David Shields, an author and English professor at the University of Washington, has written a sort of memoir combined with a science report called "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead". My daughters were a little alarmed to see me engrossed in such a morbidly-titled book: I think they suspected I might not be telling them about a diagnosis of some terminal disease. But as my parents struggle with various physical breakdowns and hardships, and as I read my probable future written on their faces, I do think about death. The thing about Shields that I did not know prior to reading his work is that he is an atheist. That fact did not make me slam down his book, but it did color my reaction to his angst. Shields writes pungently, intelligently, and beautifully. The book takes its structure from a life span, with four parts entitled Infancy and Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Middle Age, and Old Age and Death. Shields deftly goes back and forth among his experiences with and feelings about his 97-year-old, impossibly energetic father, his own fatherhood of an impossibly energetic 14-year old daughter, quotes from famous people on death and dying, and scientific explanations of the physiological effects of aging on the human body. The autobiographical parts are touching and sometimes painful. The quotes are enlightening and droll. The science is succinct and sobering, and, I can’t help thinking, must be absolutely terrifying to someone who does not believe in God or an afterlife. Shields, who is the same age that I am, thinks about the same things that I do: the cycles of parent/child/parent, the many moons we have already lived, the mistakes we’ve made, the boats we’ve missed, the wonders we’ve witnessed, the insights we’ve gained, the fragility of the physical, the confounding why of it all. But my thoughts are perhaps less tortured, because I do believe in God. I don’t mean that belief is a panacea: people of faith often doubt and question and have really bad days. But the anchor of trust in a loving, nourishing God cannot but change one’s world view. The thing about life without God is that it seems to lack both perspective and transcendence. It may be simplistic of me to hope and pray for a gentle voice of conversion to speak to David Shields. I just hate to see a fellow writer suffer. Valerie Schultz

Comments

Anonymous | 7/3/2008 - 8:36pm
This is a good piece. Usually on Saturday mornings I join a ''Faith and Issues'' group at the local UCC church where we constantly talk and think about God. Even though I am a believer and the ''house Catholic'' I find the struggle for belief among my good friends enlightening. There's no one there with the answers, only the questions. We muddle through--some believe in something, some don't, some have definitions of God which I don't understand but value. But I think my friends all live lives as if God existed. And that's enough. I don't think God asks for more.
Anonymous | 7/21/2008 - 4:34pm
My comment is in response to the first comment. The writer states that those in his/her UCC group "live lives as if God existed and that's enough. I don't think God asks for more." Is that all there is to Christianity, being aware that God exists? I believe my marriage would crumble if I lived as if my wife existed and not as if I loved and cherished her and lived a life which reflected my love for her.