When we die, we are sent to a pretty bleak world in which there are horribly disfigured Winged Harpies, and we have to tell them how wonderful it was to live. If we lie, or if we have nothing to tell them about what we did to try to live with passion and love, then they keep us there for eternity. But if we tell them how beautiful the world was for us, and describe the joys and excitement we felt while living, then they will show us a door that will release our atoms back into the world so we can become one with nature again.
At least that’s how Phillip Pullman sees it in his wonderful, magical trilogy His Dark Materials. Which I’ve just finished reading for the third time.
So why can’t this be true? Why haven’t we created a religion with pastors and rabbis and imams and mosques and churches and synagogues and holidays that teach this? It’s just as plausible as anything out there, and it’s a lot more pleasant as well.
I sometimes get into these modes where I try to really think about death, with as much analysis and as little emotion as possible. I might be in one of those times now… which is maybe normal when your wife is pregnant? I don’t know. You’d think I would be able to forgo depressing thoughts when I’m about to bring a new life into the world, but who are we to control our brains?
But if you try to remove the whole “sadness and mourning” part then death – like anything inevitable in life – does not have to be so depressing. It doesn’t have to the most terror-inducing subject in our world. I’m actually not afraid of death. I’m afraid of actual dying [Will it hurt???] but not death itself. I don’t say that with a flourish of bravado, as if it is anything to be proud of. I look at death as something that I don’t know and can’t comprehend, and just because we can’t comprehend something doesn’t mean we have to fear it.
Now this is not to say I welcome death, although a lot of people would look at me climbing sheets of frozen water and think otherwise. I’ll admit that I’ve got a…nervous apprehension about death, but mostly the thought just makes me sad. There is so much to see and do on this earth – if I died, I’d miss it all and that wouldn’t be any fun, and I wouldn’t get the opportunity to tell the Winged Harpies about raising a child or traveling to Tibet or listening to an orchestra. So no, I don’t want to die.
And yet it seems there are so many people in this world who think of nothing else. So much of our focus seems to be on what happens after you die, and so little of it seems to be one what you should do while you’re living. It’s always been a shame to me that most of the major religions in the world concentrate on doing things only with a view to what happens after you die. I think all Pullman is suggesting is that maybe we should focus on living and experiencing things in our world, because when we die, it’s the end of the road for the arrangement of atoms that makes up our specific consciousness.
So I think he gets it. But what most religions miss is the fact that death has nothing to do with the dead, really. It’s all about us. Think of it: how many people do you know who have died? Has anyone ever said, “Oh, try to avoid dying. I died last year and let me tell you – it’s just horrible.”
No, of course not. No one knows anything about death. No one knows where we go, what happens…even the people who say that nothing happens, that your body just withers and that’s all she wrote – even they can’t be sure. Because no one has ever experienced it. It’s an unknown that will probably never be known.
But for all practical purposes, death is about the living. About those who are left behind. We feel horrible when someone dies. We miss them and we don’t know how we’re going to live without their presence. For all we know, they could be livin’ it up at some sexy club in the tropics with all they can eat or drink and as much care-free sex as they want…it’s just as plausible as any of the other stupid ideas out there. But all we REALLY know when someone dies is how we feel about it. And it’s usually not too pleasant.
If we have to be afraid of anything, that’s what we should fear: the pain we would cause those who love us. We shouldn’t fear death because we might go to hell or be reincarnated as a urinal cake or something. Our biggest fear should be causing others pain, and shame on our religions for creating other, selfish fears.
How about our various clergy start preaching about that? How about a religion that scares people into NOT hurting people for a change? What if jerks like that guy who was standing in the subway doors and REFUSED TO MOVE WHEN WE ALL NEEDED TO GET ON were instantly sent to a place in which they bind you to a stake that burns for eternity but never consumes you (along with, of course, murderers and child molesters)?
I will gladly attend the seminary of that religion.
*FUN FACT: The first time the phrase in the headline was used by Dr. McCoy in Star Trek was in reference to a weird dog-like animal that had just died.