thoughts on life, death, everything, and the universe

There are, in popular conception, two ways of thinking about death. The hard science way, or the religious way.

(The third option, the shamanistic or witchy way or whatever you want to call it, doesn't usually get included in the discussion. The scientific types laugh at it even harder than they do at religion, and the religious types often feel it's the work of the pointy-footed one himself and a gross violation of spiritual law. My feeling is that the whole nature of spiritual laws is that they can't be violated--that you can be exceedingly rude or cruel, but you can't cheat the interface. However, it's a "discipline" where the professionals are likeliest of all to be quacks, and the people who may actually have something tend to let their personality issues get in the way of good data. Since in any case it's something nobody can do for anybody else--at least, not without being very rude--I won't address it further at the moment.)

The religious way can of course differ wildly depending on your religion of origin or choice. If you're Buddhist, for example, I'd imagine the difference wouldn't be that large, because half the idea is to hop off the wheel of reincarnation into a blissful, desireless state in which individual self-awareness is subsumed in a more universal awareness. When I was a teen the topic was one of great intellectual fascination for me, since I believed (still do; it's a hard habit to kick) in a spiritual side to the world but at the time didn't know any dead people. I wouldn't say my interest in the differing geographies of various afterlifes led me to be interested in one over the other back in the day, though. The three people I know well who've died all did so after I arrived at some version of my current belief system, and I have striven to integrate my reaction to those events into said system as it continues to evolve.

Maybe for people weighing the vectors of conversion in the heat of bereavement it's a different story. There is a kind of gnawing, burning need to have the question settled in one's mind. My view is that from a technical standpoint, a personality construction standpoint, the question I'm asking myself is not "What is my father doing now that his body is dead?" but rather "How has this event changed my relationship with my father, and what am I supposed to do with the personality resources which I previously invested in the ongoing maintenance of that relationship?" And whatever your system, when you lose somebody you care about you find yourself leaning on it in wholly different ways. You find out if the shape of your faith will hold up under the strain. Many people find the shape of their beliefs won't hold up under the strain, and they rediscover their religion from a new angle. Or they seek out or construct a new one, in order to get back to themselves after losing somebody.

Now I am not a true relativist--I believe that there is an objective truth and that it is possible, with lots of hard work and an equal amount of good fortune, to stumble across it. I also think that stumbling across verifiable proof of any objective truth on an issue this potent takes generations of seemingly tangential toil, man-centuries of research and development. Which you and I and the listening audience do not happen to have laying around in the back of the fridge, waiting to be cracked open. And much as the germ theory of disease did not seem rational prior to the invention of the microscope, proof one way or the other may not be possible without technological advances which may not yet exist.

However, I do believe that all roads lead eventually to Rome or to Ithaka, wherever home is. So too there is a path to mental health along any belief vector, be it ever so rocky or covered with oceans. The elephants and the oarsmen might not all make it, but the story goes on.

And we still have the necessity to answer that second question above, the technical question, from either the scientific or the dogmatic viewpoint, whichever we choose as our religion. You can choose to believe the accumulated wisdom of a bunch of uppity monkeys in lab coats. Or you can choose to believe in the accumulated interpretive traditions of a gaggle of spiritually crippled know-nothings struggling to digest the merciful revelations of a benevolent yet ineffable deity. But either way you have to leap the same hurdles, process the same tidal shifts in your emotions, thoughts and behaviors.

It's a hard thing to admit just how much of my relationship with any other person takes place inside my own mind. To separate Dad from the ideas I have about him, to the extent that's possible. When someone is alive and you communicate with them from time to time, your ideas about that person are in constant flux as they change their behaviors and their own ideas. But when they're dead or you no longer have any form of contact, all you've got to wrestle with is your memories. When a person still talks with you, writes to you, looks at you, if you have an idea about them that may be a little off, you can perceive something in the way they act or speak that makes you take a step back and say "Hey! I need to change my attitude."

Once communication ends, however, you no longer have that baseline to check yourself against. You are stuck with the fearful thought that it is no longer possible to be sure. More--it is not possible ever to be sure of someone else, of the truth of the ideas I have about them, even when they are standing right in front of me, laying their confidence bare. It is always possible that I have misinterpreted them, that they have expressed themselves poorly or misunderstood their own intentions. In life it is not possible to be sure, only to be reassured. Where, then, can I find that reassurance when someone is dead, and can no longer drag me back to reality with a wink when my mind leads me down a ridiculous bunny trail?

Christianity's answer, seems to me, is to defer reassurance. Eyes have not seen and ears have not heard, but in the future when we are reunited in the next world, all will be revealed. This seems fair enough in the abstract, but less satisfying when I am struggling with burning questions such as "Was I a jerk? Was he still mad at me for X?" I suppose the idea is that it's good to cultivate patience, and to subsume the energy one would have spent agonizing past events into greater faith in God. Who is, by these accounts, the ultimate revealer of such mysteries. And furthermore, is the one who decided that it would be better for us all not to worry about it now, but to forgive and receive forgiveness in spite of the uncertainty. The idea is that the miracle of God's love for us and forgiveness of us is the one sure thing we can lean on in a world of doubt. And that, by faith, we can take that certainty from God and pass it through to others, in a transubstantiation of love far more impressive, to my mind, than that of crackers to flesh or wine to blood.

The main response available to those who trust in science lies not in the future, but in the study of the past. It is hard to separate memory from imagination--especially for someone whose memory is as lousy as mine! Harder still to separate out which of your emotions about a person were responses to them, and which arose from the interplay of forces inside your own personality. And the tangle gets maximally snarled when the person in question was one of your parents who raised you, whose personality provided major parts of the structure and and content that you had available in building your own personality. It's hard and painful work, sure, and easy to get bogged down in what-ifs and recriminations in all directions. The only way to get it sorted out to any useful degree, in this perspective, is to rely on the compassion and empathy of people you trust. If they know you well, they can pull you out of a funk if they can see the problem is coming from your own attitudes. And if they also knew the person you lost, they have their own set of memories to sift through. By comparing notes and reminiscing together, we can get a certain amount of reassurance. Even though we don't know the whole story, there are things we can agree on, truths we can arrive at together and there find strength. The remembered love of the dead, and the commitment to honor what they meant to us, can bind us together and give us new courage in a world full of mystery.

While each perspective emphasizes a different solution, I think a little bit of both are necessary to the healing process. Love, like gravity, travels straight through, across the curves of every dimension and past the corners of every time. You can work your way through memory to arrive at a place where relief and forgiveness are possible. You take a kernel of divine fire and use it to light the way through the winding corridors of your memory to the point where your mind can be settled. But it is the narrow thread of love and hope that leads you through the labyrinth in either direction, it is that which guides you. It is that which matters most.