elements of who we are that “ripple” out are positive, life-affirming things, often the marks we leave can be rather ugly ones. Even the most morally upright among us will leave, at best, a mixed legacy. The ripples that go out from our lives have the ability to affect both for good or for ill.
Handler comes close to noticing the problem:
What about those whose lives don’t noticeably ripple into a loving community? People do die without friends, alone and miserable, in prisons and cyclones. I have known people who will be missed by absolutely nobody. What rippling effect do they have?
His answer? While acknowledging that “the idea of rippling can be abstract,” in the end the best it seems we can hope for is that we “can gain comfort in thinking that one’s atoms can ripple and dissolve into the universe.… All of us ripple in ways we are not even aware of.”
Far from addressing the question, this seems to simply be a restatement of the problem, combined with the platitude that one might gain comfort from this. Yes, all of us do “ripple” in ways we are not even aware of. That’s the problem! Human history is the story of both tremendous good and radical evil “rippling” down throughout history, one leaving inspiring traces of what we think we are here for, the other poisoning the lives of individuals and communities indefinitely. The problem isn’t just that some individuals and communities don’t leave much of a “ripple” or don’t “ripple” well; the problem is that some “rippling” is downright toxic.
What we need is not some vague sentiment that the best of who we are (but not the worst—curiously, the mechanism by which the two would be evaluated and separated is not stated) will trickle down and have some marginal impact on a few people for a brief flicker of cosmic time. If that’s the best, most comforting thing we can offer others and ourselves, then we really are in trouble. What we need is a vision of the future that can transcend and is not tied to our own inconsistent, fragile, conflicted, and transient identities and moral performances.
I want to leave a positive legacy for my kids, certainly. I want part of who I was to become a part of who they are. But I also want my kids to become better people than I was, to be strong in areas where I was weak, to love others better than I was able to. I want the wrong that I have done not only to point them in a better direction (obviously one of the ways that we improve is by learning from the mistakes of others, so in that sense, the “rippling” even of our own inadequacies might lead to a positive result), but to not affect them at all. Should they be faced with the horrifying possibility of witnessing grave evil or having it perpetrated upon them, I want them to have an understanding of themselves and the world that can provide them with the resources for stopping and healing whatever effects the “ripple” might lead to for them or for others.
In short, I want them to have a firm vision of what it means to be a human being that is not tied to their or my or anyone else’s ability to measure up and “ripple” accordingly. Miroslav Volf, in The End of Memory, eloquently identifies both the problem with “rippling” as a response to death and the Christian alternative:
We are neither made nor unmade by what we do or by what others do to us. The heart of our identity lies not in our hands, but in God’s hands. We are most properly ourselves because God is in us and we are in God. No doubt, what we or others have inscribed onto our souls and bodies marks us and helps shape who we are. Yet it has no power to define us. God’s love for us, indeed God’s presence in us and our being “caught up beyond” ourselves and being placed “into God” most fundamentally defines us as human beings and as individuals…. It follows that, in terms of identity, we are not fundamentally the sum of our past experiences (as we are also not fundamentally the sum of our present experiences or our future hopes added to our past experiences). Our memories, experiences, and hopes still matter; but they qualify rather than define who we are.
The Christian hope is that that which is good, and worth preserving from human history will be validated, and rendered permanent in God’s new creation. Correspondingly, that which was false and evil, that which “rippled” down through the millennia damaging and defacing God’s good world, destroying relationships, fostering fear and enmity, and barring the way for people to experience the shalom God intended for them will be judged, healed, and forgotten. It will “ripple” no longer.
Volf’s book concludes with a response to the question of just what such a future hope, where the good “ripples”on, and the evil meets its end, might look like:
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. That’s the point at which we all need to rein in our imagination. I figure I’ll just let myself be surprised. But I think of that life as being absorbed in an arrestingly beautiful piece of music—music that captivates my entire being and takes me on an unpredictable journey. That’s what the world of love will do for its inhabitants. It will bar the pathways through which the wounded past, a past marred by wrongdoing and suffering, enters the present, and it will set them free to explore the truth, the goodness, and the beauty of that world—each on their own and all together.