Monday, November 17, 2008

Thoughts on the afterlife

Been chatting back and forth with one of my UCLA profs, and he commented on my post about Saavik that he holds out hope for an afterlife primarily so that he can imagine his pets are there. It's so funny how true this is for me too.

I have dealt with an inordinate amount of human loss, as many of you know, and while the concept of an afterlife is something I'd probably desperately like to believe in, it just doesn't jive with my concept of what is and what is to be. Generally, I can't cling to it for humans, and maybe part of that is because human life is so complex, the notion that our awareness continues indefinitely is not altogether pleasing.

Yet, imagine for just a moment the notion of Saavik, whose huge and free personality was trapped in a crippled and somewhat immobile little bird body, finally being freed in death and finally becoming able to spread those atrophied little wings and take to the sky. I mean, how can I resist that thought? Who cares if it stands against all of my assumptions about the nature of life and death.... it is a poetic and comforting notion despite the cognitive dissonance it creates.

I'm sure it's odd to think that someone might have an easier time believing in an afterlife for animals than for humans. But I don't believe in a lot of things, like reincarnation in the conventional sense, yet it is easier for me to imagine reincarnation for animals than for humans. For us, it sounds like an overly complicated process, given the differences among human beings. Yet for animals, it kind of makes sense. What if a bird dies, and its little bird soul enters a new hatchling? Neat and tidy.

Eh. I dunno. The point is, I obviously don't believe in all that. But when it comes to the purity and innocence of an animal, it is very hard for me to imagine that just blinking out and going nowhere. I mean, I do believe in a sort of post-mortem reuptake of energy and matter into the energy and matter that make up everything, some would consider that a limited form of reincarnation or an extremely limited form of afterlife. It doesn't seem too weird to me to think that an animal's consciousness, however limited, goes on; so why does it seem so weird that my own consciousness could also continue on?

Perhaps it is because of the difference in consciousness between animals and humans. It's not as if Saavik is analyzing her situation in the afterlife, should that in fact be where she now resides. She's probably just flying back to the jungle from whence her ancestors came, happy as a clam in mud. Now, if I were to die, and still be aware of things.... brr. Don't much care for it. I'm analytical enough now as it is. I guess I could grow to like the idea that I would enter into a euphoric state immediately upon my death, or an all-encompassing state that would have no emergent characteristics at all. But it still doesn't ring true for me.

Perhaps it is because I grew up with the notions of God and heaven and hell, and now believe that I would probably go to hell should such a thing exist and the criteria actually rest upon faith! Ha ha. Although even when I believed in the notion of heaven, and that I was headed in that direction, I rejected it. It was never reason enough for me to stay in service to my God of old once I obliterated my faith with questions, and it never could be now. I mean, I grew up with a lot of other notions too, and one was that the literal heaven and hell were probably mischaracterizations or exaggerations of afterlife states revealed by God that we humans couldn't describe or understand very well. That still makes more sense to me than the literal version.

Well, as usual, I've turned a little blurb into a dissertation. But I'm learning, and what I've learned here is that my desires, what I want life and death to mean, still shape my views on life and death more than I would care to admit. I just don't know if that is a bad thing or not... for example, I have always taken comfort in my mom's faith since her death. There is a part of me that wonders how it could not mean anything at all to believe so strongly in a loving Savior and that you'd be with him, in his arms, in the instant of your death. My mom believed that with all her heart, used to joyously sing songs about it in fact, and if there is any order to the universe it is hard to imagine that her faith amounted to nothing upon her death.

To that end, maybe the afterlife is exactly what you believe in life that it will be? That's a creepy thought too, but one that others have certainly advanced. I mean, our perception completely shapes our understanding and experience of life, so if our consciousness is perpetuated, couldn't it also shape our experience of afterlife? In that case, however, it'd be hard to advocate for an afterlife for animals as it is doubtful they spend much time cogitating on the possibility. For that matter, same thing for babies and children who leave us just as they come in to the world. Doesn't seem right to think that babies just blink out simply because they haven't been around enough to worry about their own mortality yet. Or that crazy religious zealots get to enter into bliss while perfectly decent people who tend to no faith merely disappear. Toss that idea. :)

Well... this has accomplished nothing other than making me feel uncomfortable about the influence my personal desires can have on my existential beliefs. :) I guess I still feel it's improbable that my best feathered friend is now flying free, happily munching on fresh tropical fruit and finding herself a handsome bird boyfriend in the jungle, but I like the idea too much to let go of it just yet. :)


  1. E~
    Thanks so much for writing this. I am enjoying getting a peak into your brain :)

    I love this:
    Yet, imagine for just a moment the notion of Saavik, whose huge and free personality was trapped in a crippled and somewhat immobile little bird body, finally being freed in death and finally becoming able to spread those atrophied little wings and take to the sky.

    You have stated such a perfect picture of the hope I have in Christ for my own afterlife. The bible says, "If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation. The old is gone and the new has come." Yet, despite being a "new creation" in Christ, my "crippled and somewhat immobile" little soul yearns for the free flight that I hope for when I am perfected, when I shed this atrophied body. I think you are closer to Faith than you may realize, Erika. God does not ask us to check our brains at the door (despite what some of my fundamentalists brothers and sisters do). In all intellectual honesty, I must admit there are things I don't know... yet.

    I would also encourage you to not see a relationship with God in Christ as being a "golden ticket" to the afterlife. The kingdom of God is here, now. I'm not sure about heaven and hell, but I know that my relationship with God is real, it is present, and it brings me joy and peace... today... right now... not someday when I'm dead. God doesn't call us to die... merely to die to ourselves and live in Him. As long as faith in God is "fire (hell) insurance" or just a "sin management system", it will never be worth anything. That's religion... not Christianity.

    Love you!


  2. What a great comment there! Hearing you talk about your bird gives me such a youthful joyful feeling - she is almost a great mythical story.

    Anyway, this entry reminded me about a book I almost read once (before i remembered that i don't read) :) Donnie had told me about this debate he read between a humanist and deepak chopra where chopra "kicked his ass" talking about an afterlife. It's similar to what you were saying, that life goes on in consciousness... through energy or something.

    Anyway, the book was
    Life After Death: The Burden of Proof by Deepak Chopra
    Maybe you'd find some comfort there if you haven't already read it.

    anyway, i feel like an idiot following that spiritual ray of word light up there in the first comment, so that's my two cents! oh, and i have next week off of work so i'm free mon-wed daytime so let's definitely hang out.

  3. @ Matt: Thanks for your comment. I guess one of the points I was trying to make in my post was that, even when I did believe in heaven and hell, and when I was choosing to "break up" my relationship with Christ, any fear related to the afterlife was not enough to make me want to retain my faith, which I think is odd because that fear seems to be the #1 recruitment tool for people like Kooky Kirk Cameron. :D So yeah, no golden ticket for me. I think the problem with me and a defined faith is that I now view any possible "God" as something vast and cosmic and not as something consciously directed, so it is intellectually impossible for me to ask God for anything. I now believe that if there is any truth to the notion that we were made in the image of God, it simply means that there is order to the universe and we are a part of that order, even if our "advanced" consciousness is some kind of tragicomic cosmic accident! LOL. But given the symbolic value of religious figures and stories, and the psychological value of faith, I don't think it should be impossible for people to experience that connection to the sacred in a whole boatload of diferent ways, even ways that many could view as totally secular.

    @ K2:
    I am proud, so whatever. :) and thank you also for your comments, I haven't read a lot of Chopra. I think he tends to lean a bit mystical for my taste, although of course you know I have that side. Perhaps it is, at its heart, a semantical difference that I can overcome with applied thought and balanced consideration. Anyways, your comments about Saavik have been very, very comforting to me, and have assured me that I am conveying the right things about her little bird life. :) And yes, I'll see ya in a few days. And yes, Matt's faith does seem to translate as a piercing "ray of word light" on page. :) Much, much better than some dull word bludgeon of religion! LOL