Tuesday, July 28, 2009
What is there after death? A host of questions
Since Leif's death I've thought many times about the possibility of some kind of afterlife. I never had any firm, dogmatic beliefs about it, no particular religious teaching I subscribed to. When I was in high school, extrasensory perception and reincarnation fascinated me and I did a lot of reading about it. I was interested in comparative religion and read about many religious beliefs. In the past ten years I did more reading, research about ghosts as background for the ghost stories I was writing, but still, I did not settle on a firm belief.
And that's all it could be, belief, since we have no real proof of life, of any kind, after death. There are many experiences people have had that they claim proves the existence of ghosts, or communication with those who have passed over to the "spirit realm." There are people that claim to have measured the soul coming out of the body, but even if they have, who knows where it goes? Does it have memory and personality? Does it maintain that individual integrity or dissipate?
There's not a one of the ideas surrounding the continuation of the individual soul or personality after death that doesn't have huge problems that belie logic or even imagination. Yet, people believe. It seems to be a hallmark of just about every religion, the belief that we continue to exist in some form after death. As I wrote in the afterword to Trespassing Time, "Is belief in ghosts only superstition or gullibility? Or is it openness to an experience beyond our daily lives? A faith in the continuance of the soul after death?" How can we know?
When I was writing ghost stories and doing a lot of school and community programs, people, both adults and children, would ask me whether I believed in ghosts. I would tell them that I had "an open mind." I couldn't quite believe, yet I admitted the possibility. There are so many things in our world, our universe, that are fantastic and seemingly impossible; why couldn't this be true, too? Maybe we just don't know enough. Many of these people told me of experiences they believed were visits from the dead, though in truth, most were more like coincidences that made them think so, like the mother who saw a falling star and felt it was a message from her son. A few were harder to explain and might have really been such a visit, like the story told to me by a well-known author about a visit from a dead soldier in the barracks, in the night, asking him to tell his family what had happened to him. At the time he appeared to this man, no one yet knew this soldier was dead.
And yet . . . . since Leif's death, I find myself being less open-minded. Is it just because he has not visited or communicated with me? (Or maybe I'm just not open and sensitive enough to know it?) All of the ideas about life on another plane of existence define a barrier between the worlds. If it were easy for the dead to come back and talk to us, I'm sure many more of us would have had that experience. Maybe the dead, if they yet live, don't even remember their former existence on earth. Maybe they are not supposed to remember us. Does the butterfly remember being a caterpillar? Could death be a form of metamorphosis? It doesn't seem likely. The caterpillar's body is not found dead and decaying; it has truly changed into the new form.
Where do all the new souls keep coming from, as the population of the earth continues to rise dramatically?
Is it just wishful thinking, not only for our loved ones but for ourselves, that we persist in believing we will "live" after death? Are we just not able to comprehend and accept that death is the end?
Why should people be the only ones to go on after death? Many animals have conscious intelligence. What about them?
If there is another existence and there are ghosts, why do some peole become ghosts, ostensibly a few, and the others do not?
Then I think about Leif specifically. He did not believe in a life after death, or in God, and yet I think he hoped both might be so. If he were to be surprised after death and find himself with a new form of existence, what would he do? Our egocentric minds seem to think that our dead loved ones either spend their time hanging around watching us or waiting to welcome us into the hereafter, but why would they do that for years and years and years? Surely if they are "born" to a new form of existence, there is far more to that existence than watching their old world and waiting eternally. How utterly wasteful and boring it would be to spend eternity like that. Perhaps there would be a period of letting go, and then they'd get on with a new "life."
And someone like Leif, leaving this world of his own volition because of unhappiness, pain and debt, why would HE want to hang around and watch it? Would he WANT to watch his parents grieve? Would he WANT to come back to contact them . . . and tell them what? Why he did it?
We think we want to know, or at least know what he would have to say about it, but it could be even more painful. Maybe we would be confronted with his anger. Maybe we would learn things we don't want to know. Maybe he would find it too painful to tell us, to watch us deal with it.
Maybe he would be anxious to get on with his new life. For someone who had as his signature on the ZAON forums the Aldous Huxley quote, “Maybe this world is another planet's Hell,” this world would probably be one he would leave as far behind as he could, once he had taken that step.
If he is somewhere and still Leif, I hope he is happier, whether he comes back to "visit" or not. If I knew he were now in a happier life, I would still miss him and grieve for what he went through on earth, but I would be glad for him. I can't be that, though, because I have no way to know.
Beliefs are one thing. Actions are another. I still talk to him every day, and I probably always will . . . . whether I believe he is there to hear me or not.
The photo of Leif with the telescope, which he was probably pretending was a big gun of some kind, was taken in June 1982 in Japan. He was seven-and-a-half years old.