“What are your thoughts on heaven and hell?” I get asked this question a lot, mostly because I teach religion, not so much because I’m known for my wisdom. I would either regurgitate the thoughts of some theologian du jour, summarize a remnant of catechesis from graduate school, theorize on current biblical scholarship, and likely salt it with a few ideas of my own. Mix that up with a glass of wine and it feels remarkably like book club. Nothing conclusive ever came of these discussions until I starting turning the question around. “Why do you ask?”
What I discovered is inherent to the question itself. This question is based in fear. Fear of the unknown. It is as basic as it gets. We’re afraid of death for many reasons, the ideas surrounding heaven and hell are the least of them, so I started to scratch this little itch. What do I fear? Why do I fear? And what the hell (pun intended) am I supposed to learn from my fears?
The first fear I remember experiencing was a fear of the dark. I couldn’t see and I knew I wasn’t alone. Whoever was with me, I decided was not good, and I would scream for my dad. I still avoid being alone at night even unto this day. I have a rather creative imagination and it definitely gets the best of me. So what I fear is not the dark but my own thoughts. I can totally agree with this conclusion in the light of day. At night my fears are real and they want to do me harm. I think it is interesting that these irrational thoughts are coming from my own mind? Now, I don’t want you to think I’m totally insane. It is a common premise, we are our own worst enemy, and we must conquer our fears to make room for love. I’m still at war, I’ll let you know how it goes, in the meantime I’ll aim for a truce, and maybe a nightlight.
The second fear I experienced was that of rejection. This might be worse than death. We experience this initially from our parents when they are tired, overwhelmed, angry, stressed, sad, depressed, or disappointed with us. We might also experience rejection from spouses, siblings, friends, co-workers, teachers, competitors, twitter followers, customer service reps, and if I work late my dog ignores me. We are communal beings, isolation is crucifying to the soul, a most horrible kind of punishment. We shun others especially when they represent something we don’t like about ourselves. Ouch! Again this fear comes from our own thoughts, which are full of assumptions, both real and imagined. It is written in the old book, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I think our friend JC knew exactly what he was talking about, it is especially applicable if you consider we are all one, forgiving you is forgiving me. Or vice versa. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, so let’s move on.
My third experience of fear was that of the unknown. I made my dad drive me to Del Mar on my first day of high school because I was scared shitless. I did not want to get out of the car. He said, “Get out of the car, it’s not as bad as you think!” That was not extremely helpful, I should of have asked my mom, she would have walked me to my locker. I didn’t know what to expect and I expected the worst. It was all in my mind, as luck would have it, I was equipped with everything I needed to survive adolescence in the modern world. Believe me when I say high school was a bitch, but it did not take me down, and I especially enjoyed kissing Larry O by the lockers.
Now I have to admit, the worst of all my fears to date, center around childbirth. And these are legit. I was scared, I knew it was going to hurt like hell, and there was no feasible escape plan. See the baby is conceived inside and it has to come out. You breath, you remove yourself, you focus like a monk, and you push like a mother. You are given twelve hours to recover, sent home with a incontinent, none verbal, suckling, and by the way there are no instructions. Is this not a human behavior experiment gone mad? But the truth is, I had everything I needed to not only survive, but thrive as a mother. The children might have a few scars, for goodness sakes I have scars, but we figured it out. You don’t sit around worrying about this or that, you jump in, and live what is in front of you. That’s the secret, we think too damn much, we let our thoughts get in the way of life, and our happiness.
So I am going to apply this hard earned knowledge to death. I watched my Dad labor from this life to the next. He was scared. It was hard work but he went at it with all the determination of a woman in labor. You see there is no feasible escape, we are all going to die, if we go out like we came in, I have to assume it's going be slightly uncomfortable. I don’t know what it looks like, or what will be expected of me, but I know I have what I need to travel from this life to the next. And can't you just hear my dad, "Get off the stairs, it's not as bad as you think." So the next time you want to know if there is a heaven or hell consider the real question. What do I fear?
At the completion of the long soul-making process, each person will maintain her individual identity which will be completely void of any “ego-aspect,” having been filled instead with “the unselfish love which the New Testament calls agape” John Hick
What do you fear? Please leave a thought or two in the comments.
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