Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the death of my dear mentor and friend, Scottie Johnson, and I spent the morning on the soil in front of the graves of Emerson and Thoreau. This post is adapted from a sermon I wrote a few days after Scottie’s death.
What if you are living in someone else’s afterlife?
There is a philosopher named Samuel Schaeffler who works out of NYU, and his big idea is that when it comes to the afterlife, most of us are asking the wrong question. It is the question that comes first to my mind: “What is going to happen to me?” Will I live on after death? Will something of me linger on in the world, and if so, will it look or smell or sound like the accumulation of atoms I call “me?” Do the people that I love live on in any meaningful way?
Schaeffler, like many folks I know, is agnostic about this question. His point is that the afterlife which gives your life the most meaning isn’t yours. What if the force that drives your sense of purpose, relationships, and identity itself isn’t that we live on after death, but that somebody does?
His thought experiment is this: if you knew that 10 or 20 or 30 years after your death, some cataclysmic event would happen on earth and all life would go away – how would that change you now? You would never experience this catastrophe personally, but if shortly after you were gone all human life was over, what would change? If all institutions, all religions, all art, poetry, music were gone after you, what would give your life purpose and meaning? His claim is that, far more important to most of us, without us knowing it, is the knowledge that someone will live after we do. Mostly people we don’t know, don’t love, and will never meet. But, for him, the knowledge that at least humanity will continue is the reason why any of us relate to the idea of a particular religion or a nation-state; it’s why we build buildings or pave roads or go to museums or paint beautiful pieces of art or write poetry or music. It is why we have a family or plant a tree. It is the idea that whatever happens to us after we die, someone else will live. And so there’s his idea. There is an afterlife. You just aren’t going to be in it. It is an interesting idea.
I really hate preaching while I’m grieving, and I am grieving a lot. You can’t call in heart-sick for my job each time, so I’m thinking a lot today about what in us survives. I do know it’s all transient that nothing’s permanent, and that this transience has it’s beauty (an aside to present blog readers, you know that I wrote on this in last week’s post) Any of you who have had to sit more through more than one of my sermons knows that I draw a lot of inspiration from stars and telescopes and the cosmos. I love the idea that science proves that we are recycled material. The atoms that make up your bones and blood were literally formed in the belly of a dying star billions of years ago. Pieces of you used to exist in different galaxies. You have traveled light-years to get here. I love the notion that when my body goes back into the earth years from now, when it becomes soil, trees and plants will soak up the nutrients that make up my body, and I will once again the apple trees and animals, symphony orchestras and giraffes, dictators and saints. Great beauty and horrific violence, art and trash, will all be made out of what is now us.
There’s something really poignant about that transience to me, and yet I can’t wrap my mind around the idea of not existing. I just can’t do it. If Einstein was right – and let’s suppose he -was – and E=MC2, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, then what that means is that you and I and anyone who’s ever been made of matter is quite literally very slow, cold, pure energy. Condensed for but a moment, incarnate in flesh and bone. We are beings made of pure energy who are here for just a bit. But I’m kind of attached to this version of that cold pure energy, and I don’t want to die. To be honest with you sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and I’m a little scared. I don’t want to go anywhere. I like this. It almost doesn’t feel real.
Each year, I spent at least one morning at the graves of Emerson and Thoreau, and many others at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. At this grave, I remember that when Emerson married his first wife, Ellen, she already had tuberculosis. And, only 18 months after they were married, she was dead. One year to the day after she died, he wrote an intriguing sentence in his journal. “I went to Ellen’s tomb today, and I opened her coffin.”
Here this man, known for his high-minded Transcendentalism, couldn’t get his mind wrapped around his wife’s death until he had seen it with his own eyes, maybe until he felt it with his hands, the reality of what it meant for her to not be alive. Even a year after she died. For people living in the United States, we are removed from the process of death and dying so often, and it does us a great disservice in my opinion in our moral lives. First and foremost, we are taught by America that death is a failure. It is in the language we use when people die at the end of an illness when we say that they “lost” their battle. We are taught that lesson when we keep people alive under insufferable conditions of pain because we can’t imagine letting them go. It is taught when states in our own country make it illegal for people to choose the end of their life when they are in pain, or to die with dignity as that language goes.
The underlying moral and philosophical framework of that notion is that to die is a failure, maybe the ultimate failure. And that is a lie. To die is to do what all humans who have ever lived have done and what all will do. Also, in America and in the West, we sanitize what it means to age and get sick and die so much that when people get sick, or get old, or die, we often place them somewhere far away from the rest of us. The emerging hospice movement has been a blessing to people, because we’re able to see and be with the people that we care about in their final moments, not trying to keep them alive but to keep them comfortable. We don’t often have, like some cultures do, cemeteries in our backyards or in our neighborhoods. We don’t have burning grounds where people are cremated in our presence. For us, the reality of death is a long way away, and you have to think real hard about going there, and then get in a car and spend some time, but it’s mostly “over there.” And it does us a great disservice. On the one hand, when death comes for people in our lives that are close to us, we are often surprised. We only practice death and dying when it’s someone who’s truly close to us, and it ends up feeling like a shock.
I am so lucky in my job to get the great honor and privilege of being with people when they die. It is one of the proudest moments I ever get to have as a minister. It is one of the best parts of my job in an odd way. The Zen teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, talks about the spiritual discipline of being with death. Like meditating or praying, being with death is a discipline. She’s at the forefront of some of the most radical elements of the hospice movement, so much that people who are in her hospice centers practice dying. She engages them in the mental processes that happen when you die. She sometimes literally crawls into bed with people who have no one else, and when they’re very close, wraps her arms around them and breathes in sync with their breath – in and out – until there’s only one person breathing. How beautiful, and how rare and radical in a culture that wants us to put all of that somewhere else.
Dying people have taught me so much. First and foremost, in my experience, the majority of people who are dying are the least afraid person in the room. Not always, but most of the time, they take on a role of comforting somebody else. And I’ll take their word for it. When people die, we watch them ask mainly for two things: the presence of people that they love surrounding them, and beauty. Perhaps it is music that they love, or the windows open so that they can feel the breeze or hear birds singing, the sunlight shining in, or a piece of art. People the love and beauty come up over and over again.
If anything, working with dying people has taught me about the fragility of life. It is not a cliché Sometimes, you are here on Monday and not on Tuesday. Even if you do live a long life, it’s still really short. Like I said, I don’t like preaching today. Because I am grieving myself, and I would rather scrap this whole thing. It is not put together very well, and I don’t like processing this in front of everybody – not a bit. However, this week teaches me a lot.
Thursday I got a call letting me know that my good friend and my mentor Scottie had died. She was like my church mom. She was the first person at the door of a Unitarian church when I got there. She handed me an order of service and welcomed me and never let me leave after that. During their pledge drive, she told me that I couldn’t make a “college student pledge,” to the church, I had to make a “real pledge.” She bought books for me on Unitarian church history and made me do homework. She made me stay after church the first couple of times and clean dishes because she told me that in church people don’t wash your dishes for you. I’ll repeat that. In church people don’t wash your dishes for you. And then, she said I had to stay for the adult education class, because church is not a movie, and you don’t just sit down and then leave when it’s over. You must meet people, she said, because that’s what churches are. And then, she said to me, “we’re a lay-led congregation, we don’t have a minister. So, when are you gonna preach?” There’s this phrase that some of the early Christians used called “salted with fire.” Basically, it’s the idea of a person who is, well, on fire with life. And, that’s what she said about me. She asked me to go to seminary, and she said all the time she was really proud of me. And then, I got to be there when she was ordained.
I can only remember almost one sermon anybody’s ever given, myself included, and it was hers. It was the week that her mom died. And, I just remember that she said that she was terribly sad, but that there was nothing to be afraid about. She said we don’t know what happens when we die, but that it happens to everybody, and that there’s nothing bad on the other side. And then she said what she always said to me, quoting a saint, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
So here I am, living in her afterlife, in a world that she and others helped create for me and you. And I have no idea what happens after you die. I have no clue, and my opinion on the matter changes week to week. But, I do know that today I feel a tremendous aching in my heart, and that aching is evidence of a person’s pure loving impact on my life. If you feel an aching for someone you have lost, if you feel that sting and that ache, it is evidence in your body that you leave an impact when you leave. It is evidence that someone will feel that ache when you are gone, and that your life matters very much. The surest way I know to honor the people who have come before us, the people in whose afterlife we are living, is to take what they’ve given us and make it a blessing. Let us not waste a minute of it, because it is precious, short, and fragile. Some days, they call you on Tuesday and they’re gone on Thursday. And so, if we are to honor the people in our lives who have meant so much, take what you’ve been given and make it a blessing. Live well, and don’t waste anything, love people furiously, and don’t be afraid to feel grief and awe and wonder. It is not shameful to be sad or in a childlike state of wonder. That is being alive. Be kind to everyone, because it’s not worth not being that way. Do something good and loving with your life, and make an afterlife worth living in for somebody else. For all we’ve loved and lost, we can still give thanks.