“If our life were without end and free from pain, it would possibly not occur to anyone to ask why the world exists.” So said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer around a century and a half ago in The World as Will and Representation, and it is a sentiment that would be echoed by many today, no doubt. The reality and inevitability of death haunts our steps as human beings, regardless of whether we claim to be religious or not. Every worldview must somehow come to terms with death.
One such attempt is seen in an article by Richard Handler that deals with the subject of death from an atheistic perspective. The article is focused on 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 we might prefer that those elements of who we are that “ripple” out would be 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 and 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 issue. 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 will somehow trickle down and have some marginal impact on a few people for a brief flicker of cosmic time. What we need is a vision of the future and of what it means to be a human being that can transcend and is not tied to our own inconsistent, fragile, conflicted, and transient identities and moral performances.
The beginnings of one such vision is articulated by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf who, 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.
The Christian hope is that what 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.