The world is a crazy place. Unexpected things happen all the time, and while I may plan to be around to have the Important Conversations with my kids, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Or today. Hell, I could choke to death on the ham sandwich I make for lunch. These things happen.
There are things I want my kids to understand about me — what I think about the Big Questions like life and death and religion and Faster Than Light Travel and why it’s important that Han shot Greedo first. I hope I get the chance to have those conversations, but maybe I won’t, so I’m going to write them some letters.
And I figure I’ll put them up here, so there are as many redundant copies as possible.
What I Think Happens When We Die
Wow. I started out with a pretty big topic, didn’t I? Pretty scary one. There’s a whole lot of STUFF wrapped up in this kind of subject; things like religion and people’s belief systems and lots of things that make people get very emotional, because thinking about dying is pretty scary stuff for a lot of folks.
I think that’s what most of it boils down to, though: fear. Dying is scary. For the people still standing around after someone dies it’s pretty sad, too. We look at this person who died and think “They aren’t doing anything anymore. They aren’t breathing or talking or laughing or crying or playing or reading or writing or anything.” Those are all very nice things to do, and not being able to do them anymore seems very sad to those of us who can still do them, so death seems sad and scary, because it seems to us that dying takes those things away. (Plus, we’re sad because we liked the person who died, or loved them, and we don’t get to do things with them anymore: in that case, we’re sad for us, because we lost someone we love, which is probably a pretty good reason to be sad.)
Now, is it sad for the person who died? I’m not an expert in every kind of belief out there in the world, but based on the ones I am familiar with, and what I think myself, I believe the answer is “no.” The reason that it’s ‘no’ depends a lot on what you think happens after you die, but the answer itself is usually the same, and generally when pretty much everyone who believes different things about something scary like death can agree on something (or anything), the thing they agree on is probably pretty close to the right answer. So let’s say no, the person who died is not sad anymore.
So what did we figure out so far? Dying scares a lot of people, and it’s sad for a lot of people (though probably not for the person who died), and because it’s sad and scary, people usually have very strong feelings and beliefs about what happens when we die.
But I’m kind of dancing around the question a little bit, aren’t I? The question is, what do I think happens when we die, and I’m kind of avoiding the answer. I’m sorry about that: I’ll stop.
The short answer, kiddo, is that I don’t think anything happens when we die.
To get your hands around the longer answer, you need to understand what other people think happens. There are a lot of religions in the world, and every one of them has an Official Answer to this question. (In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say that the main reason any religion exists is just to give people an answer this one question — they just tend to branch out into other areas over time.)
Many folks think that when you die, if you’ve been good, your spirit (or soul) gets to go to heaven, which is supposed to be a very nice place where (eventually) pretty much everyone you love also ends up (if they’ve been good too). The person who decides if you’ve been good enough to get into Heaven is usually given a name that translates to ‘God’ in whatever language people speak in that part of the world. The general idea is that you want to be good while you’re alive, so that you can go to heaven after you die.
Other pretty large groups believe in reincarnation, which means that when you die, you get to come back to the world as some new living thing. If you were good in this life, in your next life you get an even better life to work with, and if you were bad, you come back as something worse (like a spider or a beetle or something like that).
And as I already said, I don’t personally think either of those things; I think nothing happens. I think that when you’re born, you grow into a complete person over time, and you develop your own personality and you do all the things that you decide to do, and you live your life, and when your body eventually fails (or you choke on a ham sandwich), you die, and the personality that was alive in your brain is gone.
Now, I don’t necessarily think anyone else who thinks something different from me is wrong — or at least, if I do, I keep it to myself, because it doesn’t necessarily matter if they’re wrong, so long as whatever it is that they believe isn’t hurting other people. That’s my first criteria: is their belief hurting anyone else? No? Then we’re cool.
Not everyone feels that way. Some folks think that if you don’t believe the same thing they believe, that that’s the same as hurting other people, or the same thing as being a bad person. I don’t agree with that.
Some people (sometimes the same people) believe that if you don’t have an award at the end of your life (like getting to Heaven or getting to reincarnate as something even better), then there will be no reason — no motivation — to be a good person in this life, so when someone like me says “I don’t think anything happens after we die,” they sort of assume that I’m a bad person, or that I can’t be a very good person if I don’t have a religion (what people sometimes call a ‘belief system’) that tells me how to be good.
I disagree with them, and maybe that’s because I do have a belief system. I learned it from Abraham Lincoln (someone I hope I lived long enough to tell you about — and brag that I have the same birthday). The system works like this:
If I do good, I feel good.
If I do bad, I feel bad.
That’s it. What it means is that, when I go through the one life I get, I want to do good, because that makes me feel good. Maybe it’s something big, like giving someone something they really need, or something really small, like shoveling someone else’s walk in the morning when I go out to do mine. It doesn’t matter: my life — the only one I think I get — is better if I do more good with it.
So: here’s what it means to me when I say “I don’t think anything happens after we die.”
I don’t think we get a second try. I don’t believe that I’m going to get a second (or third, or fourth) lifetime to do and say all the things that I’d like to do and say that I never got a chance to this time around. So if there’s something I want to do, or a story I want to tell, or someone I want to say something to, I try very hard to do that thing, because this is the only life I’m going to get. (Making sure I say everything I meant to say is one of the reasons I’m writing you this letter.)
I think that the memories that other people keep of us are the only way in which we will continue after our death. For instance, I love my Grandpa very much, and I miss him every day, but I don’t personally think that he’s looking down on me from heaven to see how I’m doing — I believe he’s gone.
Except in my memories of him and the stories I tell about him, that is. In that way, I think that his personality will last far beyond his own life, and (if I’m very lucky, or a very good storyteller) maybe he’ll be remembered for a much longer time. There are people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago who told their stories (and the stories of other people) so well that people still tell them today. That’s a wonderful way to be remembered. I suppose it’s important for me to be remembered well, especially by my family.
I have one life, so every moment is important. When you come in and ask if you can talk, or sit on my lap, or read you a story, or read me a story, you may see me hesitate. Maybe I was already doing something, or maybe I’m working; it doesn’t really matter. The reason I’m hesitating is because I’m deciding how I’m going to spend That Moment. There will be more moments after that one, but of That Moment, there is only one, and I will never get it back, so how will I spend it?
Give me that second to hesitate and think it over, because when I do that, I almost always decide that I’d rather spend that moment with you. (It took me a long time learn this, but lucky for me, I had it mostly worked out before you were born.)
And that’s it, kiddo: that’s my answer to one of the Big Questions. Because of what I think, I try to do the best I can with the life I get, and I hope that when I’m gone, the memories I helped create and the stories I made (or lived through) will help you, or give you some kind of hint about the best thing to do when things get tough, or at least make you laugh.