My contemporaries and I have reached that age where our parents’ generation is dying out, leaving us on the cutting edge of mortality.
It’s a little spooky out here. We’re next.
Oh, it’s still a ways off, for most of us. Another twenty good years, at least, maybe thirty or even forty. Probably not fifty: that century-mark is hard to get past. Even at the short end of twenty, however, there’s a lot of living left to do. What’s spooky is that the rubber rafts that used to be floating down the river in front of us have vanished. We can’t hide behind them any more. All we can see in front of us is a rising mist.
We’ve just had a couple of deaths: a good friend of Marta’s, and another friend’s mother with her father soon to follow. As we approach Samhain, my thoughts turn without much prompting to the perennial question of “what comes after this?”
I’ve actually never worried about the question all that much, and still don’t. Death is one of the very few certainties in life, and it comes to each of us soon enough, along with (presumably) a guided orientation tour and a four-color laminated brochure entitled Newcomer’s Guide to the Afterlife. If there’s any organization to the thing at all. If not, we’ll have plenty of time to figure it out then. Better by far to spend our attention now on living while we have the chance.
But I’m curious about what comes after, of course. I can’t help speculating a bit.
Let’s ignore the speculation that we simply cease to be when we die, not because it’s impossible — indeed, it may very well be the case — but because it’s boring. It’s like speculating about the next season of a television drama where nothing happens. That’s no fun.
No, we’ll start with the assumption that something interesting happens: that there is some kind of continuation after death. What might it look like?
One thing is fairly obvious to me. We have to change after we die. The more I think about it, the more radical the change becomes.
Consider any of your reflexes. You laugh when tickled. You sneeze. You jump when someone pops a paper bag behind your head. You grow anxious and unhappy when your bowels don’t move. You have a natural temperament caused directly by your brain and body chemistry: excitable, phlegmatic, reactive, predatory, diffuse, focused. When you put together all of these things, they make up something we call your personality.
Consider how much different your personality would be if you weren’t ticklish (or, if you aren’t ticklish, if you were.) Probably not hugely different. But then consider how much different you’d be if you had Olympic-level reflexes (or if you are actually an Olympic athlete, if you couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.) What if your body chemistry made you feel perpetually constipated? What if you were born deaf? Or blind? What if your brain chemistry made you chronically depressed? Or bipolar? Or perfectly well-balanced and even-tempered? What if you could not feel love? What if you suffered chronic pain from birth, such that you had never known what the rest of us call “comfort” and considered this to be normal?
Try to imagine who you would be if everything about your body was its human opposite. Fat becomes skinny, and skinny, fat. Good hair becomes bad; bad hair becomes good. Good health becomes chronic illness, and chronic illness, health. Smart becomes stupid, and stupid, brilliant. Who would you be?
All of these characteristics are purely functions of the body, and one thing we do know about death is that we leave the body behind. It rots away in the ground and becomes part of the soil and trees and beasts of subsequent generations. If we continue, whatever we become, we aren’t that.
So whatever we become after we die goes beyond this opposite-us that we try to imagine. We become something that doesn’t even experience these bodily characteristics.
Can a spirit gasp in astonishment? Can it drum its fingers in impatience? Can it become lost in thought? Can it soil itself in fear? Can it weep bitter, salty tears?
Many spiritual traditions speak of an adjustment period after death, when the spirits of the newly-deceased struggle with the memories of the body they used to have: hunger they can no longer satisfy, sadness they can no longer grieve, anger that finds no outlet. But they also speak of a time after that, when the spirit adjusts to the loss of the body. Then the spirit is ready to “move on” to whatever comes next.
For some, this transition is undoubtedly swift. For others, it will take longer. Some spirits remain attached to the earth, to their family and tribe, and become what some call the Elders, or the Kindred, or perhaps even the gods — after a period, perhaps, of being a vengeful ghost. Some may return to the earth in new bodies — with new reflexes, new capacities, new personalities; perhaps they carry a trace of the old personality with them, perhaps not. Some may move into new realms that we can, with our monkey-brains and simple languages, not even begin to describe, using new senses and brains and bodies that we cannot imagine.
Who am I when I remove my face and lay it in a casket? Who am I when I no longer have a favorite ice cream, or tongue to taste it, or belly to be filled by it? Who am I when fingered hands are as foreign to me as the smooth, elegant ribs of a snake? Who am I when what I now call pain, a function of my human brain, no longer has a brain to call home? When I no longer think in English, or German, or Mandarin, or any other human language? When I see with something other than eyes, hear with something other than ears, feel with something other than skin?
Who am I without a body?
Something. I think. Those who meditate deeply sometimes call it a “spark of awareness.” And while it cannot experience pleasure, they say, it can experience joy and beauty.
I don’t know what mysteries death holds, but it seems to me that the person that I consider myself to be will inevitably become a memory: treasured, perhaps, in a scrapbook filled with equally vibrant persons in different lives, different times, different bodies, different worlds.
That is why our life here is important to live. Though my spirit continues, what I now call “myself” will end, just as that magical camp romance the summer I was sixteen came to an end. That summer holds some of the most cherished memories of my life, but it wasn’t my life. It was only a piece of a much larger life filled with many other equally cherished memories. When I was sixteen, I could not see clearly beyond my seventeenth birthday: I could not see beyond the grief of parting at the end of camp. I certainly could not see the life I have ended up living. My imagination was too limited.
Now I can’t see beyond the mist that rises between me and those who were riding the river in front of me. My imagination is still too limited.