After we had sat down and we had a sip of tea, Akash cleared his throat and said, “Why do you want me to talk about death, Mr. Howell?”
“Well, I replied, “I know it sounds gruesome, but do you have any idea what it is like to be on a covid-infested cruise ship where the crew is throwing dead bodies over the transom into the ocean, and death is on every doorstep?”
“Oh, my goodness,” he replied, “Was it that bad?”
“Well, no, but it could have been, and had I not tested negative for covid at 4:50 PM on the last day of the cruise, I would have been transferred at daybreak to a so called ‘covid hotel,’ and what do you think the odds are that anyone would have survived that? Anyway, it was my experience with covid that brought us together. I was looking for an exorcist and couldn’t find one, but I found you instead, and that was even better. I am so grateful.”
“And I observe, Mr. Howell, also that you are no spring chick. Could that also be behind your question about death?”
“That is true. I turned 80 about four months ago, and every day I am reminded that the 80s are different from the 70s. Thankfully, I think I am now past the covid near-death ordeal, but there is much that I could do a few years ago that I can’t do now—like walk as fast or as long as I used to, go up or down steps without holding onto a banister, or remember my own name. About a third of my classmates in high school and college have passed away. We know that we 80-plus-year-olds are next in line.”
“You should consider yourself fortunate and be grateful. You have lived a long, fulfilling life and have been blessed with a strong marriage, children whom you are close to and proud of, grandchildren you adore, a satisfying career, great friends, a loving extended family, and reasonably good health. Others are not so fortunate. Many others.”
“You are right, Akash. Forgive me. Indeed, I have been blessed.”
“First, for someone like you who has already beaten the odds, death is not to be feared. Can you imagine living another 30 or 40 years as your body and mind deteriorate? All life comes to an end, not just human life. It is perhaps life’s most unfathomable mystery and will remain so. Your concern should be that when your number comes up, you are spared suffering and pain. Second, the “value” of death which is often overlooked is that it puts a period at the end of the long paragraph of one’s life. The race is over. You have crossed the finish line. Suffering ends. What has happened will be history and will stand on its own merits for better or worse. You are now free from having to keep running as fast as you can, and from having to keep fighting demons and dragons. At last, you can rest. Here is where the Eastern religions have influenced me. The sadness is for those left behind who will miss you, but their time will come too. The tragedy comes when one’s life has been cut short or when one’s life path has been cruel and rocky.”
“But what about an afterlife? What about heaven or for that matter hell? Do you believe in an afterlife where we will be united with what you call The Great Spirit?”
“This remains a mystery, but in any event whatever life there is will be so unlike the lives we live now on the planet Earth, that the question is irrelevant. Our advanced telescopes have now identified billions of stars and galaxies, but so far have not seen anything that could be described as heaven. The same for hell though supposedly that is somewhere under the Earth’s surface, and we know that is not possible. The point is, language comes up short, and you can’t take human’s feeble attempt to explain the unexplainable literally. My recommendation is don’t sweat it. What will happen will happen. It is out of your control.”
“Thank you. This is reassuring.”
“And remember, we are not talking just about the planet Earth. The Great Spirit is the creator and sustainer of the universe. If there were a “heaven”, who knows what you would find there?
“There is also something else to keep in mind. The idea of a heaven and a hell is an effort by us humans to make sense out of the world around us, which is full of suffering and pain. Life does not seem fair. The rationale behind the dichotomy of heaven and hell has to do with ultimate justice or I should say, human’s longing for ultimate justice. This goes back to our discussion last week about evil. There are bad people in the world. Many appear to get away literally with murder and never have to pay for it. Others have done terrible things yet seem to have lived happy lives often accumulating lots of wealth. When we humans observe this, many of us are outraged. It is not right. They should have to pay for their evil deeds. The idea of a hell addresses this dilemma. Ok, they may have gotten away with doing terrible things while they were alive, but they will spend eternity burning in hell. Ultimately justice will prevail. Nice idea but wishful thinking.”
“Yeah, serves ‘em right, I say! Too bad it is not true.”
“The other side of the coin are the lives of good and decent people who were dealt very bad hands and lived very difficult and sad lives. I am thinking of those who grew up in dysfunctional families, those living most of their lives in poverty, those with serious mental illness or incurable illnesses, and those who were never able to find a place in the world and never felt loved. The list is long. The troubles and sorrows of everyday people and everyday life are what disturb me the most. The hardest thing to take about living on this planet is that life is not fair, and human suffering is ubiquitous. But that is the planet we live on. The idea of a heaven is that ultimately those who have suffered will be rewarded and will have a place reserved for them.”
“It would be great if it were true. But I think about the Great Spirit. Does the Great Spirit enter the picture for those suffering? Surely the Great Spirit must be there for them. Maybe this eases the pain.”
“That is an important point. Thank you for bringing it up. Yes, for me the Great Spirit is real as it is for others, but sadly not for everyone. We humans reach out to the Great Spirit through prayer and meditation. This is true throughout the world. It is true for all expressions of religion and faith traditions. Try to convince those who have experienced the Great Spirit that it is not real and only a figment of their imagination, and they will ignore you. They know what for them is real, and you can’t convince them otherwise.
“This seems to be especially true for poor people, and for those who have suffered, who are more open to the Great Spirit. I think about the Bible that is at the center of the Christian faith tradition. Jesus, the Holy Man, that Christians believe embodied the Great Spirit, focused His ministry on the poor. You may be surprised that I know so much about your religion, but I have read much of your Bible as well as holy texts from other faith traditions. The Gospel of Matthew comes to mind:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I also recall reading in the same gospel that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
To me, a non Christian, l find these words of great comfort. Of course, whether there is life after death or a heaven or hell will always remain a mystery. A mystery, that is, until we die and then we will find out.”
“Next week, let’s talk about miracles.”
“You are on.”