When investigating our beliefs about death, an average, secular American will have one of two common opinions:
1. When I die, I’ll go to some kind of heaven with other decent people
2. When I die, the lights’ll go out and that’ll be that
The first is the more agnostic approach, and the second the more atheist approach. For my purposes, I will not expound on the differences and facets of either irreligious philosophy. It will suffice to say that I believe both opinions are logical and true.
As a Catholic American, one might explain the necessity of living as Christ would approve, barring oneself from the potential annals of hellfire and demons. Religious Jews believe that mitzvoth (good deeds) and commitment to Hashem (God) will maintain their relationship at a divine level, so that when death is imminent, the closeness of the spirit with the Lord will remain. In Eastern traditions, the emphasis is placed on the attainment of enlightenment through the Eightfold Path (a Buddhist tenet) or through a constant reincarnation of earthly lives by the divine forces governing human interests (a Hindu belief).
When we break each of these (and other) traditions down to its actual scripture relating to the death experience itself, we come up with little more than anecdotes and expansive figurative language. This lack of concrete death evidence is unsurprising for obvious reasons. If a human had come back from the death experience to write about it in detail, the results would inevitably offend, exclude, and confuse most of the population to the point of disbelief. No Hindu or Jew would want to know that when a Protestant Christian passed away, she first encountered Jesus and several apostles on her way to the spiritual place of repose. And even if this were the case, no self-respecting Hindu or Jew would believe her, preferring instead to believe that she is merely another charlatan, a fraud purporting her own religious beliefs for the purpose of mass delusion.
The question becomes: How is the experience of death universal if we all have beliefs that completely oppose each other? And, perhaps more probing, IS the experience of death universal?
Obviously, I am not suggesting that some of us are immortal, much as I would love to be. The imminence of death is a concept we learn during our foundational years. We are trained to believe that nothing lasts forever, least of all our lives.
Most of our lives are spent fearing the end, pushing the end back as far as possible through healthy maintenance of ourselves, and secretly maintaining the so-called “Hero Complex” which places us above our contemporaries in the chain of ‘living importance.’ While we acknowledge our eventual death, we tell ourselves that the world would not be able to go on the same way without us. And perhaps we’re right, because if this weren’t true, what are we doing here to begin with?
When we seek the ‘meaning of life,’ we are also asking about the meaning of death. For in death, we’re meant to believe, we will somehow understand what our purpose has been. Having read multiple books, articles, and viewed multiple films relating to the subject, here is my decent, terse description of the so-called “Meaning of Life” from the perspective of parapsychologists, mediums, and psychics.
Life is for learning. The expression “Life is for living” is not productive. Neither is the expression “Life is for the living.”
We aren’t aware of living while not alive nor the possible lives of the currently non-living, so what use is it to qualify what life should be for? While we are physically alive, we are living, regardless of our ambitions and efforts toward self-fulfillment. From the moment we are born, our lives are completely devoted to self-education. Each movement, interaction, and experience we undergo is a chance to assimilate further knowledge about ourselves and the world around us.
If not for learning, what is the purpose of anything? No argument can nullify this idea, because education is implicit within every action we take. Every day of our lives is a chance to be further educated about what life is and how we exist in it.
Take a destructive example, one that shouldn’t teach us anything:
One could ask, “How is it learning to smoke cigarettes? I’ve smoked for years, how is this thousandth cigarette teaching me anything?”
The answer is not obvious the way that trying that first cigarette is a learning experience. However, what has one learned that has created this cycle of smoke-inhalation? If anything, the opposite would be argued–“If one has learned that smoking is negative, why would one continue to do it?”
Perhaps the reason is not rooted in cause-effect education, but rather experiential education.
While lighting this thousandth cigarette, our subconscious may be saying, “How will this cigarette feel TODAY, with the body I have right now?” “Will this cigarette feel different from the others?” “Am I happy today, smoking this cigarette?”
Each time you act, you are learning, even if the act is repeated on a superficial level. Doing the same action and having the same experience are two completely separate ideas, and combining them is dangerous. What would be the point of repeating an action if it were the same every time? It is intrinsic to human experience that no two experiences are alike. Hence, the desire to learn is a foundational part of existence.
How many of us wonder what we will have accomplished by the end of our lives? And, as we lie on our “death-beds,” what will we be pondering? We will hopefully think of our successes — measured in loved ones, self-love, and readiness to depart for whatever lies in the hereafter. The most important question remaining will be — “What have I learned from my life?”