Friday, February 7, 2014

Life is a gift, hell is regret

So here's how I think about the meaning of life and the nature of the afterlife. It centers on a simple principle: Life is a gift.

To elaborate, this means that life is not:
  • a misfortune to be endured. There are plenty of traditions that treat it that way. Unfortunately including, or perhaps mainly, Christian traditions.
  • a prelude to the afterlife, unimportant except insofar as it affects the circumstances of what comes after. This is related to the above, but I think much more common. Like extremely widespread, possibly dominant across Christian traditions.
My main problem with both of those is that this is the life we were created for, and that God called "very good". And if the fall meant that no more good would come of it, I would think that would have been the time to burn it all down and call it a failed experiment. Yet here we are.

It also means that life is not: meaningless or valueless. There are a lot of ways to reach that conclusion, from the very simple but not universally appealing ("God said so") to the fairly direct (phenomenological experience of meaningfulness) to the more roundabout (the existentialist maneuver).

And life is: good. As Leibniz and Pangloss knew, it has to be, because why would God give us a crappy gift? *

So that's life. What about the afterlife? Well, first things first: I don't really know that there is one. I think there is, and I hope there is, but I don't have any good arguments to offer someone who's not inclined to believe in it. Even someone who would accept biblical arguments—my understanding is that the Bible isn't particularly clear on this matter.

So my idea of the afterlife is one that's consistent with the little guidance I have but mostly based on what I want it to look like: continuation of consciousness and identity, basically still myself and human, but better, and with a much better grasp of life, the universe, and everything.

And now, the last important piece of the picture: judgement and punishment. I just can't get there. Here's one story: I follow Humans of New York on Facebook. Very often, one of the top-rated comments will be something to the effect that we should be good to the people we meet because you never know what their story is or what they're going through. Here's another story: my wife is a nurse working with long-term homeless adults, and she loves her clients, even (especially?) the ones who miss 80% of their appointments and aren't at all interested in reducing their crack consumption.

I just don't see how a God who loves us and understands us would be at all interested in making us suffer. And I don't see how it could be a necessary logical consequence, since "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy" seems like a pretty effective way to break out of any logical traps.

So: hell is regret. What suffering there is in the afterlife comes from looking back on the life just lived with:
  1. A fuller appreciation of what a great gift earthly life is.
  2. A clear understanding of what that means for how life should be lived, and how your actions and outlook differed from that ideal.
I end up with something sort of like purgatory—you suffer for as long as it takes you to forgive yourself for the wasted opportunities you now perceive, but eventually you get over it. Or maybe not everyone does. Or maybe it's actually really easy to adopt a very loving and forgiving perspective even towards your own past self, and it's only a fleeting pang.

Anyway, aside from generally fitting in well with what I believe, the thing I like best about this idea is that I find it useful in everyday life. Regret is a very powerful negative emotion**, so the question "Am I living my life in a way that reflects what a great gift it is, or are there things I can recognize now that I expect I'll regret?" has some emotional bite.

And finally, unlike in the "prelude to the afterlife" view, this one has the advantage that, if it turns out the afterlife is not all it's cracked up to be and consciousness goes out like a candle flame at death... well, you won't be around to care. But you won't have traded the good things of this life for a broken promise. You will have spent your life doing the best you could to live well.

* I have thoughts on theodicy, too, which I hope to write up at some point. Teaser: mostly Plantiganian. Woo free will! Natural evil? I don't think it exists. Actually maybe that covers it and I don't need another post.

** Could it be more so for me than for the average person? There are some ideas that I suspect I hold to because they fit my personality or preferences well, but I don't know if this is one. My impression is that regret is pretty strong for most people.