My Afterlife with Jump Cuts

Some years ago, my sister Pili was visiting from Spain and we were catching some late night television. After several minutes of channel surfing, we saw some segment on the History Channel about people who claimed they've been abducted by aliens. Apropos of nothing, she yells out "This is all bullshit! I could describe an alien abduction in detail because all the details are so embedded that it will sound authentic."

I've often chided Pili that she has no imagination, but in this case, she's absolutely right. The details of an alien abduction have become so widespread and identifiable that almost anyone with a few minutes and a poker face could construct an scenario that fits right into the standard story of an alien abduction: it happens at night, you're unable to move, you're pinned down, your assailants have a distinct insect appearance, they communicate with you via telepathy before touching your genitals, etc.

It's also like stories about the Light. Near-death experiences abound with common details, most notably an inexorable movement towards a bright light. Sometimes you're alone, other times you're being guided by helpful relatives ("Uncle Ted! You look fabulous for having died of cancer!"), but there's always the Light where you feel deeply peaceful. Usually before that, people talk about seeing themselves outside their bodies (on an operating table, in the ambulance, at the scene of their demise). Or you hear about people seeing their lives flash before their eyes.

Every culture at any given epoch has its own reference points for explaining how the world is. Television, books, movies and art inform our popular notions of things we cannot control. (Of course, these things are just modern day names for what they used to call primitive folklore.) Once there's a baseline for such topics like alien abductions or near-death experiences, people can add their own embellishments and details while still making an identifiable reference to the original source. So you can have a story of an alien abduction in New York that sounds like one in Holland or Sydney. Different places, different circumstances, but at the core, the same story.

In the Quran, paradise is described as being the opposite of what reality on earth was: instead of a harsh, unrelenting desert, there's a garden of plenty. Not just copious amounts of water and fecundity, but also of sex. Culture further molds existing beliefs, so much so that I hope my afterlife is like an extended commercial. Instead of standing around all the time in Dante's Empyrean, I'd rather be in a paradise looking like the fields of Tuscany. And in perpetual sepia-tone as well. Lots of slow-motion head turning, a beautiful brunette and a feeling of eternal warmth. We look at our culture and decide what we don't want and construct a vision of a personal heaven. (After all, no one ever says they hope Heaven looks like New York.)

Near the end of the film "Gladiator," we see the main character (after dying heroically) walking in a wheat field towards his deceased wife. It's a great shot (in light blue tones that manage to be cool and warm at the same time) augmented by better music. I think music should be mandatory in any afterlife because it complements the jump cuts of walking in a field, frolicking in the water, holding hands with your beloved forever than an unending chorus of "hosannas" ever could.

It's also interesting that if you ask people what their conception of an afterlife would be, you'd find that we construct it in terms of familial reunions. We want to see our loved ones again (or patiently wait for them in Elysium). We want to retreat to some happy memory. Rarely do people first say, "I want to praise God all day" or be stuck in some great assembly near the divine throne. People usually add that kind of detail in as an after thought, since we conceive of heaven as a reward, rather than work. Paradise is supposed to bring us closer to God, but we often find ourselves longing to be with other people. (Unless your Southern Baptist, of course. They want to be closer to God and see other people writhing in agony for not believing as they do.)

So we may all start out with an austere definition of paradise, but over the course of time, paradise becomes the ultimate human construct. And that construct draws from our deeply embedded cultural ideas and reference points easily understood by our contemporaries: after all, if I say I want I want my afterlife to be like a music video, you'd intuitively understand what I was referring to, even if the details aren't there. (What kind of music video? a Rascal Flatts video with lots of bedroom montages or a hip-hop production with the never-ending summer beach house party stocked with greased-up videos hos?) In a thousand years from now, it'll be some other widespread cultural reference point. Then they'll look back and call us primitive.

The staggering breadth of our beliefs that can branch from a single idea just makes you want to ask the question: which came first, Heaven or human imagination?