What is this life anyway? Suddenly out of nowhere, as young children, we become cognizant that that we exist. Is there one moment that this happens, like a bolt of lightning, or is it a gradual process? I guess I should not refer to my own experience as “we” because it’s too much to assume that my experience is the same as that of other people.
I remember when I was three years old, watching my Mom ironing, and being acutely aware of existing as a self or consciousness. I wondered if other people were like me – looking at the world from the inside, like looking out of a window – but I don’t remember the exact moment I became aware like this. I have always been aware of myself as a consciousness that interacts through my body but which is a separate entity from the body, dependent on the body to interact with the world but not dependent on the body for existence. There have been times in my life when I was so insanely busy with the activities of life, such as when my kids were in school and sports, that I forgot for years at a time that my self and my body were not one and same thing. But whenever I have slowed down enough to contemplate, I remember and get that awareness again.
I’ve always assumed that other people have the same sense of essential self but now I am wondering if this is an incorrect assumption. For example, I have come across quite a number of people who proudly claim to be pure materialistic atheists. They say they believe this material world is all there is. So then ….. I guess they must not perceive themselves as a consciousness separate from their material body. Otherwise, how could they believe there is nothing other that the world of matter?
I suppose there must be a variety of ways to perceive our own existence, but the only one I can experience directly is my own. Reading and writing fiction – or acting – are ways we can imagine experiencing the consciousness of another person, but we still have to draw upon our own consciousness to even imagine. Since Jesse died I have done a lot of reading on the nature of consciousness and especially near death experiences. From my reading I gather that when some people leave their bodies they can then experience the consciousness of other beings.
For example, in Heaven is Beautiful by Peter Baldwin Panagore, the author tells the story of nearly freezing to death during an ice climbing expedition at the age of 21. During his NDE he experienced all the times he had hurt another person – either intentionally or unintentionally – from the point of view of the other person. So I suppose he was able to experience the consciousness of other people.
When Jesse was born he was like all healthy infants: he could suck and cry and sleep and not much else. Very soon he could smile and gurgle and grasp my little finger. I wondered about his perceptions – whether he was already looking out of his own window – and was excited about seeing this newborn transform into a person with his own thoughts, personality, and memories. I did not have to wait long. I thought about how he would always remember me as his mother and pictured him as an old man remembering his childhood. I felt determined to do what I could to make those memories sweet ones. I never pictured myself remembering him after he was gone.
I do believe he remembers me now and I look forward to the time when he and I can remember those sweet childhood days together and together solve the mysteries of consciousness. I am sure of one thing: there is plenty more to find out.
I have learned a lot through the experience of losing my son: mostly good, spiritually hopeful things. But good and hopeful or not, I would just as soon lived my entire life without learning a single thing if only I could have lived it with Jesse here with me.
One thing I have learned is what Hell is. Hell is separation from who you love. Okay I was sort of told that way back in Catholic School. They taught that Hell was the misery of being separated eternally from God who is Love personified. Those in Hell understand what that love is and are forever condemned to long and hunger for it with no chance of satisfaction. How a God who is pure love can allow people to suffer eternally I can never understand; but losing Jesse proved to me that separation from love is indeed the definition of Hell.
How, someone might ask, is learning about Hell a good and hopeful thing? Because for one thing, learning anything true is good because it advances you on the path toward what is good and eternal. By feeling the pain of separation, you gain a deeper understanding of what love is, and in my opinion, learning what love is and how to truly do it, is the whole reason we are here.
Love is eternal. You can’t get rid of it. To be separated from one you love by such a gulf as death is to taste Hell. I somehow know the love of God would swallow up my love for Jesse like the ocean swallows a dew drop or the full sun outshines a sequin. And if that is so, then the love of God must be a mighty thing indeed! Because my love for Jesse drowns my mind and burns my heart as much as my body and soul can take. To to be separated form him is as much misery as I can handle and yet live.
At times I wonder that I do not just drop dead from the pain. Then my little Hell would end and I would not, presumably, end up in Big Hell because, though I am far from perfect, I have thrown myself at the feet of Christ and told him I repent of anything he thinks is sinful. If I know something I did, said, or thought is sinful I having no problem with confessing it; but often I really don’t know if something is an actual sin. What about feeling resentful toward petty bureaucrats who seem to exist for the sole purpose of adding petty miseries to people’s already difficult lives? Is that kind of resentment a sin? Yeah probably. I am willing to err on the side of caution.
I have tasted a slice Hell and do not want to experience the real thing. Maybe the real thing does not exist or maybe it does exist but is not as we picture it. Some theology says that as God is eternal love all souls must eventually be saved. However since Jesus seems to indicate in the Gospels that there is a place of outer darkness where there is crying and gnashing of teeth, I am just going to go ahead and take His word for it. I don’t want to incur the slightest risk of eternal separation from God or Jesse or anyone else I am connected to by the golden thread of love.
The golden thread cannot be snapped but it can be painfully stretched and left gasping for breath. The oxygen of love is the face and presence of the loved one. Victor Hugo, one of my favorites who I hope to meet in the next life, wrote, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I always thought that quote was beautiful but once I didn’t really understand how that worked. I understand it better now.
Death is not right. It is such an intolerable condition of our existence that it is a major reason that most of us seek a higher reality. The finality of death simply does not work for us, especially when someone we love dies, so we know there has to be a higher truth. I believe our instincts about this are spot on. C.S. Lewis puts it well:
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” – from Mere Christianity
The death of my son has put my Christian faith to the ultimate test. The birth of a child locks your focus into this world. You are intensely focused on equipping the child to live a good and happy life within the world as you know it. Even if you are the philosophical or spiritual type, thoughts about the destiny of human beings are put on the shelf as you focus on your child’s day-to-day well-being. When a grandparent or some else close to the child dies, you have a talk about how the person is in Heaven now with God. If the child should ask, “Will I die too?” you say something like, “All of us die and go to Heaven, but not for a long long time.”
I remember how I thought about death when I was a child. It was a nebulous thing, something I did not doubt would happen, but so far away that it did not affect my here-and-now life — like I knew there were galaxies full of other planets billions of miles away or that someday the sun would burn out. When my paternal grandfather died when I was six it did not bring the reality of my own death a bit closer.
However, I remember the exact moment when that faraway fairy-tale concept of death abruptly changed. I was 13, lying in bad one night, and it struck me like a bolt of lightning that one day, on a day just like any other day, my own body would be lying in a coffin and this life, so real and present, would be a thing of the past. The thought that made my heart go cold with unspeakable terror was the thought that I might cease to exist. Now I was a good Catholic girl and the resurrection story and all its implications had been pounded into my head for the better part of my 13 years. Before this moment I had never once doubted that I was destined for Heaven — that is, sometime in the misty future. In fact, one cold rainy morning when I was seven I walked into my second-grade classroom and felt a heavy sense of depression at the prospect of another long, boring, droning-on day in school. Suddenly I had an insight: “This life won’t last forever,” I thought. “Someday I will live in Heaven where everything is bright and happy and never boring.” I had a beautiful picture in my head of myself being in that place and my depression instantly changed to a feeling of utter joy. But now I was 13 and I had forgotten all about that. Now I lay in bed shivering in terror thinking, “What if I cease to exist?”
Strangely, very soon after that night of terror — it may even have been the next day — I happened to pick up my parents’ latest copy of Reader’s Digest. The condensed book in that issue was Life After Life by Raymond Moody. I devoured that thing like it was my last meal, and as I read the accounts of near death experiences I felt the warmth of hope surging through my veins. This was just one of numerous times that a book has come along in my life at the exact right moment. Life After Life gave me enough hope to sustain me through my teens and twenties when I fell away from the Church and doubted everything I had ever been taught. I mostly questioned why anyone should believe anything just because someone told you it was true. This attitude is sometimes referred to as “a problem with authority.” If something was supposedly true I just wanted to know why I should believe it.
Only when Jesse was born did I sincerely begin to re-explore the Christian faith, and only when Aaron was born three and a half years later did I decide to commit my faith to Jesus Christ. That’s how long it took me to think it all out. I was so afraid of committing myself to something that was untrue. A that time I needed reasons for everything. Reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is what sealed the deal for me — another book at the right time.
The thing about Christian faith is that you think your faith is strong and real and then something happens that makes it so much more real that you realize how flimsy and theoretical your faith used to be compared to what is it now. The levels of reality are many, like the rungs of Jacob’s ladder from Earth to Heaven. Each step up is a whole new realm, a new vision of life and purpose. The emotional and spiritual impact you feel when your child dies is so powerful that maybe you move up a whole bunch of rungs on the ladder.
If I was terrified by the thought I might cease to exist, the thought of my child ceasing to exist is 100 times more terrifying. Such a thought, if I let myself believe it for a moment, would be a level of terror incompatible with life. It simply cannot be. My faith needs to climb past all rungs that allow room for doubt, past the realms belief and into the realms of knowing. I need to get to the highest rung of reality that I can get to on this side of the divide and this is where I need to live for the remainder of my earthly life.
One thing I know for sure is that the love I have for Jesse did not end when his body died. In fact it seems to have increased. True love has to have a living object. Love does not just pool in your heart and spill over into the ground. Love is that it is a kind of energy that goes somewhere and does something. I have been spending a lot of time in the best and timeliest book of all, the Bible. I have always loved the words of 1 Corinthians 13:8- 13 but today they speak to me on a new level of reality. They seem to be, in fact, the exact story of my life.
“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail, whether there are tongues, they will cease, whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man (or a woman), I put away childish things.
For now we see in a mirror; dimly, but then face to face. Now I am known in part, but then I shall know just as I also miss am known.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”