The term, the goal, "eternal life" has often intrigued me. The idea seems to be very powerful in that it has caused countless millions to devote a current existence to the cause of a future "eternal" one.
Inadvertently, I am editing this draft to post today, on 9/11/11. Ten years have passed and commemorations are all over our television channels honoring those who died in the attacks on our country in 2001. The reading of so many names of those who died, especially when read by their children, is of course, deeply touching. And obviously, those who died are living on in the memories of their own loved ones and in our collective memory. Eternally remembered. But it strikes me that a first responder on that day who rushed into those flames resulting from the attack on the towers in New York was not rushing there to save his own eternal life. He/she was there completely devoted to helping save physical lives of victims, because it was the right thing to do. To prolong this life where possible, not thinking of the next life. Interesting to contemplate that a person who was saved from sure death by one of those responders will be eternally grateful, especially if the person who selflessly saved the lives of others lost his own life in that effort. More interesting for me is the very fact that some of those who died helping others may well be, in the judgment of some, headed for a "judgment day" and "eternal punishment" in a burning lake called hell because of a perceived general un-godliness. I am eternally confused!
Let's consider for a moment just a tiny fragment of eternity.
While learning the old religious song, Amazing Grace, back when I was a child, the next life ideas already gave me pause. "When we've been there ten thousand years," is one phrase of the song. The connotation is that we will be together, doing whatever might be available to do there. But sharing that ten thousand years with others, is a jarring thought. Last night my wife and I had company for dinner and a game of Pinochle. I would have been somewhat happier to have done one or the other, cutting the total time together by a good bit. Typically, for me, the enjoyment of the company of others can wear thin pretty quickly. Spending ten minutes with some people can be rather tiring; ten days around some would drive me bonkers. Ten years with a loved one can be a generally beautiful experience but even within that happy union there can be many difficult times in ten years. Ten thousand years? Really? And with souls I don't even get to choose? I'm not sold!
When my mother, who loved that old song by the way, was eighty-eight years old, I commented to her that she was so healthy and strong she might live a hundred years. She retorted, "Yes, - but why?" Forty-eight years of age at the time and feeling reasonably strong and full of life, I didn't quite grasp her meaning, but I never forgot the question. Today, at sixty-six (my mother having given up the ghost at 99 long after giving up the ability to recognize her own family and probably even herself), her meaning is far less opaque. Life can certainly be exhilarating at times, even as we age, but after passing from that "summertime" of life when the livin' is easy, we don't continue with the same vim and vigour we might have once enjoyed. We deal with the many struggles and pains of living in diminished and less-than-ideal physical bodies. We may lose balance while negotiating a step up or down. May have trouble just standing up from a seated position, and we need to be very careful when trying to get on the floor to play with grandchildren. I'm already wondering whether I might ever have great grandchildren, and if so, whether I will be able to play with them. Oh I do like life, but it's already getting to where the living ain't easy. Perhaps I have the genes that will allow me to reach one hundred years. But why?
Religionists will say, "Well, you can't think of all this in physical terms because eternal life is spiritual, living in spirit form with no pain." Fine. No pain. If my mother, the epitome of devotion and righteousness, had so prepared for her reward in eternity, why was she not allowed to step from the physical life a bit earlier, prior to years of suffering physical and mental deterioration, directly into that painless state of spirit existence? No pain! It's a concept to which I cannot clearly relate, having dealt with insidious pain most of my life from my earliest memories, but I do try to imagine it. Still - ten thousand years?
And then there's eternity! In reality, the term has no meaning to a human. It's too ethereal to even properly contemplate. It actually is supposed to exist beyond time as we know it. Forever. We can grasp only our markings of time - not something beyond the reach of time.
All these thoughts began to visit me consciously back in 1975 while I was a completely devout young minister, struggling to be as righteous as anyone who ever lived (oops! - Bible warns against comparing myself to others) - trying to make my ever-so-righteous mother proud of me (oops! - she could never be guilty of pride!). But what bothered me most was the very fact that I was not a happy human being while trudging along that particular straight-and-narrow path. It appeared to be too arbitrary, based on other people's concept of what it meant to be "righteous." The path was simply not a path on which I could find the delight of living. And when thinking of qualifying to reach an eternal state of life that embodied that same interpretation of "good & bad," I saw eternity as not representative of living at all but as a state of existing as a meaningless pawn on some mystical chessboard. Seeing the need to give up living now as a gesture that might possibly please an invisible force, in the potential hope of achieving something beyond my grasp, even of its desirability, I decided a happy current existence was far more to be desired. I have often said that I awoke one day to realize I was living a "good-news/bad-news" joke. I was not happy in that way of life, but if I did it perfectly, I could go on for eternity in the same way!
My departure from the path I had followed for thirteen years was a welcome return to the fundamentally happy person I had been before. My way of treating other humans had always been based on the Golden Rule, which even the biblical reference stated was one of only two real commandments as recognized supposedly by the God in human form to whom everyone was giving lip service. Since I had been happy living as a Golden Rule human, I figured I may as well live as I saw fit in every way because my basic attitude was desirable to any God there may be.
As far as eternity is concerned, if you should wake up IN it and I'm not there, I genuinely hope you love it and thrive on it - for all eternity - and I won't miss it, apparently. How could I after I'm dead?!
This happens to be submitted on the anniversary of the mayhem in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC which took the lives of thousands. I have ultimate respect for these humans and for their loved ones who miss them; I have not one tiny concern with where any one of them will spend eternity. They lived; they were loved.