Sunday, January 15, 2012

And What of Heaven

That last post regarding a heavily-sedated four-year-old’s vision of heaven got me thinking. All right, so you can poke fun at this … but have you ever really thought about heaven? Does it exist. If so, what would it be like. And hell. Is there an afterlife. Is there one true religion.

Yes, the stuff of many a college dorm-room party debate, that time in your life when you will spend three hours getting into it with someone you radically disagree with just to see how far both of you are willing to go in terms of semantics. (And realizing that Born Agains will go all night on this shit, and you’re better off not going there at all with them.)

I can’t recall having a single debate like this in my post-college life. For that matter, aside from trying to reason with the girl who went Born Again on me and just got too impossible to be around, I didn’t really bother with this much in college either. I did have one friend who was deeply Christian – still is. But more of a hard-edged, not so typical Christian, who when not engaging in that stuff, has always been a very fun guy to be around. It’s because of people like him that I’m not as down on Christianity as many people suspect I would be. There are plenty of good ones out there, going about their lives, having faith, not being too obnoxious or arrogant. Whether or not I agree with them is another point. The ultimate point is they’re big enough as humans to want good people in their lives regardless of their belief systems.

That’s what irks me most about the Christian ideal of heaven. The concept that only Christians will go there. Honestly, that seems like a shit proposition and not some place I’d ever want to go. Forget about eternity. I’d have a hard time spending five minutes in a stalled elevator with a lot of Christians. Living in New York the past two decades, I’m constantly exposed to different cultures, people from different countries, languages of all sorts flying around, all day, every day, just this extreme mix of every type of person you could imagine. Live long enough in that environment, you sense that there are many things going on in this world to which you are not privy, or geared to understand because of your culture and how you were raised. I mean that in a good way -- it's a humbling thought, because those people from those different cultures should be looking at you and thinking the same thing. We can all learn a lot from each other.

And then to imagine this monochrome world of people of only one religious faith, who are there only because they put their money on the right horse, and very often in life positioned themselves as arrogant power mongers, be it politics, money or exploiting the religion itself to obtain both? As opposed to countless millions of others who had different faiths, but lived good lives, gave freely of themselves, put the needs of others in front of theirs, basically lived as good and pure a life as they possibly could? No. This concept gave me trouble in those heady college days, and it’s a dealbreaker for me now. If faith in Christ is the only door, forget it, that’s a door I won’t even bother to touch, based solely on the miscreants I’ve seen in my life who have exploited their faith for financial and political power, or just made a mockery of their faith with their arrogance and stupidity. Satan can read this back to me at the gates of hell whenever I go – I’ll nod my head and say, yep, that about nails it, oh dark master, please hand me my pitchfork.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if I believe in an afterlife these days. The older I get, the more it seems to me that when you die, that’s it, the end. I mentioned this to a friend once on the phone and he said, “Doesn’t that prospect frighten you? Doesn’t it make you feel like there’s a lot more you need to accomplish?” I thought about it and said, no, doesn’t frighten me because look around, every animal dies, it’s our shared fate, it’s what we’re supposed to do. As for accomplishments, shit, man, I’m not going to be around after I’m gone, so why waste a minute worrying about legacies and however many people carry around your memory? It won’t be doing me any good, whether I’m dead in the ground or on some mystical journey.

I believed in the sense of afterlife as reward or punishment for what we do on earth. In other words, I’ve seen plenty of people thrive on earth in one way or another, who I know are essentially bad people, and plenty of people struggle on earth who I know are essentially good people. So I pictured the afterlife as a settling of the score, one way or the other.

You have to be young and fairly untested by life to see the world that way. You live long enough, you see bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people … on endless repeat, in our lives, with no logic to it. If someone you dislike suffers some hideous accident or illness, it surely doesn’t pay to see that as some sort of divine retribution. As if that horrible thing happened just because you don’t like the person. God help you if pray/wish for shit like that to happen. It’s bad luck. The same thing might happen to you next year.

And all those people you picture having questionable morality who are wealthy, or famous, or beautiful … don’t kid yourself. They’re just people. From what I’ve seen, that sort of material success does a number on people, often turns their worlds upside down, and leaves them duty-bound to present this façade of pure happiness, power and fulfillment. It’s high profile insecurity. You should always doubt someone putting forth that image. Because it’s not human to be that way all the time. It’s an illusion, shown to you for a reason, more than likely intimidation, and most people will bite and never question it. Their real power is not that illusion, but presenting it makes them feel better about themselves, it’s part of the game they play.

The most financially successful, driven people I’ve seen in New York, it seems like the one thing they have in common, once you scratch the surface, is being troubled. For one thing, above all else, they love that sense of power money brings them more than anything, or anyone, in their lives. Rest assured, the people in their lives sense this, and there’s anywhere from an uncomfortable gap to outright psychosis flowing from the wake of that divide.

And driven people never have enough. They’re never happy. They’re never satisfied. If they got $10 billion, they’ll convince themselves they need $20 billion. It’s how they see the world, with the insecurity we all feel regarding how other people see us, how we see ourselves, too. It explains billionaires and the 1% concept we hear so much about. That TV show Hoarders? It’s pathetic, focusing on people who have small homes filled with junk. Your average millionaire has an entire life filled with excess and material nothingness that make those hoarding houses look like a sample of feng shui design. Those are the real hoarders in our world, yet we’re trained to quietly ignore this, or even worse, respect it.

But I don’t see any need to hate these people, or feel sorry for them, as if that would matter to them! That’s their thing in life, to be that obsessed with this one narrow, exclusionary sense of power, the same way a Born Again may view his religion as the ultimate show of power, the afterlife.

So I realized that sense of reward or punishment in the afterlife that I placed so much value on when I was younger was counterfeit. We all receive plenty of rewards and punishment in our lives. If you don’t think you’re being rewarded, try life with no legs, or blind, or suffering from a debilitating mental disorder, or living in a tin shack in a third-world slum. There are any number of variables going on in even the most humble life that are rewarding and life-affirming. I’ve learned to value those things, like personal health and sanity, solitude, the ability to sit and think, to have a warm place to go when it rains, people I can talk to when the world gets to be too much, food when I’m hungry, water when I’m thirsty. Little things that you never think about that are huge, paramount, when you don’t have them. And as noted, everyone passes through darkness in some sense, even if it’s something as basic as family members dying, or loneliness, or no sense of purpose, or a sense of purpose you can acknowledge will destroy others. These things are not lost on folks we perceive as “having it all” even if it never shows.

You have it all when you have your health and sanity. Or at least that’s what I believe as I get older, and see people a few decades in front of me lose grips on one or the other, sometimes both due to the ageing process or circumstances beyond their control.

I just have a hard time picturing that sense of making it through this world, experiencing all the good and bad, the successes and failures, and then at the end, bang, tunnel of light, here’s your harp, here’s a set of wings … welcome to heaven. At least I can’t picture that scenario (or the opposite) as a human now, knowing what I know of the world, knowing what I know of myself, that if I immediately became an angel, but was otherwise as human as I am now, all I could think would be, “Man, that angel with the nice ass is giving me such a hard-on … my wings are getting tired … this is heaven, and I can’t even get off a good shit … does anyone ever feel bad around here … would it be all right to tell another angel to go fuck himself?”

There would need to be a transformation of some sort. What I could get my mind around? That concept I mentioned in the last post of our spirits leaving our bodies, and entering a place where only the strength and beauty of our souls mattered. That appeals to me. Not this crazy bullshit with harps, wings, pitchforks, sea of flames, etc. I don’t care if The Bible tells me so … much of the Old Testament and hefty chunks of the New can be traced to previous creation and savior myths that existed long before they were written, so I have a hard time going with all of it as literal truth (although when I do read The Bible, I appreciate its wisdom and poetic vision, particularly the Psalms). Again, if I got this wrong, and all those writings preceding The Bible by millenniums that the book directly emulates is just pure coincidence, Satan, please clip this portion of the post and read it back to me in that hissing baritone of yours while anally impaling me on a red-hot spike. I’ll understand, I’m giving you tacit approval right now. Laugh as I howl in eternal agony, as you have for millions of other smartasses who thought you were a myth.

The soul leaving the body is the only thing I could possibly believe in at this point in my life: it makes sense. And I’m not even sure if it makes enough sense, that when we die, we don’t just drop over dead, and that’s the end for each of us. I’m just as willing to believe that, too. (I’ve never had ghostly visitors from my past fade back over my bed one quiet night and whisper, “You’re wrong about that, Bill, change, now.” Will surely keep you posted if such a scenario transpires.) Our bodies betray us over time, and any pleasures we pursue in the physical world, sooner or later, lose their value. Spiritual enlightenment is the one thing that never seems to grow old, or become something it wasn’t meant to be, or encourage us to be greedy and needful at the expense of others. I can see pursuing that, in any form, religious or otherwise, but again, cannot see the point in limitations and rules that would degrade that freedom. Breaking free from the body, it seems to me, would be the ultimate freedom.

I remember in grade school how the teachers would ask us what we wanted to be when we “grew up.” And it was always the same: football player, fireman, nurse, movie star, etc. Either these jobs tied into the concept of service or celebrity. Because that was what we were taught to respect – still are, I’m sure, if you were to talk to kids. The reality is most of us get these weird jobs that no kid could possibly imagine, that we do only for the money and some small sense of purpose. Senior Vice President of Global Relations? Chief Information Officer? I can rattle off dozens of screwy, self-important titles I’ve seen over the years, some of them longer than this sentence. Things a kid could never imagine and would laugh at (until he saw the six-figure annual salary … at which point he’d stop being a kid). The point being, adulthood is nothing like we thought it would be, even when we were in college. Especially in college … when we all had these perfect visions of ourselves doing exactly what we wanted and being rewarded accordingly.

Well, I’m imaging a teacher asking that same question, and some kid responding, “Let’s cut to the chase. Adulthood is over-rated – I can tell by the look on your face. The right question to ask is, what do you want to be when you die. And I’m thinking, a wave on the ocean, the wind on a summer day, the sun on your face, a drop of rain when the fields are dry, the look in a dying dog’s eyes as his master pets his head for the last time, the sound of our laughing when we’re playing in the schoolyard, a blue star, water flowing, the first cherry blossom in spring, the last leaf to fall in autumn.”

I can only imagine the stunned silence, followed by howls of laughter from the other kids. But the one constant in my life is the next step ends up being nothing like what I thought it would be, for better and worse. Can’t see why the afterlife would be any different, assuming it’s there.

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