Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The problem with immortality

Unless you're up really late, as you read this, I'm probably hiking Lone Peak from my house. I have no intention of reaching the summit--I expect there's too much snow. I'll be in running shoes, and I'll be alone. Slipping on snow or ice while scrambling to the top of the cirque with no safety equipment and no belay is not high on my priority list.

I'm doing this hike in this manner for two reasons. First, the transition from biking to skiing is always more difficult than going the other way. I need some training walking uphill. Second, I stare into the Lone Peak cirque from my front window. I've lived in the shadow of that mountain for much of my life. It's a dominant landmark that conjures thoughts of home whenever I see it. If I can walk there and back without a shuttle or parking at a trailhead, why shouldn't I?

Friday I head to Fruita for the weekend, so this is it until Monday. I thought I'd leave you with something substantial to chew on in the interim. But first, a note about chocolate.

If you were reading way back then, you may remember my post about hauling
710 pounds of chocolate from a distribution center in Salt Lake to my former house in Boise. Well, it's that time of year again. Rachel is about to place another chocolate order. If you want in, or just want to sample some of the things she does with what always seems like an unreasonably large amount of chocolate but that gets consumed anyway, then stop by Thursday evening. But please, let Rachel know you're coming so she has enough treats for everyone. Rumors are that after about 8:30 or so there will either be skis getting waxed in the garage or ski movies being viewed in the basement. With lots of chocolatey refreshments.

I've brought up religion before, and while it's not a major theme of this blog, it's a major theme of my life. It occupies a significant portion of my non-working time, either participating in church functions or pondering, reading, or otherwise engaging myself mentally in it.

I'm neither a social scientist nor a statistician, but my gut feeling is that there is no correlation between church attendance and morality (I hate to use this word, but it seems the best fit). Some of the finest, most upstanding people I know--people who are honest and kind and care for their families and friends better than most (my definition of moral)--don't go to church. Though I didn't know it at the time, I've attended church meetings and perhaps even shared a pew with a child molester. I've sat in the same worship service as murderers. I've also met some crummy low-lifes that didn't go to church and seen shining examples of the kind of person I want to be from people who do. You come across all kinds, and you come across them within and without the chapel.

And while I'm not here to argue metaphysics or whether or not God or Gods exist or whether or not there's an afterlife, I do find that what is taught in more or less all religions is a useful framework within which children can learn right from wrong and adults can be reminded of where their priorities should be and how they should treat those around them.

Moreover, the belief in an afterlife, particularly one that is paridisiacal in nature, wherein we can be reunited with loved ones who have passed on, is sometimes the foundational hope that keeps people going day after day and allows them to carry on even as the challenges, disappointments, and even tragedies of life would otherwise tear them down to a state of unrecoverable depression.

But I fear that this belief in afterlife, which gives many so much hope, may also too often be a cause of pain and sorrow, not out of a fear of a final judgment, but because it takes away some of the urgency of today. If we think of our existence as a temporary thing, we may be more compelled to live life without regrets. To seize the day. To pay attention to the world around us. To not let a day go by that we didn't spend quality time with our children, our spouse, or other loved ones. When the days are finite, each successive one becomes that much more valuable as those that remain become increasingly scarce.

When we think of ourselves as immortal and our lives as eternal, some of this urgency goes away. The tomorrows become endless, as do the excuses to procrastinate some of the important things that we know we should be doing. Further complicating things is the prevalent doctrine that we as mortals are imperfect beings, born in a fallen state, bound to make mistakes. This too easily becomes a crutch. We may neglect a relationship, thinking it's not working because of the inherent flaws of our fallen nature. We may consider it in an eternal context and decide that it will be patched up when mortal weaknesses are no longer getting in the way.

But what are we missing out on in the process? Worse, what if we're wrong, there is no second chance, and this is the one shot we have of making a relationship work, leaving a legacy, learning, or otherwise finding joy? No redemption, no resurrection, no continuation. Would we make decisions the same way? Would we choose to attend a meeting instead of a child's ballgame or recital? Would we choose working late over a date with a spouse? Would we take better care of our bodies, knowing that we may as well be as healthy as possible so as to enjoy the years we have as much as possible?

Regardless of whether or not there is an afterlife and whether or not the family bonds and personal relationships we know and enjoy will continue in a hereafter, what's certain is that they will not and could not be the same. Your children cannot remain your adolescent children; at best they will be peers that were raised by you in mortality. The hierarchical family structures we know in this existence are a special, unique aspect of this life that will never be repeated.

Indeed, it will never be the same once our children move out on their own. Those twenty or so years are when our greatest legacy is made, in this, the next, or any other notion of life. Perhaps the only legacy more important is our relationship with a significant other, with whom the legacy of children is shared.

If I view my own life through this lens, in many ways I find energy and comfort in approaching my days as if they were finite, knowing that I need to make the most of each. Centuries ago, monks were known to keep skulls on their desks as a memento mori, a reminder that they will die and that they must make the most of the time they had. While I don't need such macabre reminders that regardless of what lies ahead, this is a temporary state, I don't think it hurts to once in a while turn our beliefs on their heads, however deep our convictions, and ask ourselves what, if anything, we would do differently if our notion of life, nature, and eternity were wrong.


  1. "it takes away some of the urgency of today"

    pretty much bill maher's thesis in "religulous." along with the self fulfilling prophecy of apocalypse.

    like lincoln wanted us to give in to the better angels of our nature, i say we should give in to the better, not the worse, angels of our religion.

  2. Meaty indeed. I agree with a lot, maybe all, of what you've stated.

    Particularly I agree with looking at things from a different perspective. Often this helps me see the subject better. Religion is often a good way to convey ideas and new ways of thinking. But often members use it as a crutch or excuse to not expand their horizons. A closed mind is tragedy, and sometimes dangerous.

    Another thing that keeps me engaged is change. Many people thing change is an enemy and they work hard building walls of security to insulate them from the volatility of life. But life is change and fighting it is futile and wasted energy. I'm impressed by how nature adapts, no, thrives on change. I've found greater peace and insights as I've accepted change as a positive, creative force rather than fear the future and loss of the status quo.

  3. You should start an internet church. With sermons like that I bet you'd be a rich man in no time! :)

  4. Great post. Another way of pitching (I think) the same point: unless you absolutely believe in endless reincarnation, whether you think this life is all there is, or a part of a longer path, either way it's unique, and worth treating and appreciating as such.

    Hope the hike went well today. Between that and Fruita, I'm looking forward to your posts next week.

  5. "Dearh twitches in my ear; Live, he says, I am coming."
    - Virgil