Life, death, and Walter Payton

Walter Payton died a few days ago.

It was a loss, a tragedy for everyone who knew and admired the former Chicago Bears running back. When I heard the news, my gut reaction was simple. I think it’s a thought that passes through most people’s minds, if only fleetingly, whenever something bad happens for no reason.

There is no God.

See, you flinched, didn’t you? Unless you are already an atheist, just the sight of the words on the screen is startling, a challenge to our carefully cultivated belief set. And if the thought ever crossed your mind, you probably would never admit it, even to yourself.

I don’t know if my experience was unique to those who grew up Catholic, but I remember that a lot of the really challenging questions about good and evil were never satisfactorily explained. Some things we just had to accept, we were told. Mysteries. We couldn’t know God’s mind.

In other words, no one had the answers. And our instructors, both clergy and lay teachers, had no choice but to give us unsatisfactory answers in some cases. Especially about the “original sin” concept. If we pointed out how unfair it seemed that a child who died unbaptized would be doomed to spend eternity in limbo, we were told, “That’s just the way it is.” A good Catholic just quietly accepted those things that couldn’t be explained. That was the definition of “faith.”

I always found it an interesting dichotomy that in school, one minute you’re in a math or science class being challenged to think, analyze, and reason, and the next moment you’re in Theology class, being asked to turn your brain off and accept the catechism being spoon-fed to you.

The single most challenging question for anyone who believes in God is this: “If God exists, and is a benevolent God, why do bad things happen to good people?”

When Walter died, we all had to face that question again. Some folks tried hard to answer it. I heard one person quoted as saying, “Maybe God wants the best for his team.” Nice thought. I didn’t realize God was a football coach. Maybe God is actually George Halas. Most Bears fans could easily accept that.

Here’s the awful truth, folks. It’s something we simply cannot deal with. It’s the reason organized religion exists in the first place, to give us a means to cope with this one inescapable fact: Sometimes bad things happen for no damn reason. No reason at all.

And that means that, if there is a God, he is cruel, arbitrary, or indifferent. Personally, I find no comfort in any of those options.

This is why the tiny-brained folk (if I can borrow the expression from Joe Martin) get so hysterical over issues like abortion and the teaching of evolution in school. They need to believe that human life is special in some way, that there is some intrinsic value (i.e., a “soul”) which materializes at the moment of conception. If a fetus can be freely destroyed before birth, we are saying it has no value in and of itself. If a chance chemical reaction can result in an organic compound which eventually evolves into a living being, then God is not necessary or relevant. Poof. The safety net is gone, evaporated in a puff of reason.

Here is what most religion seeks to deny: Human life has no greater inherent value than any other form of life. In the grand scheme of the universe, our lives are just as insignificant as those of the insects we crush underfoot. The total life experience of any living thing on this planet, sentient or otherwise, can be summed up as follows:

1. You’re born.
2. Shit happens.
3. You die.

For some reason, we refuse to accept this. Our lives must have some meaning, after all. There must be some reward awaiting us at the end of this life, right? An afterlife, a reincarnation, something?

Sorry. No guarantees. Until someone comes back to prove otherwise, we simply have to deal with the very likely possibility that death is the end of the line.

And if we all realized this and accepted it, organized religion would cease to exist. Because without that false hope, without that dubious promise of future reward, we could not be controlled. We could not be manipulated by others. Religion and most political systems would collapse. How many suicide bombers do you suppose there would be, if they couldn’t be coerced into throwing away their earthly lives for the promise of some kind of paradise in the hereafter? John Lennon posed the question years ago: How would you live your life if there were no heaven?

Two children each receive a toy as a gift. The first child is told that this toy is the only one she will ever receive. The second is told that she can do as she pleases with the toy, because she will get a new and better one later. Which child do you suppose will take better care of her toy?

Perhaps you think that the result would be chaos. I don’t. I think that people would smarten up and realize that if this brief time on Earth is all you have, maybe we should make the most of it. Maybe we would realize that the only meaning our lives have is the meaning we give them through our thoughts and actions. Maybe we would realize that there just isn’t time for selfishness and pettiness. That the only things that outlast us are the impressions we make on others by living this life as well and as fully as we can.

Walter Payton was only 45 years old when he died, but he lived a lot of life in that short time. We remember him not just for his accomplishments on the gridiron, but for the things he did after his retirement. His tireless charitable work. His devotion to his family. His good nature, and the way he treated others. The way he bravely fought the illness that eventually claimed him. After all, if you know that a wonderful afterlife awaits you, why fight so hard in this life? Why go out of your way for others when you could be acquiring more wealth and things for yourself?

Why, indeed?

Maybe if we realized how limited our time really was, we might all live our lives like Walter Payton.


Life, death, and Walter Payton — 1 Comment

  1. As they say, there are no more heroes. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Walter Payton was not exactly the saint that his public image had led us to believe. Reading this piece now makes me feel a bit naive…at least about Payton. My views on God and religion, however, remain as they were.