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Thinking The Unthinkable

"For most Westerners, life after death has become unthinkable and — along with death itself — a tabooed subject. . . . Most thinking Westerners would rather not think about: What will happen to me after I die?"
--
Dr. Ian Stevenson, renowned researcher into life-death issues

Sooner or later, each of us is confronted with the question of our own mortality. And, for better or worse, the awareness of our mortality compels us to address the core, to reflect upon our true identities, to seek answers to that ultimate question of questions: Who am I?

And, yet, because mortality is a key unlocking the doorway to ourselves — indeed, precisely for that very reason — we rarely use it. We’re so afraid that we will open the door and find nothing there that we keep the key far out of sight to prevent it from reminding us that there is a door to be unlocked. Is it any wonder that we design our lives and busy ourselves from dawn to dusk with activities which rob us of the time to soberly take up the meaning of life? No matter what we do, though, the question will not go away. Life will always remind us — sometimes gently, sometimes more forcibly — about the possibility of death.

Most of us want to believe that life has a meaning and that true happiness is our manifest destiny. Existential angst and lament lead nowhere. How, though, does an educated person today come to an experiential, genuine conviction that there is a deeper meaning beneath the surface of his or her life; that this life is not an end-all; that there is a greater destiny awaiting; that consciousness persists beyond the grave — indeed, that each of us is a deposit of immortality?

That is the question.

And it is a question with enormous ramifications for our well-being in this life. An often heard remark, especially from those in grief or afflicted with a terminal illness, is: "I would like to believe it (the existence of an afterlife), and it would give me great comfort, but I just can’t. I don’t know how to believe."

And so it is with many educated people today. Whether it is fear of the potential pain associated with death, the fear of terminating relationships with loved ones, the fear of the unknown, the fear of being alone, the fear over the prospect of nonexistence, or some other related fear, the inability to satisfactorily address life’s one certainty — death — creates an existential emptiness one need not even be cognizant of to have its effects felt.

Carl Jung said that he had never met a patient over forty whose problems did not root back to fear of his approaching death. Author Larry Dossey, MD, says that "fear of death has caused more misery in human history than all the diseases put together." Perhaps no one has more poignantly or poetically summed up the situation than King David who likened this life to "a valley overshadowed by death." Indeed, the fear of death is an ever-present subconscious, if not conscious, anxiety hanging over and all around us, producing its own kind of psychic fall-out which can permeate life until it slowly eats away at a person’s well-being.

One way or another each of us lives with the anxiety of death. Yet, the truly sad part is that few deal with that fact until they hit forty-something or until a desperate situation is forced upon them. And that is sad because for whatever negative fall-out fear of death can inflict upon the psyche, at the same time it can sensitize a person to a beautiful side of life like nothing else. We take life for granted. The fish, whose whole being is in the sea, does not feel the water. Only when it raises its head above the surface does it become aware of the absence of the water that sustains it. Similarly, human beings. A human, whose being is in "life," does not feel "life" . . . until it is almost taken away. Our vision is beclouded by a myopia called life. In order to understand life we must somehow get outside of it.

One way of getting "outside it" is to survive what is commonly called a near-death experience. Witness the words of one such person.

"I remember I knew that everything, everywhere in the universe was OK, that the plan was perfect. That whatever was happening — the wars, famine, whatever — was OK. Everything was perfect…. And the whole time I was in that state… I was just an infinite being… knowing that… you’re home forever. That you’re safe forever. And that everybody else was."

Research has shown that survivors of near death (people who have what is called a "near death experience," or "NDE" for short) are almost all changed for the good. Specifically, they grow up to be physically healthier and have fewer psychosomatic complaints; they are happier, exhibit stronger family ties, show more "zest" for living, and have a greatly diminished fear of death; similarly, they tend to do more community work, give more charity, and are often in helping professions. Even those who had a near death experience as the result of a suicide attempt were found to be significantly less likely to try it again. Not surprisingly, studies also confirm that virtually everyone who has had an actual NDE invariably comes to some kind of belief in an afterlife, even those who formerly considered themselves atheists. It follows, then, that the discovery and awareness of one’s immortality is the foundation of a healthy psychological constitution. At the very least, it can safely be said that conviction in one’s immortality radically improves the quality of one’s present life.

Short of nearly dying, though, is there a way to turn fear of death into zest for life?

Yes. That is one of the underlying assumptions of this book. The secret is having a vista open up; a new perspective that transcends our inherent myopia. One who comes to genuinely view this existence in a larger perspective weathers life’s frustrations more easily and revels in its triumphs more intensely than those who do not attain that same high ground. On the other hand, one who cannot see through the mirror of temporary, physical existence, which reflects only shadows, feels truly bereft of life, true life. Time in such a sense is experienced as nothing more than destruction of the moment. Such people have no choice other than to seek to kill time. Their days are truly a fleeting shadow.

Consequently, one of the most important conclusions anyone can draw while submerged in life’s myopia — in this fishbowl of being and existence overshadowed by death — is that they possess an immortal soul. How to help the educated, contemporary person feel more at ease with that is the first issue we need to address.

Read the chapter entitled, REINCARNATION & JEWISH TRADITION

Read other articles by the author.