It seems to me that there are a fair number of complex questions that people have developed automatic, short-cut responses to. Here is one of my favorite examples (read the whole question before attempting); shut your eyes tightly. Now, try and describe what you see. I mean, literally talk to yourself; explain exactly what it is that you’re seeing. Most people’s quick response is that they see black. But if you’re being truthful to yourself and put thought into it, you realize that the “black” you see with your eyes shut isn’t really comparable to the black you see in everyday life. If this frustrates you and you try again to verbalize what you see with your eyes shut, your next response might be something like “black with little flashes of light going off all of the time.” Again, although it seems like maybe this is true, if you compare the flashes of light to something like a camera flash, you realize your answer is still off. The best way to describe what you see with your eyes shut is nothingness, although for us it’s nearly impossible to comprehend what nothingness is.
The closed eyes question is one I tackle from time to time, but it’s largely irrelevant to my daily life; it’s more just a frustrating conundrum that I’ll probably never figure out. However, it’s not the only question that people simply answer without thinking. A much more important question is “what happens when we die?” Again, most people will give out their quick answers without putting much thought into them. People of certain religions will tell you that they go to heaven or hell depending on how they’ve practiced their religion. Other religious types will explain to you that they’re going to be reincarnated as something else in their next life. Atheists will quickly respond that nothing happens when we die. Agnostics might just shrug their shoulders and say “I have no idea.” The problem I have with all of these answers is that they all seem to be cop-outs (I realize that this may not be true, but it’s my interpretation of them). What exactly is heaven or hell? How does reincarnation work? Nothing happens….then what? Here’s a deeper look inside the simple explanations of the afterlife.
I would like to preface the following two paragraphs by saying I’m not meaning to ruffle any religious feathers here, so I apologize beforehand if I do. If you believe that you’re going to heaven or hell after you pass away, that’s completely fine. My question is, have you ever sat and REALLY contemplated what heaven and hell are? Boiled down to their purest forms, heaven is simply the best place you could ever imagine, whereas hell is the most dreadful place you could ever imagine. While this answer may satiate a large amount of people, there are plenty of holes in it. Let’s start with heaven, the best place imaginable. The first roadblock here is that perspective is never discussed. Who envisions the best place imaginable? Is it what you consider to be the best place or what God considers to be the best place? If it’s you imagining the best place, how do you know it’s actually the best place? Numerous studies have been conducted illustrating that human beings don’t necessarily know what will make them happy in the long term (explaining why people don’t instantly become happy after acquiring large amounts of money, i.e. the lottery). For instance, I may think the best place ever is a cool (though not hipster) bar, with all of my favorite beers on tap, the best whiskeys available, and a seemingly endless supply of gorgeous women. However, I can’t possibly experience everything life has to offer by the time I kick the bucket, so how would I know what would truly make me happy? I’m terrified of heights, so I’ll never go skydiving in my lifetime, but at the same time, I’m notorious for enjoying things I previously assumed I’d hate. Maybe my favorite place would be a reality where I’m in constant skydiving free-fall. Also, don’t our most enjoyable places/experiences change and evolve over time? A six year old’s heaven may be some cavernous Chuck E Cheese on steroids, while a 56 year old’s heaven might be Pebble Beach Golf Links. Taken even further, today I’m really feeling like sitting on the patio chair in my brother’s back lawn is heaven, but tomorrow perhaps heaven will be laying in the comfort of my own bed. This same argument applies to hell by the way. It’s always described as (taken from the Bible) a fiery pit of doom, but is intense heat really the worst thing? What if you had hydrochloric acid injected into your eyeball? I imagine that would be quite a bit more painful. Perhaps hell is constantly living as though you’re five seconds away from death by suffocation (which I imagine to be terrifying). The point is, what constitutes as the worst situation, and how does it differ amongst us? Would hell be having to do a mundane, tiring task over and over again, as in The Myth of Sisyphus (having to constantly roll a boulder uphill)? Might it be suffering excruciating pain (the acid in the eye example)? Or could it be enduring a situation that breaks you mentally (imagine having to listen to fingernails drag across a chalkboard for an infinite amount of time)? Maybe it’s a combination of these three. Maybe it’s something else entirely.
Another problem with heaven/hell is the dilemma of other people. It’s very commonplace to say when someone dies, “He/She has gone to a better place, and we’ll see him/her soon.” This assumes that once you make it into heaven, it’ll be like a large gathering of all the awesome people in the world. This automatically disqualifies it from being the best place imaginable though. How, you ask? Well, let’s say that my co-worker Jane and I don’t get along. Both of us are devout Christians and practice our religion every day. However, we just can’t stand each other, for some reason we’ve never gotten along. We don’t do outward mean things to each other; we just don’t prefer to be around one another. One day Jane passes unexpectedly. One week later, a runaway train plows through my apartment and kills me as well. I float up (or down, or sideways?) to heaven and who’s the sixth person I see there? Jane! No longer can this be heaven though because it’s inhabited by someone that I can’t stand. What’s the workaround for this? Some people might say that everyone’s heaven has different people and surroundings in it. Well, ok, but then let’s say my mom is in my heaven, but not the aforementioned Jane. My mom though, loved Jane (let’s pretend she died in between Jane and I, sorry Mom), so in her heaven, Jane exists, as well as me. A conundrum ensues because Mom has to be in my heaven and Jane has to be in her heaven. Also, I love a good dance club but Mom hates them, she loves beaches. Since my heaven takes place in a dance club, it can no longer be heaven for her because she hates them. Our two heavens cannot coexist together. So now what? You could maybe say that just because my mom is in my heaven, she can still have her own heaven with completely different people in surroundings. I don’t buy this because it completely undermines the “I’ll see little Johnny again in heaven,” statement that people use all the time. If my mother has her own private heaven and I have mine, then we’re both being cheated because she’s not really seeing/talking to me, and I’m not really seeing/talking to her. We both just have projections (from our subconscious) of each other in our respective heavens, which doesn’t count as the real us. Regarding hell, the concept of other people is counterintuitive. If you see people in hell, even if you disliked them in real life, odds are you’ll unite against a common enemy (the devil). Does this mean that everyone has their own solitary confinement cell in hell coupled with their very own cavernous space to suffer individually? I think hell also runs into a problem because according the Bible, the devil’s power is limited relative to God’s so he can’t possibly do all the same things, meaning that hell just has to have some flaws, right? The entire heaven/hell process gets a little mind bending if you think about it enough, and that’s only one explanation of what happens when we die.
Reincarnation is defined as (via www.dictionary.com): “ 1.) The belief that the soul, upon death of the body, comes back to earth in another body or form. 2.) Rebirth of the soul in a new body. 3.) A new incarnation or embodiment; as of a person.” What this means is that your inner essence is bound to come back in another body. You’ll notice that these definitions do not specify that coming back necessarily means you’ll come back as a human being. In fact, upon interpretation of the first definition, you very well might come back as a tree, a mushroom, or a piece of coral. There are two aspects of reincarnation that fascinate me; rebirth based on karma (coming back good if you did good, bad if you did badly), and the idea of connected consciousness (not sure if that’s a made up word sequence or not, I’ll explain later).
Let’s tackle karma based reincarnation first. Basically, if you lived a good life and followed your specific religion flawlessly, you’re bound to come back reincarnate into a very good life (similar to Bible teachings by the way, the meek shall inherit the earth, or in this case, an awesome round two of life). If you live your life horribly on the other hand (think Ebenezer Scrooge, pre-Christmas ghosts), your next life is doomed from the beginning. Unfortunately, this is concept that runs into similar obstructions as the heaven/hell argument. How is it decided what’s a poor second life and what’s a great second life? Some people might say coming back as a tree is a crappy second life in comparison with an average human life. Is it though? As a tree, you would be a part of the nature cycle, helping provide oxygen to the billions of people on earth. Also, does a tree really “know” that its life is shitty? In other words, if you were a tree, how would you know that you’re suffering for things you did in a previous life. Maybe to suffer as a tree you have to be chopped down at an early age, but then maybe you’d come back as something/someone awesome, but then your life as a tree wouldn’t seem like it was too damning. I’d make the same argument if you can back as a cockroach. I don’t think they have the mental capacity to understand that they’re paying the price for all the awful things they’ve done before, they just know to go to dark places, find food, and try to avoid my size 14 shoe coming to squash them. What about those who get bumped up to an awesome life for their reincarnation? It can’t last forever, because the world will end one day. Let’s say I die and earn a great karmic boost for the next life. Unfortunately, I’m born into a world that’s destined to end in one month (either due to exhaustion of resources and overpopulation or the sun exploding). How can my new life possibly outdo the old one if I’m just going to die in a month again before I even have a conscious thought?
The second issue with reincarnation is what I dubbed (about 10 minutes ago) connected consciousness. I’ve always pondered whether or not (if reincarnation exists) you would come back in your next life with some sort of conscious idea of whom or what you were before. Sporadically in news or tabloids, you’ll hear or read about people who claim to have been someone famous in another life and have some fragments of memory from that previous life. Wouldn’t it be something else if you were living out your daily life and suddenly had a flash of yourself as some important historical figure, and you knew that it really happened? I don’t think connected consciousness has to stop there though. What if you went through your entire life knowing for certain that in your previous life you had been a bootlegger in the Prohibition era, not just memory fragments, but an entire recollection of that past life? Or maybe you knew that you were a zebra in Africa. Of course, you could never reveal any of this because people would think you’re crazy. I mentioned before that as a tree, you probably wouldn’t know that you’re suffering for wrongs you committed in a previous life. Well, what if you had connected consciousness and you spent all your years as a tree knowing that you’d previously been a human (I guess I did find a way to make being a tree insufferable)? Even more mind boggling, what if connected consciousness actually works 180 degrees opposite of what I’ve just explained and you have absolutely no memory of who/what you were before? This opens the floodgates for a waterfall of possibilities. Perhaps I’ve been reincarnated 50 times and I don’t even know it. More interesting is that this tests the limits of reincarnation. Maybe you can come back as more than one person at the same time. Perhaps I’m reincarnated as two, three, or four people right now. Part of my soul could also be inhabiting an alligator in Florida. What if two reincarnated souls are allowed to reside in the same person, meaning that my boss is actually me combined with someone else also reincarnated. Doesn’t this idea negate the entire concept of reincarnation though? If I have no idea of a previous existence, my reincarnation is meaningless because I have no semblance of my previous self in my new self. This makes me wonder if the actual “me” right now, is even me. Am I my own self or is my life awesome/average/crappy because I’ve come back after living a life I have no memory of, basically, someone else’s life? All of this discussion makes my head spin and is the reason I can only seriously think about reincarnation for about 20 minutes at a time, it just gets too frustratingly complicated. Speaking of which, I’ve currently spent about 20 minutes writing this section, so it’s time to move on to the next one before my brain turns to mush.
The most terrifying aspect of death to me (by FAR) is that nothing happens. Nothing happening ties back into my original question at the beginning of this post; what do you see when you shut your eyes? The fact that it’s impossible to describe seeing anything with your eyes shut is exactly why the nothing-after-death theory scares me. With heaven/hell and reincarnation, there’s a base on which you can build your thoughts on. With nothing, you don’t have a pea to stand any idea on. Have you ever stopped and thought about what it would be like to simply not exist? When you’re on your deathbed (hopefully at a ripe old age), and you take that last breath, your brain shuts down, your heart stops beating…what happens then? I imagine it would be similar to having your eyes tightly shut, except you would also be deaf, completely paralyzed, and the nerves in your nose and mouth would be burned away, effectively eliminating each of your senses. Oh yeah, and you no longer have any brain comprehension. It’s an odd thing trying to imagine what non-existence is, because, like nothingness, it’s something utterly indescribable. I think the closest we could come to for a comparison are people who are brain dead. No function left, only able to just exist. If we assume that nothing happens after death, things like “how would I pass time” would be irrelevant because there’d just be no you. Interestingly, I often work this back into reincarnation. If I reincarnate as a new person with no memory of my former self, wouldn’t that be exactly like nothing happening after dying? It’s a pretty farfetched theory, but it’s really all I can grasp onto when I think of nothing happening after death.
Thinking about death, while morbid, is important. It’s coming for us all one day. An acquaintance of mine always used to give me the same piece of advice over and over about religion, and although I can’t recant it word for word, I’ll paraphrase. “If you blindly follow a faith without questioning it, it’ll mean nothing to you later. It’s much more important to explore exactly what it is you believe in, and that way, you’ll truly be at peace with yourself throughout your life and at the time of your death.” I don’t know if truer words have been spoken. I wrote in the second paragraph that an agnostic might say he/she has no idea what happens when we die. It’s the same conclusion that I’ve come to and it frightens and comforts me at the same time. Sure, I may believe I’m going to heaven or that I’m going to be reincarnated, and so might you, but honestly, can you really know? For those of you screaming at your computers or smartphones that your faith and belief is 100% certain, haven’t you once in your life said to a friend or relative during an argument, “well, I know I’m right, I’m 100% sure of it,” only to find out minutes, hours, or days later that you were actually wrong? I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve done that countless times, and I think anyone who denies that they have is lying. So while I’m consoled by my confidence that I don’t know, it also unnerves me. The greatest fear is fear of the unknown, and death is one of if not the greatest unknown that we’re aware of. The only thing I can do is keep shutting my eyes tight every so often, hoping that one day I’ll be able to explain something that I can’t possibly comprehend.
AUTHOR’S NOTE #1: While going through this article with my editor, we launched into a debate regarding the “everyone has their own heaven” point I make near the end of the 4th paragraph. My editor insists that everyone having their own heaven would work out and even there are different versions of people you know in your heaven, it wouldn’t be being cheated. I disagree in two parts. You’ll recall the triangle of me and fictional Jane disliking each other, but my mom liking Jane, and all three of us going to heaven. If a different version of me exists in Mom’s heaven, one of two outcomes must happen. Either I’m a me that still dislikes Jane or I’m a me that likes Jane. If I dislike Jane, that should technically be considered Sin, which can’t exist in heaven so logically, that me cannot exist either. Second point, if I’m a me that likes Jane, I would argue that my mom is now even more cheated because the me in her heaven is now definitely not the real me, ergo, she is not seeing me in heaven. That taken further, my heaven’s authenticity is predicated upon the fact the people I see there are the same as they were in my former life. This means that my friends have to continue to dislike openly or inwardly those they disliked in real life. Again, a conundrum ensues, as this would also be Sin. If God created a heaven for me where these tensions didn’t exist, I would argue that His choice of giving us free will is a farce, creating even more contradiction. Just something to think about.
AUTHOR’S NOTE #2: I failed to mention (no I didn’t forget, I just considered later how much people would hammer me for omitting it) that the Book of Revelation makes mention of what heaven and hell will include. My response to this; I could write a book about what heaven and hell will be like and shoot it to the moon. If in 250 years (when people obviously begin to live on the moon) some colonist finds this book and reads it, that doesn’t make it true. I should note that it doesn’t mean it’s wrong either (Book of Revelation may be spot on for all I know). Again, for those of you cursing me that the Bible is 100% accurate, you’ve never been wrong about anything you were absolutely sure of? Really?