Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Thank you for being there (in “The Friendly Atheist”) when I finally realized I was grieving the loss of my faith. After a lifetime of service to the Presbyterian Church, including three years in seminary and seven years in pastoral ministry, it left me completely three years ago, at the conclusion of a difficult interim position. I’m 64 years old. My husband, also clergy, never took anything in scripture literally and often ridiculed my beliefs. Now I find myself even farther out than he is. I also did a Master’s in existential philosophy (before seminary) and see no point in mental gymnastics. I watched my dad, a great and learned man, lose his mind during the years before his actual death. Nothing lasts, why strive? You advocate something called “secular humanism.” I always saw that as the enemy of Christianity so I know nothing. What’s it about and what’s good in it? Ayn Rand is about the extent of my knowledge and I found her horribly egotistical. I’m sad except when I’m with my granddaughter and the three or four women I volunteer with. I’m not suicidal, although I don’t see any grand purpose in life or living.
P.S. I just occurred to me that for the first time I’m grateful for (instead of angry about) the secularization of Christmas so I can still enjoy the gifting and decorating.
I think you’re still in the midst of your grieving. The greater the importance that a cherished person, thing or commitment has for us, the greater the grief we suffer when it passes away from us. Grief can last quite a while, and it fades away gradually. Your commitment was enormous, and so I’m not surprised if after three years you are still mourning.
What you are describing also sounds a little like depression, which sometimes accompanies grief, but which can settle in and become chronic, remaining even after the grief is over. I’m glad that you reassure us that you’re not suicidal, but it also might be good for you to run through the main items on the depression checklist. While grief for any kind of loss can have many of the traits here, they generally taper off over time. For depression, look for a pattern of persistence or even increase over time:
- Feeling daily sad, empty, purposeless, worthless, helpless, hopeless, or inappropriately guilty.
- Irritability, impatience, anxiety.
- Loss of interest in friends, family, hobbies, pleasurable things.
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions.
- Changes in appetite, significant weight loss not from dieting, or weight gain.
- Loss of energy, fatigue, moving very slowly.
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping.
- Unexplained physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, body pains.
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide, wishing to die.
If you have any of these to a significant level, or if you have some of these to a moderate level, I think you should consult a doctor or counselor or both. If you decide that therapy would be helpful, be certain that it is not pastoral counseling in any form. Regular, secular, psychology-based counseling would be the best choice for you.
Aside from that issue, It sounds like your loss of faith also resulted in a loss of things for you to do. The timing of this in your sixties, when not only are you adjusting to changes in your body, you’re also adjusting to changes in roles that you and society might expect of you. This could be adding to your sense of being adrift and directionless.
Seeking a direction, you asked about humanism. Descriptions and definitions differ, but I think that you can get a good understanding from the material on the American Humanist Association website. Read all of the essays on that page, not just the Humanist Manifesto III. For someone with a Master’s in existential philosophy, these should be easy reading. Ayn Rand is probably not the best representative of what humanism can be. Here I ask our very learned Friendly Atheist readers out there for their recommendations for further reading on humanism.
My friends, your suggestions, please?
You need some peers, some people who understand what you are going through because they have been there too. The internet is a wonderful tool for this, and a few online atheist friends who can recognize exactly what you share are very important. Again, I ask our readers if they know of good sources for former clergy to find each other. Finally, former clergy or not, having at least one trusted atheist friend with whom you can meet face to face is invaluable. Keep looking, don’t give up.
I don’t pretend to understand much about existentialism, but I do remember that Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”
You can choose your own purpose, invent whatever meaning you wish for your life, cast yourself in whatever role you please. You don’t have to passively receive it from above, from outside of you. It’s deeply and wonderfully all yours. Judging from your letter, I think your role will have much to do with helping other people.
You asked, “Nothing lasts, so why strive?” I reply, “Yes, nothing lasts, so strive!” Make the most of this limited time. Don’t live inconsequentially, have an effect! Leave the world a little better because you were here. It might not be a grand and famous difference you’ll make in the world as a whole, but it can be grand and famous in the lives of those people who are lucky enough to know you.
You’re already on the right track by spending time being happy with your granddaughter and the three or four women with whom you volunteer. Ah, volunteering. You’re already practicing an important expression of humanism. You’ll find from your reading and your own experience that other human beings are both the essence and the embodiment of humanism, the essence and embodiment of your own humanity. Expand your love, your caring, your willingness, your interaction, your positive effect on others, and you expand your own life.