I’m just back from 2 wonderful weeks in Sydney with family. The 32 hour commute is so fresh that my cankles haven’t yet subsided from their puffy, Mrs. Doubtfire-esque glory. Under the circumstances, it seemed best to tackle a straightforward topic. So I chose as my theme “the immortality of the soul”. If that doesn’t conquer jet lag, I don’t know what would.
By the way, my favorite quote about jetlag comes from Barbara Kingsolver in Animal Dreams. She says, “When you go on a trip, in your dreams you will still be home. Then after you’ve come home you’ll dream of where you were. It’s a kind of jet lag of the unconscious.”
That is so true in life, isn’t it? The grass is always greener. In the midst of life, you imagine some better time to be. Thinking about the afterlife feels a little like jet lag of the unconscious, crossing space and time zones in search of elusive perfection. The challenge to staying present is that life is often very difficult. It sometimes feels easier to imagine a future time without challenge, like a holiday or a heaven, somewhere to escape in your mind and visualize peace and perfection. The rewards to staying present are out of this world, and well worth the effort.
The first question to ask yourself is whether you expect life to be full of certainties, or whether you can get comfortable with uncertainty. If there was ever a reminder that the road to heavenly holidays is paved with uncertainty, it must surely be air travel. We flew out of the US on the same day that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab strapped explosives to his underwear and attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit airport. As a result, we passed through the tightest air travel security regimen that the world has ever seen. Countless hours and dollars are poured into patting down 7 year old girls wheeling Dora the Explorer backpacks full of Christmas toys and crayons. I never did trust Dora with her evil side-kick Boots and that cunning talking map. That crew has “terrorist” written all over it.
In all seriousness, I have no major problem with the tight security and it really wasn’t much of an inconvenience. With the deepest respect for those families who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks, the issue I have is the delusional human craving for security and the tendency to look for it in the wrong places.
Think of air travel in a larger perspective. In the past decade there have been three terrorist related incidents on US airplanes. Most of them failed or were foiled by other passengers. In the same period of time, according to the Bureau of Transport Statistics, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. That means that there has been one terrorist incident for every 33 million departures. If you look at the total number of passengers on planes in the last decade, the odds of being on a flight with a terrorist incident is 1 in 10 million. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 500,000. You are more likely to die from falling out of bed than as the victim of a terrorist on a plane.
Do you feel safer on a plane, knowing that there is a rigorous security regimen? Maybe. But at what cost? Are you prepared to sacrifice liberty for security, even though liberty may be your greatest security? And while so much focus is on air travel, what other security threats are being ignored? Now relate the same issue to the belief in the afterlife. To the extent that a belief in the afterlife offers security, it may just as easily rob you of the liberty to live without guilt and pretense, fully in the present.
You see, I fear that the craving for security can so easily delude us in a world that offers few certainties. As Glenn Close’s character says to a group of acting students in her recent film Heights, “For Christ’s sake, take a risk sometime this weekend.”
I think the big guy would approve. As he himself said (in my paraphrase), what does it profit you to gain a whole world of security and lose your soul? What’s the point of security if you are so paralyzed by fear that you can’t truly live? Seek a new year’s revolution this year. Resolve to evolve fearlessly. Make it your intention to really live as if your life makes a difference in the world. For Christ’s sake, take a risk this year, if for no other reason than to remind yourself that you are alive and your life’s script is not yet written. You get to write the book. You get to plot at least the outline of each chapter if not all the details. Take a risk to remind yourself that the beauty of life is that it offers no certainties. It is open and dynamic.
For Christ’s sake, live heaven here and now, as if your actions will make a difference beyond your knowledge and beyond your life span. That seems to be the point of Matthew’s vision of the afterlife (Matthew 25) where your life’s work is measured by your kindness to those most in need of care.
What is a Soul?
It’s good to stop and reflect on how far you have come. While I was in Sydney I was reminded of my religious origins. After 15 years away, I visited my first parish. Memories flooded back to me. I saw the public housing project where I first visited shut-ins and buried overdose victims. I recalled the church group that gathered with me for our inaugural “mission”. Some of the more traditionally religious folk felt that we should be trying to save their souls. I suggested we just try and be nice to them. In their minds, there was no point being nice now if the shut-ins would end up in hell for eternity. In my mind, the shut-ins knew more about hell than we ever would, and the best thing we could do was love the hell out of them.
It made me think about souls. What are souls? Is a soul a thing, or is it a metaphor? A few years back, a Kiwi guy tried selling his soul on the internet. The bidding reached $189. He claimed it was in good nick, apart from a rough patch when he first reached the legal drinking age. I think he may have been confusing spirit with soul in that case.
The idea of selling your soul is not a new one. The German legend, Faust, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for ultimate knowledge. He had forgotten that true knowledge lies in recognizing what you don’t know, and the ultimate truth is the wonder of living with open eyed curiosity.
Speaking of Faust, did you hear about the Wall Street financier who woke up one night with Satan at the end of his bed?
Satan smiled and offered the financier untold wealth, limitless power and countless women. The financier said, “What’s the catch?” Satan replied, “In exchange for all of that, I will take your soul.” Without blinking the financier said, “Again, what’s the catch?”
Untold wealth, limitless power, ultimate knowledge and impenetrable security are all delusions that can easily serve to distract you from the work of your soul. So is the soul a real thing or a metaphor and what is its work?
The ancient Greeks thought the soul was a thing, something separate from the body. They deduced that the one thing a dead body can’t do is move and think (I could suggest several other things a dead body can’t do). Therefore, they said, something must leave the body when it dies. That must be the soul. The soul must be that which moves the body or gives the body thought and will.
There are many different theories of the soul, including the belief in frisbeetarianism, which is the belief that, when you die, your soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there. Unfortunately, much religious speculation about souls is about as scientific as frisbeetarianism. Many forms of Christianity suggest that souls are things that are separate from the body that get zapped into the body at birth and then leave the body at death.
The Hebrew notion of the soul is far more connected and wholistic than this. In Hebrew thought, the soul was the whole of a person, their life force. It wasn’t one thing isolated from the body, but the body itself in harmony with life. I imagine that’s where Jesus gathered many of his ideas about the soul. What does it profit you to gain the whole world, and yet lose your soul, the ground of your being, your life? It’s unfortunate that western Christianity has generally opted for the Greek dualism that pits soul against body rather than the Hebrew sense of soul as a connected whole.
The idea of a supernatural thing called a soul can be a dangerous notion. It can lead to a denial of this life and your humanity. On the plan ride home I took the opportunity to watch a quirky film called Cold Souls. It stars Paul Giamatti, who plays the nervous and awkward role of himself, Paul Giametti. Paul is an actor who gets lost in his own dark thoughts and thinks the problem is his soul. So he decides to remove his soul and put it in soul storage. He’s given the option of storing it on the premises where it is removed or if he wants to save on sales tax he can store it in New Jersey.
Paul is devastated to see that his soul is only the size of a macadamia nut and much smaller than other souls in storage. He feels hollow without it. The soul is implanted in a Russian woman in order to smuggle it overseas. Drama ensues as he chases his soul around the world. But that’s another story.
The point here is that without his soul Paul loses his zest for life. Confused and angst ridden as his life was, it was nevertheless his life. He becomes a terrible actor and can’t make love to his wife. He lost his groove, albeit a flimsy groove.
He discovered that the very thing that he thought was weighing him down, his questions and doubts, turned out to be the essence of what made him tick. It’s no accident that in most religions, dogmatic notions of an immortal soul and an afterlife emerge at a time of great suffering such as the Axial Age. People look for a neat way to make meaning out of suffering, a hell for their enemies (justice) and a heaven to put their feet up and watch their enemies suffer.
It’s easy to forget that the soul has no vengeance. It has no expectation of the future. It seeks to avoid nothing. It doesn’t need to be pandered to or protected. The work of the soul takes place in the midst of the present realities of life.
Living With Soul
Life is challenging. The soul understands that. Challenge to a soul is like cold water to burning metal; it strengthens, and intensifies but never destroys. The soul doesn’t need an escape from challenge. The soul takes an alternate perspective on challenge.
A soul turns an event into an experience, a circumstance into an opportunity for love and healing,
a group of words into poetry, a series of notes into music.
Maybe the problem is that you think the soul is made up of things you add to your life, when the soul may actually be the essence of life when you strip the unnecessary distractions away from your life.
A few years back, we had a funny moment while traveling as a family. At the end of a long and tiring flight, we were gathered at the baggage carousel. You know what its like; you watch every bag earnestly as if by staring hard enough it just might turn into your bag. The bags were going round and round until we saw a loose handle with baggage tags on it. We joined the whole group, laughing hysterically as the handle did 4 revolutions of the carousel, until everyone else had left and we realized it was all that was left of our bag. It didn’t seem so funny then. It had a tag on it that said, “Heavy”. It reminded me of a stand up comedy skit where a Welsh man described the same experience. He went to the baggage claim, held up his handle and the woman said, “What seems to be the problem?” Reading off a list of standard questions, she asked him if someone had tampered with his bag. “I think so”, he said.
Traveling through life lightly keeps you closer to soul. When you strip away all the baggage that deludes you into false security, you get a handle on what really matters and what lasts when all the people have left and all the bags are gone. Then you are close to soul. Hebrew culture understood this truth.
There is a story that captures the Jewish notion of the afterlife. A tourist stops at the home of the great Rabbi. Since the Rabbi has such a world renowned reputation the visitor expects to see a great home filled with valuable treasures. However, he is shocked when he sees a bare home with almost nothing in it. “Where are your possessions,” he asks in astonishment? The Rabbi responds, “Where are yours?” “What kind of question is that?” the tourist said. “I’m a visitor here.” “I am too,” the Rabbi replied.
The soul travels lightly and knows what lasts. So is there a soul? I don’t know. Is soul a metaphor? A beautiful metaphor. If I say to you, “so and so is an old soul” you know exactly what I mean. If I say that a piece of music is soulful, you know instantly what I mean. If I describe a person as a soul mate, you immediately understand. Now let me ask a more open question. Is a soul connection real? Absolutely. Is an experience of soulful music real? You bet your life it is.
Can you explain why you are soul mates with certain people and not others? Not fully. Can you locate this soul connection in your body? Not completely. Can you describe why you experience some music as more soulful than others? Not really. Soulfulness is both real and also shrouded in mystery and wonder.
Even if it isn’t a thing that can be located, soul is a metaphor for the self at one with itself and in union with the whole. Soul is at one with the moment, and needs no future perfection. Soul is God within offering treasures of inner peace and healing. Soul is your consciousness that you are part of a wondrous whole, and that your integrity and choices matter to that whole.
As Carl Jung said, “The soul is a personification of the unconscious, where lies the treasure.”
I end with a powerful poem written by a man on Death Row who claimed his innocence until his death. He knew a lot about uncertainty and yet writes soulful poetry.
We seek within this riot of notes
The gentle sounds that form a minor symphony
To heal our wounds
At first, perhaps, life is an opus
Of tragic wails
But then, if we attend to the theme,
A form prevails.
And from the mad cacophony
That wreck’d our soul
Emerges the sparse ecstatic song
That makes us whole.
- Charles Doss
Namaste. All that is soulful in me greets all that is soulful in you.