What is the soul to someone who doesn’t believe in the afterlife, heaven and God?
I was thinking about this question on account of listening to a podcast recommended to me by a friend, Digital Jung, about famed Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, and what he can teach us about living a “symbolic life.” While Jung is a psychologist, really, the lessons he imparts, as shared by Jungian analyst and podcast host, Jason Smith, are philosophical in nature.
My apologies in advance that my musing tonight will be shorter than usual and probably not as well-thought out as I might have hoped nine hours ago when I was first turning these thoughts around in my head. The end of Tuesday tends to be my most mush brain time.
What humans yearn for is the infinite. That quality of being that exists beyond our own being. While we all can be rather egocentric — and perhaps wisdom, another nebulous word, is best thought of as that moment you can leave behind your ego — nobody actually navigates the world solipsistically. We are either forced, or intentional, about reckoning with that which is beyond ourselves.
And that which is beyond ourselves, counterintuitively, is also that which is within us: this idea of a “soul” within us. But it is also the answer to what makes us reach beyond. In other words, I think for the agnostic and/or the atheist, the soul is that which makes us yearn for the infinite, inwardly or externally, whether we’re mining our own depths, or the depths of our relationship to the world and other people around us.
The tragedy of humanity, it’s thought, is that we yearn at all. That we seek that which is beyond ourselves. That we are more than biological organisms, as Smith suggests. That we have evolved beyond a primitive, crude need to survive day-to-day. We have time, albeit it’s still short, but we have time to think. To wonder. To learn. To yearn.
We yearn precisely because we know about our impending death. That it will happen. Being cognizant of our impending departure is, again, what is thought of as a tragic curse about the limbo humans exist in between the biological and the human, between animal and person.
As much as humans can be anthropocentric in downgrading the status of animals — far too much in my estimation — there is still the simple fact that the lion is not yearning. The gazelle running from the lion is not yearning. Not in the way humans do. They’re surviving, whether they’re predator or prey. Or both. But they do not yearn. They do not consider death, or the afterlife. Or the soul.
I personally don’t see it as a tragedy that we yearn. To paraphrase what I see as the main thesis of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work: There is beauty in the struggle. Even if the moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice, there is beauty in the struggle. There is beauty in the yearning, even if we do not know that which we yearn toward, only that we can. Only that we yearn toward the infinite because that stretches us beyond our own mortality.
That’s not tragic, that’s a beautiful “blessing” (another word that doesn’t fit neatly for the agnostic or atheist, but works here).
The tragedy is not that we yearn, but that we forget to yearn, or in other cases around the world, such as in developing countries, authoritarian countries, or countries ravaged by war, people are unfortunately incapable of yearning due to that aforementioned primitive (and rightful) need to survive day-to-day.
As Smith alluded to in one of the podcast episodes, a side effect of our modernity and our relatively peaceful civilization that we’ve managed to achieve is that we are so easily distracted, sidetracked, or bogged down in the daily grind and minutiae of life that we forget to yearn. We lose touch with our souls, ourselves and each other.
We forget to nourish our souls. I suspect that when people are facing the end of their lives it is not the material things they most regret, but that they let their souls wither, malnourished in a different way.
That they forgot to yearn and appreciate (in real time) the ability, and blessing, to do so.