Mahler - Sinfonia No. 1: 
Feierlich und gemessend
Extreme Unction Nicolas Poussin c. 1600
Rich man being led to hell
National Gallery, London
David Teniers  c. 1647
National Gallery, London
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Limbo

One might suppose that a man of 72, in tenuous health, would be anxious about the afterlife, or the lack of one, if for no other reason than that, whatever form it takes, it will soon be upon him.  Strange to say but this is not the case for me.  I remain okay with the notion that my life will soon end.  I think this calmness in the face of extinction is a product of having lived a long life.  And, having spoken with a number of friends near my age, I don’t believe this tranquility is unique to me.  

My mother once calmly said to me after she grew old, “I’m glad I won’t be around too much longer. Everything is too different now.”  I don’t feel that way, exactly; I am perhaps more accustomed to change; novel things still interest me, if perhaps less than before.  Yet I understand what she meant: at some point she preferred to live in her “memoirs”, so to speak, than in the fast-moving, unfamiliar world where she then found herself.  Part of this, I now know, is that your body, sometimes almost imperceptibly, but sometimes with a jolt, degrades or shuts down its various subsystems while leaving you still more or less functioning, so that many of the things you remember having most enjoyed you can no longer contemplate doing.  This gradually takes the edge off the thrill of living and you find yourself, in compensation, living more in the past.  And your brain, that repository of your self, collaborates in the deed, delivering old memories reliably, but failing on close-up things like, Where did I park my car? or Why have I come to the refrigerator?  It’s your mind helping gradually to inform you, Hello, you aren’t going on forever you know, so best get used to it.

Nevertheless, I think it is worth examining more closely, from a personal standpoint, why the fear, or even terror, of death remains strangely muted at this time of life, even—or especially—for a man that has no expectation of an afterlife.  So now I relate my rationalizations, and here, once again, I revert simply to personal observation and make little claim to analytical rigor.

 

First I suppose are the twin concepts of hell and heaven, and that other rather strange Christian notion of limbo or purgatory. 

Concerning hell, it just doesn’t make much sense to me that an all-powerful, all-knowing God would have some kid born, put him through his paces and then consign him to hell because he broke the rules and turned out to be a shit.  Since he’s all-knowing, He certainly understands how the kid’s going to do in the first place.  So if he’s going to turn out badly, why not put him in hell to begin with or, better still, just not have him born?  The answer I was always given to this question in catechism class involved the idea of free will.  Fundamentally, you have a chance to prove yourself and perhaps alter the course of your life.  This sounds as though God might whimsically put a hand over His all-knowing eyes just so He could occasionally be surprised at how the guy turned out, as if He were somewhat bored at always knowing how everything came out and once in awhile wanted a suspenseful ending to the story.  Well, I’m sorry, it just doesn’t sound Godlike; too frivolous, and not nice for the kid either who is on a waste of time track. 

Next, one has the conundrum of one’s random, unexpected death, perhaps from a car crash, perhaps from a terrorist, while being in the state of sin.  My understanding of Christian theology is that in this unfortunate situation one goes straight to hell to suffer eternally, nevermind that one had nothing to do with the timing.  While on the one hand there is the obvious solution: don’t be in a state of sin in the first place, on the other hand why rig up an elaborate body of belief in the forgiveness of sin, which implies that God understands that his product, us, may occasionally slip, while at the same time randomly nullifying this forgiveness, as though He, on a bad day, might say, “what the hell” and roll the dice on his human race just for amusement.  Again, not Godlike; too frivolous.  So I confess to never having had much concern for hell.  The concept is simply too extravagant.

Heaven, in a way, is a much more subtle and intriguing question than hell, which seems somehow rather digital, one either suffers endlessly or one does not.  Concerning heaven one can reasonably wonder, Should it exist, what might it actually be like?  For now I suspend my disbelief and, putting the best imaginable face on it, suppose that there is a heaven and that it is a transcendental miracle of love.  No more war, no more pogroms, no more jealousy, no more sibling rivalry, mothers-in-law sit holding hands lovingly with daughters-in-law, no more pettiness, no more bickering, no more … humanness! Heaven as the converse of life on earth.  

I suppose the attraction of heaven for most is the possibility of being reunited once again with those loved ones previously departed.  But as I think about this carefully it occurs to me that, love my parents though I did, when I was young and made to spend time with them I couldn’t wait to get away to do my own thing.  Even today, the concept of a huge and permanent family reunion, reaching back conceivably to one’s great, great, great whomever, seems a pleasure that might lose its allure rather quickly.  We humans are formed for doing things, for achieving, for solving problems.  And once a problem is solved we immediately look for another problem.  How would we adjust to a place where by definition there are no problems, no use whatsoever for the one thing we seem to have been created for? 

No, it seems to me that heaven is not a zone designed by an almighty God, but simply a place imagined by those on earth caught up in problems that could not be solved, by those in situations painful or degrading, by those who have suffered unexpected loss or tragedy that could not be coped with.  I cannot but sound flippant: putting the best face possible on it, this deal sounds pretty boring when you think of it going on  f o r e v e r.  What challenges can we face?  What can we strive for?  Do we now forsake our humanity?  The concept has the whiff of an opium den about it.  While it might be a kick for awhile, it seems to me that one would soon tire of it in the way that one quickly tires of a party no matter the quality of the company, the food and the drinks. 

For those unfamiliar with the Catholic concept of limbo, it can be expressed as a community holding area for the souls of people who, because, having in life been insufficiently appalling to go straight to hell, neither have they been quite good enough to ascend directly into heaven.  Children’s souls can also be waylaid here for having failed to be baptized by their parents.  A certain time of penitence is required to leave purgatory and to finally get into heaven.  What fascinated me most about limbo when I learned of it in catechism class was that the rendition we learned was so lavishly detailed, including the calculation of the penance needed for the working-off of the different varieties of one’s unconfessed sins by so-and-so many sayings of the rosary, so-and-so many months or years of the denial of God’s love.  

Apparently someone in The Church, at some point in history, had been made aware of  these details with exquisite precision, nevermind the obvious impediment that no one has actually ever returned to the planet from this zone, wherever it may lie.  Since the repeated telling of the rosary and the idea of being sort of nowhere at all, seemed excruciatingly boring to me, the obvious question my young mind formulated in its pre-adolescent rebellion was, How do they know so much about it?  Limbo seems a notion taken somehow too far.  And today the idea of limbo still doesn’t sound very persuasive, though the adult me now models it more vividly as being stranded in an airport while the plane’s departure keeps being pushed back … and all the bars are closed.

 

I have tried to think back to the time before I was born.  But I couldn’t.  And now, in my old age, my best guess is that being dead is pretty similar.  You just aren’t.  Did I care about not having been born, before I was?  Not that I can recall.  So I doubt I’ll care very much about being dead, after I am, either.  One might think that when the time gets closer one will start thinking more seriously about heaven and hell—there are no atheists in foxholes, etc.—yet I once had a pretty close brush with Mr. Death and I had no inclination then to change my thinking.  What did concern me then, as now, is the pain and suffering during the transition, which is unlikely to be smooth.  But here’s the rub: even if there is a heaven, and even were that my destination, one might still have a most unpleasant transition.  Heaven doesn’t do much to smooth the transition.  Heaven, should it exist, is not about the trip there; it’s about the destination.

All that aside, what is the downside of just disappearing back into the nothingness from whence one came? to put an appropriately biblical phraseology on it.  Well, mainly, one’s love for the people one will leave behind and never see again.  Yet if I’m wrong and there is a heaven, it doesn’t seem that there would be opportunity for communication in that scenario either—certainly not two-way anyhow—I’ve never heard from anyone who died.  Maybe my folks are up there still drinking their highballs (oddly, one of my fondest memories of family togetherness—and my brother and I instinctively knew precisely the most propitious moment during the inebriation process to ask for our allowances).  But I haven’t heard any ice tinkling above.  No, all’s quiet.  Well, maybe it works from the top down.  Maybe you can look down from heaven and see what’s going on with your loved ones.  But wouldn’t that be terribly frustrating, not being able to help out or even give your by-now-very-good advice?

 

Thus far I have tried to show that our species has been programmed to continuously ask questions and solve problems.  And this process of course has been good for us; while our lives today are not all we might wish, while we are certain to die, I’m still glad I live now and not in some millennium in the past, in the rough, glad I can get into an airplane and land a few hours later on a beautiful warm island to pleasantly wait out the northern winter, all this the result of my hardworking predecessors asking and answering questions.  This seems to me very remarkable and underappreciated, because we don’t seriously think about those uncounted millennia in the past, when these important advances could not be dreamt of by the richest king. 

Furthermore, it is reasonable that this human process of science and technology can continue to provide remarkable benefits that we cannot now imagine, and that the pace of this process will continue its acceleration.  In the following sections of this essay, those concerning politics, I relate that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Christian Era—or Common Era if you prefer—the benefits of millennia of effort began to pay off, and not in a small way. A graph of these benefits from that point onward is an exponential upward curve and so far it shows no sign of leveling off. 

Yet I’m also glad not to have been born centuries into the future.  The thing that is me, the summation of my memories, has no desire to be transplanted, even into a future which might be even less stressful than my own relatively pleasant life.  My I is inextricably tangled in all those neurons formed in my brain, largely during the last part of the twentieth century, and I am happy, even proud, to be such, a mere squiggle in the ongoing story of mankind.  I seem to have been made just that way.