In one sense I don’t believe in an afterlife. In another sense I do.
In the first sense, I’m convinced that there is no magical realm similar to this world but better in all the ways we want it to be. Though obviously I could be wrong, I just don’t believe it’s the case.
In the second sense, I’m convinced, and much more so because I can easily observe it, that there are bits and pieces of us that are left behind after our hearts stop beating; after life has ceased. You, me and everyone else identifies with these bits and pieces. They are what make us up. And further, I think that many of the pieces that stay around after life are some of the best parts of who we are. They are some of the pieces we identify most with and place the most value in.
The first and most obvious part of ourselves we leave behind that continues on after life is our body. It’s not the most important thing that makes up me, but it’s certainly one of the many puzzle pieces we identify with.
After I die, my organs, if still of use, will be put back to work. Just because my own life is over, doesn’t mean the value of anyone else’s life changes. So even if my organs can’t help me continue on living, it’s important they help out others if they can. To the extent we identify with our bodies, and to the extent that our bodies are an instrument we can use to affect and change the world, even though I’m dead I can still go on helping others.
Here I use the word ‘spiritual’ just to refer to the non-physical objects in the world that carry some kind of value with them. There are at least three important things we identify with ourselves that make up who we are and that live on after life.
First, are our memories. Not the memories stored in our own brains, of course, but those we leave in other’s brains, books and photo albums.
These memories are no small force. The memories of great people and the things they did still inspire much the same as when they were alive. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mohandas Ghandi inspire today, and may continue to live on for centuries. For evidence of this you can simply look to the grammar I used in the last sentence. Even though they are dead, their names, which reference them as individuals, are still properly used as subjects of sentences with active, present tense verbs. Ghandi inspires both here and now.
Even though you or I won’t create such a shadow, we can still hope to inspire, instruct, comfort, and make our loved ones laugh as they reflect on their memories of us. So even after life we can, in a way, still create solid, real effects in the world and still be felt – emotionally if not physically – by other people.
Second, are our works and deeds, or more specifically, the ripples they continue to create. Good or bad, our deeds and the things we do while alive will always ripple on. If a butterfly’s wings flapping can create a hurricane around the world, we can expect our own actions, big or small, to ripple on outward for quite a while. And though it’s impossible to tell what fruits they might bear at this or that juncture in the causal chain, good actions seem to nurture good in others which nurtures good in still others, and so on, while bad deeds seem to put into motion cycles of more pain and suffering.
Third, are the values and projects we devote ourselves to, whether it takes the form of a political party, a social movement, an ideal, a field of study, a charity, or whatever else. In many ways this is probably what we are in the sense that matters most – both to ourselves while alive now and after life. When asked “what are you?” often the most personally important and heartfelt answers people give go along the lines of “I’m a gay right’s activist,” or “I’m an ornithologist,” or “I’m a volunteer at my local Youth Center.”
After getting into conversations about religion, when people ask me “But isn’t there something more? Something bigger than ourselves??” I always answer yes. And it is this third answer that I always start thinking of. There are a thousand things vastly bigger and more important than ourselves and that we sink our identity into. A thousand things from which we can live on after life… indefinitely.
But Most Importantly
Most importantly, concerning after life, we need to recognize that one of the most real and substantive things we identify with as me – our consciousness – is over and done with. Lots of the important bits and pieces that make us up keep on doing their thing once we die, but our awareness and will are finished.
And it is remembering this fact that has, for me, ended a lot of arguments with loved ones. It is this fact that has driven me to, taking Jesus’ advice metaphorically, “store up my treasures in heaven,” by building good memories for others to cherish, creating good deeds here and now, and fighting for those ideals and organizations I feel should live on.
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