I’ve been debating with an atheist friend about life after death. She would like to believe in it but simply cannot. Too much real life experience informs her otherwise. I have agreed that no one can really know for sure whether we have an afterlife but I feel that some form of our individuality does survive death. This took us to a discussion of near death experiences. I find the evidence pretty compelling given the commonality of experiences. She thinks it is more likely that this is some sort of hallucination that happens with oxygen starvation that precedes death. In short it’s unlikely that we will convince each other either way to change our minds. But it is good that we can talk about these meaty issues in a civilized way and not start throwing things at each other.
Discussions about life after death sometimes remind me of the question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. What you reply depends on the perspective you bring to it and your experiences to date. (It is accurate to say the glass is both half full and half empty, although few can embrace such duality.) Genetics may predispose us to see the world in a certain way. Both my friend and I are clearly left brain dominant so we are by nature skeptical. It is only in recent years that I have moved to tentatively embrace ideas I once considered far fetched. I suspect (but do not know for sure) that right brain dominant people tend to be more spiritual and religious and thus are more likely to believe in notions like souls and an afterlife. I don’t think any perspective is fundamentally wrong. I think that all perspectives, even the wacky ones, should be listened to with some level of respect.
I have recently found a metaphor that is right outside my window: the tree. It may be officially winter now, but there are still a few leaves clinging to the trees outside my window here in the Mid-Atlantic states. I’ve been watching them fall throughout the autumn. Every spring I watch new leaves appear as replacements. Every year the tree gets a little bigger and a little taller. The leaves are inarguably part of the tree but they are not the tree. The leaves though are vital to the growth of the tree. In fact they provide the energy the tree needs to grow.
I am wondering if my life is like a leaf on a tree. It may take eighty seasons or so before my leaf falls off but it will fall off. During these eighty or so years I too will be taking in the sunlight. I will gather energy from other things around me: people, places, books, and bicycle rides. I gather this sustenance wherever I can find it then try to radiate it on something or someone else. For eight hours a day or so I channel it back into the livelihood that let’s me survive from year to year. But I also give some of it back in other ways: to my family, friends, and coworkers and even to total strangers by posting blog entries like this one. Hopefully I project positive instead of negative energy, and as a result of my labors I do my small part to make my world a bit nicer and more livable.
It seems hard to imagine that by putting out all that positive energy that I am not nurturing and sustaining something else. Perhaps this larger “tree” that I infer is truly me and there is the physical/temporal me (the leaf) and the spiritual/immortal me too (the tree). If I have a spiritual side then perhaps during this life I am providing sustenance to my spirit. Or perhaps I am feeding a larger communal tree of some kind. Perhaps the tree I call my spiritual self is but a branch on a much larger tree. In fact the tree of life must be enormous. It has six billion or more leaves just representing human beings on this planet.
Reincarnation does not seem illogical at all to me. In fact it seems illogical not to believe in reincarnation. One way to look at nature is to note that everything dies. But another way to look at nature is to see that everything reincarnates, or at least regenerates. So the tree becomes an excellent metaphor. Every year a tree brings forth new life and growth. Each year is both the same thing it was and it is something quite different. In fact nothing alive stays the way it is. We change moment by moment. So if everything alive is constantly changing and regenerating then why should human beings be an exception? Why should I not be the phoenix rising from the ashes over and over again? I have been feeding my spiritual tree for 47 years now with new energy. I suspect I have been sentient many times and will be back again. I will not be entirely the same next time. If I come back as a human being I sure won’t look like I do now. Just as every leaf on a tree is subtly different from each other so is each human being. Yet on one level we are all the same. We all have 46 chromosomes and come with four major appendages.
The tree of mankind may be but one tree is a much larger forest. One way to look at it is that there is a tree for every species on the planet. Trees in a forest affect each other. I am a bit enamored with the feline tree, since I have a cat to which I am much attached. I think he feeds my spiritual needs and he feeds mine. It seems all these various trees interact with each other on some level.
So while I give my atheist friend wide berth for her beliefs I don’t that feel mine are wholly illogical. Actually I find hers to be more likely than the notion that we have but one chance at eternal life so we have to get this salvation thing right the first time through. My gut instinct is that there is some logic and order to our universe and it is not wholly a result of randomness. It feels right that I am just a leaf on the tree of life.