First place — College essay contest: Jack Buchanan

‘Imagine there’s no heaven’

Jack Buchanan

FFRF awarded Jack $3,500 for his winning essay.

By Jack Buchanan

Imagine there’s no heaven.” I was 8 when I first heard those lyrics. I didn’t really understand the meaning, I just liked the song. However, as I grew up, I kept coming back to that song.

When I was 14, I was listening to it when the “Imagine there’s no heaven” verse sparked something inside me. And I imagined it. I began to question my religious beliefs more and more, constantly seeking justification for what I had so long believed. I continued to grapple with those big questions until my senior year of high school, when I finally gave up my faith and opened up an entirely new chapter in my life, with no hell below me, above me only sky.

Since that moment, my life has become infinitely more meaningful. I no longer stay awake at night thinking about eternal torment. I no longer worry if my actions or beliefs align with a divine being’s will.

Instead I focus on the here and now, being the best person I can be to those I love and to myself. I do this not for some external promise of paradise, but because I want to make that same paradise a reality here on Earth. No afterlife is guaranteed, so why spend the only life we know we will have in preparation for it? After all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Especially when you aren’t even sure the bush exists. We should strive to make every day better, to leave the world a better place than before.

With this realization there also comes a great deal of responsibility. There is no heaven to fix this world, and the only hell is one we create ourselves. Knowing this, it falls on all of us to be the change we wish to see. No supernatural force will pick up the slack when we fall short. Any improvements I want to make to either my community or myself must come by my own hands. Unfortunately, many people, including members of my family, do not understand this. They pray for peace, they pray for the poor, they pray for a better life, but they rarely if ever initiate the change themselves. My father once asked me how I found meaning in life without believing there’s some being watching over me. I simply responded that I have someone in this world who’s watching over me, who’s responsible for my actions and truly has my best interests at heart. And that person is me.

As the current vice president of my university’s Secular Student Alliance chapter, I have seen firsthand the benefits of living in the here and now. We have coordinated multiple charity events and the friendships I have made will last a lifetime. People need our help now, and it’s our responsibility to ensure they get it. And, knowing that my actions make a difference in their lives gives my own life more meaning than I ever thought possible.

Focusing on the here and now is a truly transformative mindset. It allows people to take responsibility both for themselves and others. With no afterlife guaranteed, it becomes imperative to make our current life the best it can be. And as we hurl through space on this pale blue dot, with so much of the cosmos still unknown, it’s important we remember to look down every now and then and remember that, regardless of who we are, where we come from or what we believe, we are all human. We are all capable of change and we are equally capable of spreading that change. So, let’s all strive to make this reality the best it can be, by focusing on the here and now.

Jack, 20, from Palatine, Ill., is a mechanical engineering major at the University of Iowa. He is vice president of the school’s Secular Student Alliance chapter and is the head of the prosthetics division for his school’s 3D printing club, which prints affordable prosthetics for those in need. He plays trumpet in the Hawkeye Marching Band and enjoys hiking.