It is the instinct of all living things to try to stay alive, humans among them. Most religious doctrines pay a great deal of attention to this issue. And many people, whether part of an organized religion or not, believe that a spirit leaves the body after death. Where viewpoints vary mainly is what happens then.
In many belief systems, we stay alive in some form or another even after death. Hindus, like Buddhists, believe that a departing spirit is reincarnated into some other life form. Buddhists believe there is no guarantee that the life form will be human; they believe that liberation from the cycle of life is the only desirable objective, a state they call nirvana.
The monotheistic religions all have some concept of an afterlife, with outcomes based on our behaviour during our life on earth. Indeed, both Christianity and Islam see the afterlife as the most desirable state, at least for the righteous, compared with our life on earth, the current one being a “a vale of tears.” Judaism also sees a reward for the righteous, with a resurrection when the Messiah arrives to usher in the “End of Days” and heaven on earth. But Jews, in contrast, are urged to live the fullest possible life while alive, every life being precious.
Without entering into discussions on this issue as to the merits of one position or another, I have drawn some conclusions as to their relevance on the question of staying alive. Empirical evidence from religious enthusiasts is meagre, relying on faith rather than hard facts, or reports of a life, or lives, after death from thousands of years ago. These form the basis for the promise underlying the religious thesis.
The realization of a positive outcome in the religious sphere depends on an unblemished life experience. I cannot count on being among those judged as sufficiently righteous and deserving. That leaves me with the task of doing the best I can to extend the life I know about, the one I am living now. Having past the four-score mark is evidence that I have done some things right, having already survived many of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I must have good DNA.
Chance has favoured me in my encounters with accident, disease and body-systems breakdowns. I have survived my encounter with “the big C” up to this time. I have diabetes under apparent control, but one never knows, as it works its damage asymptomatically.
I take pills in abundance to ward off the evils of sugar, high blood pressure and stroke. I quit smoking in my early forties and drink alcohol sparingly. My food habits are not outrageous, without denying myself the favourites that make life worth living. I exercise religiously when not on holiday. I have given up driving on the promise it will increase my life expectancy. Best of all, I pass my life with the woman of my dreams. Life is grand.
The other night, I spent some time with family. We found ourselves talking about our experiences with forbearers who had gone before us. For a short while, it appeared to me almost as if those ancestors were there with us, alive and sharing our good times. Like a lightning bolt, it struck me that that was truly another way of staying alive. The people in our lives who are important to us, those who have marked us in our life experience, they continue to be alive for us as long as they remain in our memories. They never disappear for us as long as we live; they go on being a part of our lives.
So, that’s the secret. We must continue to be important in the lives of the people who surround us. As long as we do that, we will stay alive even after we are physically gone. We have to cherish those we care for while we have them, in part so they will continue to cherish us.
But this does not apply to family only. It is true for all the people in our lives to whom we reach out, to all those we touch and those who touch us. If we want to stay alive, we have to do the reaching out.
Moses and Jeremiah and Isaiah and Jesus can thus be alive for us as well, if they have touched us and touched our lives. Shakespeare and da Vinci are alive for me. Spinoza is alive for me. Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar are alive for me, as is Beethoven.
They are all alive for me because they are a part of who I am. All the people who have made me what I am are alive for me every day of my life. I am surrounded by a crowd. Sometimes, they speak through me. You can’t spend much time with me without getting to meet some of them.
If I write something and it touches another soul, then I may still be alive for them whether I am physically there or not. Even for the people who no longer remember my name, I may still be alive for them in some cranny of their consciousness. That’s not so bad. If we can believe in that, in our own minds we have a future beyond our temporal experience of life.
So, now you know the secret. Go out there and talk to the people around you. Phone them. Write an email. Hug or kiss them if you can get away with it. You may get to live forever if they tell their children about you. If you know what you have done, if you have faith in it, as I do, regardless of your other beliefs, this can be your “promised land.”
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.