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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Yet Another Musing on the Afterlife

I think I went pretty in-depth on this already, but the following is a blog post I made recently in an Honors philosophy course I'm enrolled in right now talking about whether I think dualism is a feasible concept.  I break down my religious/spiritual beliefs in my post as well, which may or may not shed some more light for you on where I stand:

The following is an excerpt from a letter I wrote over the weekend to the wife of a former teacher of mine, who sadly passed away last week at the tender age of 30 due to a heart issue. He'd had issues with it when he was 15, but had been symptom-free up until the night he died. I wrote this letter in an attempt to comfort her, to put down everything I wanted to say to her so she could process it at her own pace and desire, rather than try to dump it all on her at once in one meeting at his casket:

“Please don’t let this shake your faith. I don’t know if it will, but I feel I should cover this point anyway. I can’t speak to how you believe, or exactly what, but keep hold of it. I don’t know if there’s a rhyme or reason for what happens, but history seems to indicate the truly great, talented, and good depart this world too soon. Mr. Gifford meets that criteria in my eyes. It’s sort of a funny idea to take stock in, that the better person you are the shorter your life is, but I can kind of believe it. It takes extra effort to be the best you can be, so it might possibly wear a person out…yet Mr. Gifford seemed to shine effortlessly, so perhaps that isn’t so true after all. Perhaps God needed him more? That could very well be the case, but I don’t think that definitively negates your needing him, your son needing him, or everyone else needing him. Makes God seem a bit cruel, but God could simply have a plan too great for us to understand. There are so many ways of framing the “why” in this, so please choose what your heart and soul and intuition feel is best. I’ve seen and heard of faithful people being shaken by moments like this because of the greater uncertainty that exists about what happens after death. It stems from an innate fear of the unknown; we can’t definitively say what the afterlife is going to be like, or whether there is one. Different religions and schools of thought exist with interpretations of how it might be, and argue, fight, and kill those that think and feel differently out of an innate fear of being wrong. You have nonbelievers clinging to science, the pious denouncing theories like evolution, skeptics wanting visual facts to build a theory, and the devout twisting and selectively believing facts to suit their beliefs. It’s chaotic and confusing, plus these factions wind up causing just as much bad as good. Call me off-kilter or non-traditional, but to me, no matter what or how you believe, it seems too farfetched to believe there isn’t a creator or some sort of afterlife. Why can’t we say that God is a scientist and just follow the religion we wish so that we become the best people we can? Why fear being wrong? Why kill one another or tell someone they are wrong? Just be the best you can, encourage others to do the same, and wait to see for yourself how it is? I’ve met many people of varying faiths/beliefs, studied many religions and philosophies, yet I still consider myself a believer in nearly the same sense as when I started, and somehow magically find it within myself to appreciate and be fascinated by beliefs different than my own, rather than shun them. This existence is too damn interesting for there to be nothing after death; I stand convinced there’s something at work outside of the tapestry of stars. I believe we’ll see the departed once again if we adhere to our respective moral compasses. Sorry if I come across as preachy; just keep believing how you want. Also, for the record, I’m a Christian with an appreciation for Asian/Native American religions and a “What Dreams May Come” view of the afterlife. If you’re confused by the last bit, find that movie and you’ll understand.”

I believe that this is the best job I've ever done at really laying myself open for my own eyes to see, which I feel was drastically needed in order to really try to connect with her in the fallout of such a tragic loss. It's one thing to mentally know who it is you think you are, and to have all of these thoughts swirling around in your mind, but it's much more satisfying for me to be able to pull this sort of thread from the loom of my mind and sew it into paper. It's the closest thing I think we can get to actually turning the abstract into something tangible, although interpreted it is still of an abstract nature…perhaps less so. o-O

When it comes to whether I take any stock in dualism, I think I'm fairly safe in saying that I can. Based on the above passage I shared with you of my own writing, it's quite obvious I hold a belief in a higher power, in a creator, and as such I most likely have to believe there is something more to us than just our physical forms, our bodies, which I do. However, it is also quite obvious that the beliefs I hold are quite unconventional and nontraditional in comparison to most “organized” religious beliefs. Right from the start, I state that I am Christian, which immediately tells you I hold belief in a singular “God” and believe in the existence of a “Heaven” and “Hell.” However, my views on these planes of afterlife existence are hardly traditional. I mentioned I hold a “What Dreams May Come” view of the afterlife, and that if you watched that movie, you'd largely take away my current beliefs on the subject. To sum it up here to give you an idea, I believe in a “Heaven of the mind/one's own creation,” be it a conscious creation, unconscious creation, or both.

In the movie, when Robin Williams' character, Chris Nielsen, passes away, he initially sees Heaven as being depicted in acrylic paint, which symbolized his strong connection to his artist wife and her own paintings. As he became more comfortable and more accepting of his newfound plane of existence, the world around him slowly became “real” in the sense that his surroundings became actual leaves, grass, and vegetation. The more comfortable he became with his surroundings, the more control he had over it. His tailor-made Heaven was just but one part of the large scheme of Heaven, as it is mentioned that Heaven is a place big enough for everyone to have their own personal space, but that travel between them was possible, as Chris found out when he happened upon his deceased daughter, Marie, who led him into her own Heaven based on a diorama she adored in her room.

On the flipside, “Hell,” as depicted in the movie, is a plane of existence people wind up going to where they don't know they're dead. People go there for the standard reasons, such as committing murder, etc, but one of the most telling things about Hell is that it winds up being the home of suicides, which reveals the true nature of the construct of Hell. Not necessarily fire and brimstone, Hell is a direct contrast to Heaven in that Hell is essentially “your life gone wrong.” “Good people wind up in Hell because they can't forgive themselves,” a conclusion Chris Nielsen comes to toward the end of the movie, best sums up the nature of Hell. Where Heaven in this case could be described as a sort of “fantasy world” created by a deceased person, Hell is the “anti-fantasy world” of a person trapped within their own pain. Chris' wife, Annie, unable to cope with the loss of her children and husband, decides to take her own life and winds up in a twisted version of her home, run-down, destroyed, all of her art and favorite books gone, located in the bowels of Hell which is strangely depicted as the church she was married in, upside down. Suicides are essentially punished because the taking of their own life constitutes a violation of a “natural order of life,” which isn't really touched upon in great detail in the movie, but can be interpreted to mean choosing to end one's own life before it's actually time. In the movie, this punishment is implied to last for all eternity, but in the actual book (which I've yet to locate and read, which has many difference to the film) the penalty for suicide is 20-25 years in Hell before resurrection to essentially “try again.”

Although Chris is told time and again that no one in the afterlife has seen a suicide brought back from Hell, he is able to rescue Annie at the very brink of losing himself because they were true and legitimate soulmates. Chris is able to finally make her realize who he is and where she's at by choosing to forsake Heaven and join her in her misery, which nearly robs him of his Heavenly existence because he's accepted her warped reality as his, and therefore has begun to lose his mind. Going back to the topic of resurrection, the option is available even for those already in Heaven, who wish to experience life again. At the end of the movie, Chris and his wife, Annie, who died rather young in their prior lives, opt to be reborn so that they might meet again and experience the one thing they didn't get the chance to in their last existence: growing old together.

That's quite a lot to take in, so I don't know if I'll spend so much time elaborating on the other facets of my personal beliefs, other than to say I found things to like in certain Asian and Native American religions. I find myself especially fascinated by Taoism and the Tao te Ching, as well as Buddhism and the teachings of the Dalai Lama. As I alluded to in the passage, I find reasons to be fascinated by the many different beliefs and faiths I come across in spite of my own such thoughts, something I think a great many people seem unable to do because they cling so tightly to the things they hold value in. There is nothing inherently wrong in holding tight to what you believe, so perhaps the issue at hand lies in the fears I touched on: the fears of the unknown and being wrong. The fear of the unknown is a tough fear to shake, and I can't definitively tell you whether I feel I've conquered this one or not, but when it comes to the afterlife I always equate it to starting a new year at college or school, or perhaps moving elsewhere for work…you know, that anxiety you get because you really don't know what to expect. When I look at the afterlife in this sense, I'm able to alleviate a lot of that fear, treating it simply as another plane of existence I simply don't know about. When it comes to the fear of being wrong, now…perhaps that is the harder fear to break, especially for those who believe their particular faith is the one true “ticket” to a positive afterlife. For those stuck on the fear of being wrong, I initially supposed the best way to go about diagnosing it was, once again, to think of it in a general, everyday life sort of sense, in that if you guessed wrong on a math problem, for example, you didn't have to be afraid because it wasn't the end of the world. Then I quickly realized the error of that comparison, because most feel that if they choose the wrong faith to believe in, they are cast into a negative afterlife because they didn't follow the tenets they were supposed to. It was then I came up with another way of potentially explaining it. It comes down to the three similarities we share as human beings: we're born, we live, and we die. The manner in which we do these things may not be exactly the same, but at the very base value we all do these things, so perhaps…PERHAPS…whatever happens afterlife will be similar for each of us, if not exactly the same. Hence why I think my “What Dreams May Come” view of the afterlife holds some merit: because our respective afterlives, or our own areas of such, will be of our own construct based on who we are/were, what we believe(ed), and perhaps even the style of life we led.

Of course, I don't claim to know how it's going to be; this is simply the outcome I hope for the most. As I said, I'm not afraid to admit my view of the matter is wrong, or could potentially be wrong, but is it really appropriate to blatantly say to someone that the way they think it might be has absolutely no merit at all? I find such negativity to be highly disrespectful, and counterproductive. Let each person have their view, and shape that view, and let's all find out how it is when it's our respective times. I personally believe our current existence is too interesting for there not to be something after our expiration, but hey…I could be wrong.

I could go on and on about my belief in a “spectrum of consciousness,” as well as different “planes of consciousness,” but perhaps I should leave that for another time. This blog entry is pretty long as it is…I will say that I'm not keen on believing in a strictly “black and white” interpretation of something, which might give you enough to decipher my thoughts on those issues. Perhaps these are things I can elaborate on when you see me. I guess you could say that I'm most supportive of either Cartesian dualism or popular dualism, based upon my beliefs…I'm still not sure which I take more stock in. I suppose the greatest of my desires is to see it be popular dualism, which would support my concept of the afterlife the most, but at the very least I would hope it would be Cartesian dualism, so I'd at least be some sort of “thinking substance.” :)

A bit of a tedious read, I think, but that pretty much sums up my thoughts on that...I was just reminded that I quoted a letter I wrote to the wife of a teacher of mine who passed away last month.  I should share that here as well in its entirety.  I consider my best written effort yet to try to reach someone who is in grief; I really laid myself open to her in order to establish a connection.  I'm hoping my words worked to help her in the grieving process, but as of yet I do not know.  I meant to deliver the letter to her myself, but having traveled over fifty miles for the service and realizing the line to the coffin was a FOUR HOUR WAIT (yes, my teacher touched that many people), I could not stick around to see her, and gave my letter instead to a young student helping to direct people through the school where the service was taking place.  I hope she got my letter...

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