When people discover that I have been a committed atheist since the age of nine (blame Methodist Sunday “Bible School”), they often ask, “Well, if you don’t believe in God, what do you believe in?”
I think it sometimes disappoints them that my answer is so easy.
Do good. Be kind. Think critically. Use Reason. Respect others. Be mindful of your impact on the rest of the world. And most important, NEVER ever pass up an opportunity to dance!
That is the totality of what I believe in. That’s it. No imaginary sky-daddies, no faery tales about talking snakes and talking-while-burning bushes and people living inside the belly of a whale for a few days, no forty-seven virgins or other rewards waiting for me in some celestial after-death.
As a twenty-nine-year long-term HIV survivor, I’ve had to confront my own mortality on more than one occasion—as all of us survivors have—but I won’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself.
I expect nothing when I die. No rewards, no punishment, just…nothing. Physics teaches us that matter cannot be destroyed, it can only be converted into energy. Thus, I understand that when the physical matter that makes up my body is cremated, the burning of my cells will release a brand-new energy into the world that was never there before. But that energy released will have nothing even remotely to do with “Me,” with either my physical body or my ego. I will become unseen ephemera. That knowledge neither comforts nor alarms me; it simply is.
And it’s enough for me. “Do good. Be kind…dance…”
Actually, “unseen ephemera” sounds lovely to me.
Please keep in mind that, just as I know no gods, I also have no patience with New Age bromides like No matter how bad things get, there’s always something to be thankful for. Well, no, not always. We’ve had this discussion before. Sometimes one must dig much deeper inside than a Hallmark card sentiment to find things for which one can truly be thankful to someone.
For me, that’s the key—that “giving thanks” is a transitive verb. One is “thankful to” someone. “Giving thanks” requires an object to receive the thanks being offered. Obviously, for me, and a growing number of others, that rules out thanking gods I don’t believe exist. But it doesn’t preclude my offering my sincere and deeply, daily felt gratitude to others, to the real flesh-and-blood people who have had an impact on my life, even those whose impact has not always been pleasant.
For example, like hundreds of thousands of us, I curse the toxic pills I have to swallow every morning in order to remain alive and function. Still, even though I often feel that I have served as an unconscionably uncompensated guinea pig for big pharmaceutical companies since 1996 (after all, even lab rats are fed now and then), I am inexpressibly thankful to everyone who worked on the creation of these medicines that make life possible for me. I would speak your names if I knew them.
When I shop the Farmer’s Market on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I will express my thanks to each farmer for every chanterelle or portabella mushroom, for every bunch of basil sage thyme and parsley, for every heirloom tomato, for the baby spinach arugula heart-of-romaine salad mixture, for the raisins and the nuts and all of Fall’s bounty brought to us by people who do back-breaking work to feed us. Of course I am thankful to them.
On a deeply personal level, I am thankful for all the people at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, particularly the folks in the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, and at Shanti and Project Open Hand. They have been instrumental in creating a community of long-term HIV survivors here in San Francisco and in helping to ensure our physical and psychological health.
And of course I am thankful for my companion for seventeen years, my partner fiancé caregiver Rick. Every breath I breathe is filled with gratitude for your presence in my life.
So, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. As you gather with friends and family and sit down to your Thanksgiving feast this month, if you offer thanks to your favorite deity for autumn’s bounty, be mindful of and be sure to thank the actual living, breathing people in your life to whom you are truly thankful. And if some of those folks are long-term survivors, even better!
And of course if anyone asks you to go dancing after dinner, by all means, say “Yes!”
We will all be unseen ephemera soon enough.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.