[Caveat: All of my observations, or essays, however dubbed, are simply reflections on lessons that life has taught me, which I now pass along to my loved ones and to any others who choose to read them. I make no claim to prescience, wisdom or mastery of any of these life-lessons. They simply reflect ruminations and goals to which I still aspire.]
In our youth and even into our twenties, most of us feel immortal; we view aging as a genetic condition peculiar to our unfortunate parents that we did not inherit. As we vault into our thirties, a nagging question begins to emerge: What follows this life? The hectic demands of life enable some of us to defer or ignore the question indefinitely, but some of us become concerned or even obsessed with it. Our solutions tend to fall into three categories: (1) fatalistic acceptance of the insoluble, (2) deistic or theistic faith or (3) rationalized contentment. All three solutions work for some people, and, whatever works for you, is The Right Solution for you! Unfortunately, many do not seem to be able to accept thoughts of anything so “unknown” as the Afterlife.
My purpose here is not to attempt to dissuade anyone from any convictions that they may have, but, rather, to explore this sometimes disquieting topic in a manner that may afford some solace to those who are still struggling with the subject of “Afterlife”.
What may lie “Beyond”? Where may we fit? Anywhere? Nowhere? Everywhere? This need not be a negative or brooding topic; it can be a fascinating one and one with which most of us will need to make our peace at some point in our lives. Like many, I have given it an inordinate amount of thought (and research) for eons, which has led me to contented acceptance of the Unknown. How so?
As noted in the About section of my website, I was raised in a very religious family, and I was required to attend Sunday School until age 18 and to study the Christian Bible with care. By age 28, I was no longer able to accept some of the rules of my faith (concerning not using medicine) and so I left it. I spent the next ten years visiting other religions and consumptively reading the scriptures of all the world’s dominant religions; these readings were interesting indeed, and they led me inexorably into the history of religions, philosophy, existentialism, humanism, evolution, anthropology, paleontology, astronomy, and lay-science. All of these sources sought, in salient part, to answer the insoluble question: What follows life? Of course, no certain answer exists, but there are ways to find solace in the Unknown. If you are truly certain about the existence of God, Heaven and Hell, you have your answers. If, however, you aren’t quite sure, the solace that I have found may interest you.
To contemplate the afterlife, let us look for clues in our present life:
Before we were born, where were we?
What do we remember about that time?
Or weren’t we anywhere?
Might the Afterlife be anything like this would-be Beforelife? Some gurus believe exactly that:
What’s the harm in returning to the place from which I came?
Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher 4BC-65AD
Sleep may afford us valuable foreshadowing:
When immersed in deepest sleep, where are we?
When we do not dream, what are we doing?
Why does such slumber make us feel so good?
We know nothing about our sleep-activities, but they seem so pleasant in retrospect. Might the Afterlife (and the Beforelife) be anything like Sleep? Others have thought so.
The dead know not anything.
Death’s brother is sleep.
Virgil, Roman poet 70-19BC
O sleep, thou ape of death.
I view death as The Great Sleep, and I’ve never minded sleep.
Voltaire, Fr. philosopher 1694-1778
And death shall have no dominion
Only death sets us free.
It is the fear of death that is our enemy. As Publius Syrus (c. 50 BCE) wrote.
“The fear of death is worse than death.”
After extended reflection, the following seemed more rational and settling:
Pre-life and post-life seem likely to be the same.
Since pre-life didn’t bother us, why should we fear post-life?
The saddest thing about dying is the pain that our departure causes those who love us.
The poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, in a touching lament of her mother’s passing, may have said it best:
I feel the presence of her absence everywhere.
Those who go, many wise men have believed, suffer nothing, know nothing, and feel nothing. They literally vaporize. It was well put in this well-known Hopi Indian prayer:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow, the diamond glints upon the snow,
The sunlight on ripened grain, the gentle Autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush, I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight, the soft stars that shine.
Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there; I did not die.”
The scientific data about atoms and our evolution lend great credence to this visionary Hopi prayer.
None of the above addresses the “soul”, the essence of our being, our thoughts. Does our soul cease? Do our thoughts cease? The poet, Longfellow, thought not:
That Life is ever lord of Death…
And grave is not its goal;
‘Dust thou art, to dust returnest
Was not spoken of the soul.
And for those among us lucky enough to love someone “to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach”, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning timelessly memorialized great love, can take comfort in these words of another great poet:
None shall part us from each other,
One in life and death are we:
All in all to one another –
I to thee and thou to me!
Sir Wm. Gilbert, c. 1900
And this excerpt from songstress Vera Lynn’s If You Love Me (and do buy it on iTunes):
When at last our life on earth is through
I shall share eternity with you
If you love me, really love me
Then whatever happens, I won’t care
Whatever happens, I won’t care
Love sustains and survives all. More than invisible electricity and atoms, we live in our perpetual thoughts as they exist in the indivisible bonds that we forge with the loving thoughts of others. Indeed, I never let my deceased loved ones go, not really. The live within me.
In conclusion, I have found great solace in all of the above, Solace in The Great Beyond, that mysterious place from which I came. It poses no threats, no latent fears: “When at last our life on earth is through, I shall share eternity with you,” with those whom I love, in sublime repose. I shall then depart contented and smiling gratefully.
To simplify it, I am quite content with The Afterlife, The Great Beyond. Voltaire, likely said it best:
“The Great Sleep, and I’ve never minded sleep.”
Sooner than later, we must put this question, “What follows life”, to rest — and address the more important question: “What are we doing to maximize our lives every day and in every way?” So, until the bewitching hour of my departure, I shall heed the poet’s, Dylan Thomas’, words:
Do not gentle go into the night…
Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas, Poet (1914-1953)
That is, capitalize on all of our daily, hour-by-hour opportunities. There is so much to be done by all of us, and today’s joys are all of the justification and incentive that we need to press forward, doing our best, until the last ray of light slips from our view. At that fleeting moment, we should not fear death so much as the inadequate life.
“Full effort is full victory.”