What happens to us after we die?
Kind of a big question. Or, you know, the biggest question.
Religion developed as a means of answering that one question (before tackling other subjects).
Heaven, hell, purgatory, reincarnation, Morgan Freeman. We expect that we will experience one of these things when we make our last CO2 deposit. But, of course, there is no way to know.
Despite the fact that no one has ever crossed over and returned to describe it (since that would be impossible), people believe in very concrete versions of the afterlife. Visions of heaven during Near Death Experiences® have long been understood to be the firing of chemicals within the brain and body – not unlike dreaming – that create hallucinations and the sensation of being “out of body.” That everyone seems to see heaven during these experiences, and never hell, should raise questions. Surely some of these people were dicks and deserved the fire pits.
Just because no one has ever been to heaven and come back obviously doesn’t disprove that there is one.
But, come on, doesn’t the idea of a perfect place in which you live in everlasting happiness sound, sort of, I don’t know, juvenile? It’s the same sort of belief that we have as kids when we think, “When I’m an adult, life is gonna be great.” And then when we’re 18: “When I’m done with college, life is gonna be awesome.” And again when we’re 40: “When I retire, life is gonna be peaceful.” The belief in heaven is just another way of saying, “Life isn’t great now, but later…”
So many people spend their whole lives looking forward to that next stage, forgetting that whatever stage of life you find yourself in is the best stage of life, because it’s the only one you can control. (There are exceptions to this rule, of course.)
In fact, though it may seem contradictory, belief in hell is wishful thinking, too. It’s just, we wish it on other people, those people we don’t like. Religion, being the wily beast that it is, managed to combine both beliefs as a way of motivating people to act one certain way, to avoid hell and to attain heaven.
(Reincarnation is a very different form of the afterlife, but its use as a manipulative tool is exactly the same.)
The truth is, no one knows what happens to us after we die.
Here is what happens to you after you die:
Your body decomposes while simpler lifeforms digest you (unless you were cremated, in which case, your ashes sit in an urn somewhere). People who knew you miss you to varying degrees, depending on how much of an ass you were. These same people also die off and, with time, every person who ever met you dies off until no one remembers you. You may live on in family history, but even that will begin to fade with each successive generation until you’re no more than just a name in a genealogy.
There are some exceptions.
Some people will be remembered by third parties who didn’t know them but heard about them. Some people will be celebrities to a certain extent, living on as the obscure punchline of a hipster joke or being remembered for their great contribution to their field, whether that be in art, science, politics or some other realm of public influence. A select few will become historical legends.
Considering how many human beings have existed over the millions of years of human evolution, a rather paltry sum of homo sapiens have lived on in the collective memory of the human consciousness.
For every Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc and Abraham Lincoln, there are a thousand Jim Fallow’s, Abdullah Fashid’s and Cindy-Sue Smith’s (don’t know who any of them are? Neither does anyone else).
Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse
We are told it’s noble to live for heaven. That is to say, living as a martyr or, at the very least, a morally and religiously upright person, espousing God, Allah or Zeus.
But, since heaven (and God) is an unknowable goal, I wonder, is that really such a noble aim?
What if, instead of living for a post-death reward, we lived our lives for post-death remembrance.
I’m not talking about feeble celebrity. Who really thinks we’re going to remember who Snookie was in 50 years (I don’t even know who she is now)? There will always be idiots famous for idiotic reasons (the idiot demographic is a surprisingly robust and well-funded one), but for lasting remembrance, you will have to have had a dramatic impact, not just on friends and acquaintances, but on strangers and future generations.
If we’re gonna live for a fantastical afterlife, it might as well be the one that we know at least some humans in history have achieved.
And we can look you in the eye and say, “We’re not afraid to die!”
What remains after our death? Our piles of stuff in our lifeless bedrooms; our Facebook pages in stases; our tracks in the snow and dirt, gradually eroding away.
And our art. It is our only lasting gift to future generations. By ‘art’, I don’t just mean music and paintings (though it can be), I mean whatever it is that we create through our passion and talent. Thomas Jefferson was an artist. Edison, Franklin and Einstein, artists of intellect. To create is the truest expression of life, to bring some amount of form to an otherwise chaotic ether. Devotion to your art is the only truly noble life.
I’ve met lots of people who said they weren’t artistic. I’ve never met a person who didn’t have the spark of creation in them.
You can live for heaven, but it’ll get you nowhere (literally). You can live for celebrity, but it’ll die with you.
But if you live for your art, mastering your craft, then you may come closest to achieving the thing that religion promises but cannot provide: Eternal life.
I believe in art. I believe in its power to educate and illuminate. I believe in its almost (almost) supernatural ability to evoke emotions and experiences, even those that you have never known before.
And I believe that the way we live our lives is our ultimate artistic expression. When we think of great artists and thinkers of the past, we aren’t just impressed with their achievements, we’re fascinated by their lives.
I’ve written on this topic before, so in lieu of repeating myself, I’ll leave you with one final thought.
I quote myself:
“I believe if you can’t be a decent person, then you should at least live enough stories to leave behind a decent myth.”