I joined a philosophy Meetup Group on a lark, and as part of my ongoing efforts to expand my social circle in search of companionship. The topic for the Meetup was “On Losing Your Self In Your Afterlife,” and it gave me a couple of new ways to think about the eternal question, most notably:
- If you cut down a tree, you assume it’s dead – that’s it. Why then, do we as people even consider that when a human dies there is something afterward?
- By extension, implicit in the idea that there is an afterlife must necessarily be the accompanying idea that the human being turns into something other than the person s/he was prior. A tree, as we understand it, just becomes a dead tree. If a human does not become a dead human, it then must become something else (that “something else” is what philosophers call the “immaterial soul.”)
- Spiritual traditions that believe in reincarnation (like Hinduism) ironically de-emphasize the idea of the individual self. Not only are their societies more collective, but they believe that the self is part of a collective as well that they will return to after their current life cycle ends, to begin again
- If even an individual’s thoughts continue, most people would still call this an “afterlife” of some kind
- A caterpillar’s cannot even conceive of the fact that after its life as it knows and has always known it ends, it will transform into something completely different, with a completely different life. It is completely unaware of the nature and existence of this other life, and has no way of being. Could we as humans be this unaware of something similar that will come for us eventually?
Most importantly for me, however, the whole discussion gave me a new awareness of how I personally think about my life.
I am not so concerned with what happens to me after I die, because I truly feel that I do not know. Instead, I am obsessed with the idea of my having lived being meaningful in some way for those who live on after me.
I think the reason I get so emotional these days when I consume certain older works of popular culture, or when I think about things like the relationships between parents and children is because I am so aware of how meaningful it was to me, and to others. The last lines of “You Wanna Be Starting Something” on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for example, always make me cry:
Lift Your Head Up High
And Scream Out To The World
I Know I Am Someone
And Let The Truth Unfurl
No One Can Hurt You Now
Because You Know What’s True
Yes, I Believe In Me
So You Believe In You
Help Me Sing It
(my God, I can’t even cut and paste these lyrics without crying! Good LORD what is wrong with me?)
What goes through my head every time I hear them (and I might have heard them a thousand times at this point) is that this is the very first track on an album produced by a Black jazz musician (jazz being among the first of the modern contributions to the great African American musical tradition) made by a Black man who grew out of the Civil Rights Movement – he comes from Motown, which was the first time African American recording artists were making real money for what they did, with everyone aware of what they looked like, while Dr. King was fighting for their rights – who goes on to sell 46 million copies of this record, which everyone in the world from New York City to India knew, an unheard of and unprecedented number that has yet to be matched. And what is his message? I believe in me. So you believe in you. A people who had everything taken from them and were socialized to believe they were nothing, whose families and histories were systematically destroyed by barbarians and who continue to be oppressed to this day, and yet he achieves a success beyond anything seen before or since. And his simple message to begin an album which changes the music business for all time (I read a great article years ago that pointed out that the Holy Grail in the music business is to create Michael Jackson. Madonna was a female Michael Jackson, as was Janet. Usher, Justin Timberlake, Justin Beiber – all attempts to recreate Michael Jackson. Bruce Springstein had songs like “Dancing In the Dark” on his album with a Michael Jackon styled-track, and he can’t dance! And neither, apparently, could Courtney Cox. Anyway…), and this is his first message to the world. My God, it’s so beautiful, I can’t even type this, tears are streaming down my face. But if anybody can say this, it’s him, because with all that negative history behind him, he still achieves a miracle, and thus his life has MEANING, as I define it. Michael Jackson added something to the world that affected so many people. His being here meant everything, and will live long after he’s gone (one of the most stomach turning scenes in LOVE & MERCY (Bill Pohlad, 2015) is Brian Wilson’s father selling the Beach Boys’ publishing rights for chump change because, “fifteen years from now, it won’t mean anything.” What a bastard.) As far as I am concerned, that’s what matters. That’s what I want my life to be, not my afterlife.
Because my sister is a success, and that I was able to help people finish their degrees as a college counselor, my parents’ lives mattered. After my father is gone, one can say he contributed positively to humanity – he produced two children who, in spite of their faults, helped make other people’s lives better. One of the rules of life I live by is that the noblest thing any human being can do is help another human being feel better about him / herself. My father did that on a regular basis, and taught his children to do the same. That’s why so many people were devastated when they heard he was sick. My mother’s family and friends still haven’t fully gotten over losing their most precious and celebrated daughter. My parents’ lives mattered.
That is what matters to me too. What happens to me personally after I die I not only have no conception of, like the caterpillar, but I really don’t care much. If God judges me harshly, frankly, that’s on Him, because I don’t feel like I was dealt a hand that I could play the way He wanted me to or was given proper instruction on how to play. Call that the victim mentality if you will, but as far as Islam is concerned, I did my best, and God knows my heart. If that’s not enough, I’m okay with that. One thing He did give me was a high threshold for pain, so I am ready to take my punishment if that’s what He chooses. But if I leave this Earth without having made a positive impact on others that outlives me, I will have failed, IMO. The afterlife is not a concern. I keep fighting the good fight for this life because I believe there is still a chance for me to make this life matter. My previous therapist pointed out that when I get so low that I feel like giving up, that’s fatigue, not fact. I was not blessed with good health, so it is easy to feel like quitting, but not substantively my nature – that is why I surround myself with people like her and and my current therapist and friends and family. They give me that nudge to keep going when I need it so I can get up and keep fighting.
I still believe that there is something left in the tank, still something in me that’s meaningful that I can contribute to the world and that will outlive me once I’m gone. If I can just get the pieces of my psyche to fit together, I will.