This past June, I sat down with Jay Lake to talk about his writing career and his terminal cancer diagnosis. His advice to other writers has already been crafted into an article for The Writer (October 2013 issue), and additional parts of that 90-minute conversation will appear in future posts in the “in conclusion . . .” series.
“There are no atheists in foxholes,” so goes the World War II aphorism. But are there atheists with terminal diagnoses?
Jay Lake say there are. He’s one of them.
The 49-year-old science fiction and fantasy author is coming to the end of his five-year battle with metastasized colon cancer—for which, he notes, there is no “brown ribbon” campaign. I sat down with Lake this past June to talk about his writing career, his literary legacy, and the inescapable fact that he is now knocking on death’s door.
Depending on the results of his current treatment regimen, he may have a couple of months left. Maybe a full year. And depending on how he’s feeling—which is usually not all that great, these days—he wonders if he’ll see this coming New Year’s Eve.
Whether you have faith or not, staring down your own impending demise is a stark reality, and it’s something many of us will face.
Imagine that you’re dying. Like Lake, you have maybe a few months left of life, and your health is deteriorating. All those dreams and big plans you had have flown right out the window. Your world is getting smaller by the day as your body shuts down.
It’s time to put your affairs in order, right? But apart from making sure your life insurance premiums are up-to-date and that your funeral has been paid for, how much time would you devote to contemplating what—if anything—comes next?
Probably an awful lot of time.
Family and friends would try to comfort you by offering their visions of the afterlife. You might do some internet research on near-death experiences and Raymond Moody’s research. You might talk to your priest or imam, if you have one. You might even try meditating as “practice” for death.
But what if you don’t believe there is any “next”?
Would you be a foxhole convert, or would your face your mortality with your non-belief intact?
Lake is living that question, and he has a very simple answer: “What kind of hypocrite would I be if I were an atheist when I was healthy and then religious when I got sick?”
Even Touching the Void author and mountaineer Joe Simpson reported that when he was alone at the bottom of a crevasse on the Siula Grande mountain with a broken leg, he was convinced that he was on his own. Believing this climb would be his last, Simpson didn’t even think to pray.
“When you die, you die,” he said. “That’s it.”
Yet neurosurgeon and former atheist Eben Alexander, M.D., changed his tune about life beyond life following a nasty bout with bacterial meningitis that left him in a coma—with little-to-no chance for survival—for seven days.
Alexander describes his near-death experience as “ultra-real” and even scientific in nature. While he has returned to practicing medicine, Alexander writes in Proof of Heaven that he believes his most important work now is sharing his story with others and offering the reassurance of an afterlife.
But not everyone is buying. What some would accept as comfort during their last days and weeks, dyed-in-the-wool atheists like Lake would probably call a fairy tale.
“The power of mythic thinking—of non-linear, non-logical, emotional thinking—is incredibly strong,” Lake says. “It grips us all.”
But Lake is too “empirical” for religious belief, though he says he might have been able to be a Buddhist if he’d tried. His atheism began in Sunday School when he challenged the Passover story on what he saw as obvious cruelty.
“What did all those little Egyptian boys do to deserve being killed by the Angel of Death?” he asked.
Lake has adopted a practical philosophy about his death. Yes, he’d rather live than die. Yes, there are many stories—many, many stories—this popular, award-winning author still wants to tell. Yes, he wishes he could stick around to watch his teenage daughter grow into a woman, and to see what she will make of her life.
But Lake isn’t terribly sentimental about his imminent death. He’s angry about it and frustrated, sure. But he doesn’t blame God, because for him there is no higher being or benevolent universe. He simply drew a bad hand when it comes to longevity.
Coming back to our experiment, how much consideration have you given the idea of continued or transformed existence after this life? Would it take a literal death sentence, like terminal colon cancer, for you to take the question seriously? Maybe you’ve chosen a wait-and-see approach or are actively avoiding the subject altogether.
Lake says he’ll live on through his daughter, his books and short stories, and his friends. He’s had his genome sequenced and is making it available online—“open-source”—for the benefit of researchers and future cancer patients.
So he will have some kind of afterlife. Just not the kind with winged angels playing harps on puffy clouds.
Creative Commons photo: Sunset by snowpeak.