Teenage Thoughts on the Afterlife
If you just want to see what I thought the afterlife would be like when I was a teenager, jump below to below the line.
I got the rare treat of hearing poetry read out loud at Berkeley Lunch Poems the other week. There, I heard a professor read “The Afterlife” by Billy Collins. The poem really stuck with me. Here is how it starts:
The poem goes on to describe different people living out the afterlives they thought were awaiting for them. It is a quite touching poem.
Unexpectedly, “The Afterlife” reawakened a torrent of thoughts I had as a child and young adolescent about what happens after death. It was a topic frequently stepped around in Hebrew School. Judaism has very little to say about the afterlife — it more or less confesses to not knowing—and as budding rhetoricians, we saw this as a clear weak spot in the faith to constantly harangue teachers about it. Perhaps we were hoping to be rewarded by our good deeds, like the Christians were; perhaps we just wanted to be reassured about the fate that awaited us. The teachers offered us no such assurances — “What do you think will happen?” they would ask, dodging the question.
This left a lot of space for rumination. Did I want to live forever on some spectral plane? Had I lived a good enough life to risk being rewarded or punished for my deeds? During the boring, unending days of Hebrew School, I crafted and refined a view of the afterlife that I thought balanced promoting good deeds and avoiding boredom. I refined it over my early teenage years after the death of my grandmother, and then, considering the problem solved, promptly forgot about it.
That is, until Billy Collins’ poem forced me to reckon with my own thoughts on the afterlife nearly a decade later. Now, dear reader, I am writing it down in hopes to capture it before it drifts back into obscurity.
You wake up in a studio apartment. There is no bed here, but there is a living room with a large television and an amply stocked kitchen. Now that you are dead, you do not need to eat, but it will certainly make watching TV feel more familiar. The television has a remote and a VCR with a single tape.
Once you pop the tape in, it is clear what is going on: this is the tape of your life. Or really, it is a tape of the whole world and you are the main character. The remote does not allow you to fast forward or rewind (none of that “Click” garbage going on here), but it does allow you to pause and jump around in space. This latter feature will be useful. After a couple of days of watching in awe as your parents bungle through your first days on Earth, you will most likely get bored. Besides, there are some exciting world events to catch, and even better, your friends are having their childhoods too.
That additional personal perspective makes some moments particularly painful. You can see how much happier the weird kid from summer camp would have been if you hadn’t ignored him and how heartless you were to your mom, who was dealing with a litany of financial problems, when she left work early to bring you to the dentist. Some scenes that felt monumental at the time are too boring to watch and some scenes that then felt boring then feel monumental. For the most part though, the movie is mundane yet vaguely pleasant. That’s why the snacks are key (yes, they vary day to day.)
As the years roll into decades, the movie gets less interesting. Your on screen self has gotten too introspective and spends too much time in uninteresting conversations. You use the remote to travel more, even dipping into movie theaters and reading books over people’s shoulders. You have little interest in watching your character watch TV shows that you have already seen. The best content is watching your children and grandchildren make all the same mistakes you did.
And after a lifetime of watching, there your are on your deathbed. You see yourself wasting precious mental energy reflecting on your life, unaware that you will soon have far too much time to do just that. As you close your eyes for the last time, the VCR goes black and the tape ejects.
A door appears on what used to be an empty wall. Even though there is no signage, you know what is on the other side: nothing. The true emptiness your empirical self always warned you about. As you look around the apartment, you see that you are not leaving much behind. Even if you can play the VHS again, there is nothing else you could hope to get out of it. So you grab a handful of pretzels from the kitchen, open the door, and walk through.