[This post was originally published on October 25, 2008, on Yahoo 360]
Death is not the end - I could never decide if that was the most beautiful or the most terrible sentence in the English language. Probably the latter. But the other day I saw something on Mark's blast, here on 360, about the memories being all that we keep in the end, and that made me think about this stuff again. (I've said some of this before, but that was over a year ago and in another country, and anyway, that blog is long dead and gone.)
You see, in a way, I think Mark is right, but in a way, I think he is dead wrong. Memories are part of it, but they are actually the least part. The memories are just the technicolour-coating, the symptom of the real thing, the tip of the ice berg, the little bit showing above the waterline. The real thing is what stays beneath.
How do I explain this? Probably with an example, although that will be frightfully hard in this case. Ok, so here I go.
For those who don't know, I used to have three siblings, one older brother and two older sisters, the younger of which, Anette (or 'Nette) died almost four years ago of cancer. Nette was always the person closest to me in my family, and we used to spend a lot of time together. There probably hasn't been anyone closer to me, ever.
Do I believe that she is now in heaven, some ethereal place from where she can look down on me and to wich I can speak "up" to, in prayer or meditation? No, I don't. Pretending that I did was sometimes all I could do, but in the end, in my heart of hearts, I never believed that.
I believe the soul is a function of the physical world. Like a piece of literature or music, it is not something that exists on its own. When you burn the book, the text inside dies with it, and when no one is playing the music, it is no more. Like everything else I know, I must assume that souls are just expressions of the physical. To just make-believe, without any proof or manifest experience, that souls are different from the rest of the known universe seems like folly to me.
That does not mean that they do NOT exist, though. Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses" certainly is more than just ink on paper. Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D is certainly more than just dots on music paper... and it certainly didn't cease to exist after he had once played it on his harpsicord when thinking about it for the first time.
Because there are now hundred's of pieces of music based on the Canon in D, from classical interpretations to punk rock variants. Uncountable people have been married to it. Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne is based on it, and it was part of what launched her carreer. But not only that: In the video clip to that song, she wears a t-shirt from Wilkesboro Elementary School in NC. After the video became a hit the school was flooded with requests for the t-shirt. From the money they made selling it, they could buy all new computers for the entire school. Now, imagine for a moment that one kid becomes a successful computer programmer because of learning on these new computers. That was Pachelbel.
But you don't even have to go so far. That is what I meant when I said that memories where just the tip of the ice berg, possibly the least important part: Stories we hear, music that touches us... and people we meet... they change us, shape us, become part of us. 'Nette is a part of me. I would not be who I am without her. I can hear her, when I close my eyes and listen inside. I don't mean memories. Memories can fade. But that, that piece of her soul that is inside me, that will never fade, because it has become a structural part of my own soul. When I am an eighty-nine year old doter, who can't remember what he has eaten two hours ago, I may not even be able to recall 'Nette's name... but the echo of her will have reverbrated down my entire life, it will have informed all and everything I ever did and all I became, and it will even then still be a part of me, indivisible from everything else.
And when I die, tomorrow, everybody whose life I have touched, will have been touched by her as well. Those people might not know her, might have no memories of her and would not recognize her name, but she has stepped into their lives nonetheless. We are all fluid, no matter behind how many walls of politeness or rudeness, of formality or fake joviality we hide. We touch and mingle like watercolours blurring on wet paper, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
It's like prions transfering mad cow disease, or salt wandering from cell to cell through osmosis, like the shadows left by people vaporized by the atomic bombs in Japan, like the beating wings of a butterfly causing hurricanes half a world away, like folie à deux, like ripples in a pond that spread and return, mix and influence each other, but never cease even centuries after anyone can remember the stone that caused them.
So, it really is not memory I am talking about, although that is one small part of it, but it is not good deeds living on either. Who knows what will be good after a while? What if that kid, learning on the new computers in WES, NC, becomes a hacker who brings down the strategic defense of the USA and causes thermonuclear war? Like Gandalf says in the LOTR, even the very wise do not know all ends. So, this is not about heaven or hell, nor about punishment or rewards.
It is about immortality and about returning to the source, about becoming one with the universe, and about everything being connected. And you don't even have to die for it, because you do it the moment you are concieved. The first time your mom felt nauseous from being pregnant with you, you have started causing these ripples, and they have been travelling out from you, changing lives, altering the world, unstoppable, penetrating souls and families, politics and dreams, hopes, fears, decisions, and the physical world.
But - and that is why this is my theory of the sweet hereafter - they are what remains, after you die. And they are still you: Because you do not need your own body and your own brain to be aware or to feel. When I said I can still hear 'Nette inside, I meant that literally. Not her ghost or some supernatural spirit. Just as a part of myself, it exists in my synapses the same as that thing that I call my "self" does. I can hear her voice, and I can talk to her, and she does think and plan, advise and admonish, but she also feels. That part of her that sits in my heart like a crystal shard, it can be happy even when the rest of me is not, and it can be sad, even when I wished she wasn't. Like a computer program running on another machine than it has been originally written, or a piece of music playing on a different medium, recorded and copied and disseminated, like literature printed again and again throughout the ages, transformed into plays and films, abbreviated, retold, paraphrased, it retains its essence, its selfness, its soul. It is still alive.
Like a hologram shredded into strips, each strip may only show the orginal image from its one perspective, but they are still all there, even if spread out.
Do it. Listen inside for the voices of those you lost, even if only temporarily, because they are all there, inside, and will be forevermore, just like you are in the hearts of everybody you have ever touched, and everybody they have touched, and so on.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
- from: Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892), Ulysses
Omnia mutantur, nihil interit - Everything changes but nothing truly is lost.- from: Ovid (43 BD - 17 AD), Metamorphoses
New Canon in D, originally by Johann Pachelbel (1653 - 1706)