HEAVEN AND HELL
Is it possible to know what life is without experiencing death? Is death the end or just the process of a new birth? Life takes us on a journey to understand the meaning of death and fear of death often accompanies. Our understanding of what this looks like, however, may change over time. My first encounter with death came at ten.
I was at my grandfather’s funeral, when a relative stood at the altar and turned a testimony into a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. The first tinge of fear spiked my little heart as I encountered my first dichotomy. I sat into the barely cushioned pew suddenly aware of a new limitation. It was either Jesus or hell. There was no other answer.
Death was knocking on my door and on the other side, there was fire and brimstone. I followed the path of an impressionable child and confronted my relative about my soul. Before I could understand the process, I was walking through the Roman Road on my ever-shifting path with Christianity.
By the time I entered college, I had secretly decided that a literal hell could not exist. Not for all of eternity. If that wasn’t enough to make any proper Bible-thumper feign unconsciousness, I held an even greater secret shame. How could I survive an eternity of heaven? A place where perfection was all there was, where there was no need to grow, just day after day of static contentment. A literal heaven was fast becoming my idea of a terrifying hell.
The only thing more terrifying than death is the question of how am I supposed to make a life worth living.
The fear of death isn’t so much about dying as it is about non-existence. What does it mean to no longer exist on this plane and how can we ensure that if we cannot be eternal, at least our legacy remains?
A year ago, as I was downsizing my life to move out of the country, I read “The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. I was hooked as I hugged years-old clothes before throwing them out when I felt no spark. I remember discovering my box of old journals as I worked my way through my house Spilling out all my high school diaries containing my 15 year old fears and obsessions.
You’re going to regret that move! A friend warned, telling me I shouldn’t have taken the “KonMarie Method” so literally. Yes, I might regret the move, but at that time it was not a concern. My biggest fear was that if I died in Morocco, somebody would read those diaries.
Somehow I knew that from beyond the grave, I would be undeniably embarrassed. I didn’t want to be remembered for the girl who wrote those journals. I didn’t believe that girl was an accurate reflection of who I grew to become. My true self.
When I think of the many directions my life could go, I wonder: how is the girl at 18 different from this woman at 28 and when I’m 98, what will I look back on with pride?
I want it all! I want to be a prolific writer and spiritual leader. I want to travel the world, while also creating my own wellness center. I want a family with a house built on my own land. In addition to what I want, I question how I am existing. Why can’t I be a wandering spirit, while also creating a wellness space? Why shouldn’t I be able to fight for diverse voices, while also encouraging self-sufficiency? I’m not ready to give anything up because it is all worth working towards.
The still small voice is not so still and small when it shouts: I can do it all!
In place of a literal Heaven and Hell, I became more assured that we have been placed on this plane to learn. Learn what, exactly? Each person’s lessons may vary. And yet, I often battle with the idea that in my life between lives, I somehow asked for every tribulation that sneaks onto my path.
How can these meaningless struggles be for the grand design of learning some grand lesson?
And so, as I wrestle with death—which isn’t so much a fear of dying as it is a fear of not living—the questions constantly change: Where am I going? What will I be known for when I leave? What am I called to learn while I am here?
I know that these questions aren’t where I should lend my focus. The meaning of life and death will always be a mystery. Some people may catch glimmers of the truth, but it doesn’t serve us to dwell. Our true responsibility may just be to surrender.
There is nothing more refreshing than to watch the ocean waves crash into themselves as the tides swirl down, down, down into the bottomless fathoms. Water is renewal. Water is used to symbolize healing. In baptism, we are plunged into the water as death and come up for air as rebirth.
It is said that if God is the ocean, we are all drops. It is not the essence that differentiates us from the Ultimate Being, but the scope. If the universal mind is the ocean, we are the waves. This is the expression of the unchanging and ever-changing sea.
When I visited Bali a couple years ago, I attempted to surf. I like to think if I could just master balance, I would be able to stand for more than ten seconds. But I rode half a wave, so give me credit. When I think about how I relate to life, I often am reminded of surfing. As each wave crashes, I do everything to keep my balance, to stay afloat, to ride that wave to solid ground.
But do I spend too much energy trying to stay afloat? There are waves too big for me. They knock me off my board and I do everything possible to keep my head up, tiring my arms as I flail hopelessly in search of solid ground. Am I wasting all of my energy, and going nowhere new?
When those waves come crashing my way, would it be better to keep trying to ride or should I allow those waves to flow over my body? If I stopped trying to fight those scary aspects of my life and chose to surrender to the moment, perhaps I would come out on the other side Reborn.
Intellectually, I know that the only way to transcend the fear of both life and death is to surrender. But as I watch the waves crash into the jagged rocks, I imagine my body trying to swim away from the sharp pain of crashing.
I only hope that someday I will allow myself to truly embrace the concept of surrender.