Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Reflections on life and death

Later today I’m getting on a plane to travel to Utah to attend a family funeral. It’s a difficult time for the whole family, as there have been two horribly tragic deaths in the family in the last few days. Not only have I been grieving for these losses, but it also brings back a lot of other feelings for me, especially about the deaths of my dad in 1976 and my mom in 2003.

My dad’s death was incredibly painful to me. We had always been very close, but only a few weeks before he died he and I had spent almost an entire month on a road trip together. When he died suddenly (and way too young) from a massive heart attack that February afternoon I was devastated. It was a long time before I felt okay again. I still miss him.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life was to give a tribute to my mom at her funeral. Mom’s death was not totally unexpected, as she had been fighting cancer for some time, but still it was sudden and something I was mentally unprepared for. I knew she was sick, but I expected her to pull through and live another twenty years, so when I heard the news I was again devastated. I had not planned to speak at Mom’s funeral service, but my sisters somehow managed to convince me that I ought to be the one to give a tribute from the children. How I was able to keep it together enough to give any kind of decent tribute I still don't know.

A real difficulty I faced was how to be true to my own “materialistic” views yet honor the religious feelings of Mom and the rest of the family, especially at a time when so much comfort comes from the hope and faith that religion can give. Everyone in the family of course knows we don’t share the same ideas about religion, but that has not (maybe surprisingly) been a real source of conflict. As my mom told me more than once, “I don’t know how it’s going to work, but you have a good heart and I know you are going to be all right in the end.” I hope you’re right, Monz, I hope you're right.

At her funeral service I told a few remembrances and stories about her, and talked about some recent experiences she and I had shared. I concluded by saying that I hoped we would do what it takes for us to all be together again, and I quoted from the end of C.S. Lewis’ story The Last Battle, challenging us all to go “higher up and further in.” We both loved that part at the end which speaks of “beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

I’m sure more than one person who heard my talk that day was intrigued by my call to do what it takes to be together again, because on the face of it, this sounds like something a religious believer would say. The explanation for this, as well as the scare quotes on “materialistic” in the paragraph above, may take a bit to explain, and some effort to understand, but I’ll give it a try.

One underlying fact is just the theme of this blog: we know we don’t know everything. Setting aside for a moment the implications that fact may have for belief in existing traditional religions, and staying strictly within a rationalistic, materialistic framework, given the uncertainty that the humble inquirer must acknowledge, who can say confidently what limits exist regarding what can be known or accomplished? For example, we know that everything that happens leaves its ripples on the universe, so is information ever truly lost? The general consensus among physicists is no, it is not. Then is it really possible to rule out, in principle, the prospect of bringing people back to life, keeping in mind we might have googolplexes of years, and conceivably googolplexes of universes to work with? As a matter of fact, under the Multiverse view that many mainstream physicists hold, not only is this possible, it is definitely true with a probability of one. This and many related ideas are explored in my friend Michael Perry’s book Forever For All.

If/when this is accomplished, it will be by the actions of beings with Enlightened Self Interest who lovingly want to bring about the maximum goodness that can be attained. Whatever your theory of value, if anything has value human life does, so that will certainly be something that must be considered in any plan for maximum happiness. It seems to me that living an orderly, compassionate life right now is a remarkably helpful thing in advancing to a time where we can fix up everything that is currently broken. So that’s the explanation for my “doing what it takes to be together again” remark. Reflecting on it right now, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to fit that belief into (an appropriately expanded) religious framework. Which is why I put “materialistic” in quotes.

There is a lot of uncertainty about these ideas, but as I strongly believe and have mentioned earlier in this blog, that's okay, uncertainty is good. I like this quote, from Ursula K. Le Guin: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” And I like these lines from one of Paul Simon’s recent songs:

My children are laughing, not a whisper of care
My love is brushing her long chestnut hair
I don't believe a heart can be filled to the brim
Then vanish like mist as though life were a whim

Maybe and maybe and maybe some more
Maybe’s the exit that I’m looking for

Acts of kindness
Like rain in a drought
Release the spirit with a whoop and a shout