Someone on a Facebook group I visit asked, “What are people’s belief in an afterlife.” Most respondents were of the opinion, “There isn’t one.” There were a few expecting reincarnation or union with a higher consciousness, but few takers for Heaven or Hell.
My own view was more nuanced or—another way of saying it—dodged the question. I tend not to speculate on issues that don’t concern me, and while it’s a question of cosmic implications, I see no way to answer except by dying, and then how would I post it to Facebook? Nor do I see that the promise of an afterlife would affect how I live in the present. I’d study the same whether or not I expected the prof to give a final exam.
But I disagreed with the expressed idea that “afterlife” is just a cultural construct to keep the peasants in line. I think it’s at our core: a strategy for survival. Not all of our strategies are effective—you can’t outrun a bear—but the instinct goes back to the lowest levels of evolution. It’s manifest in the cockroach scurrying over the counter and reaches its apogee with our human achievement of symbolic thought, wherein *humiliation* is a greater threat than a bullet to the head.
And possibly the greater terror—worse than being consigned to Hell—is no longer to exist as an individual. Thus the terror of Alzheimer’s or of losing the past, and thus the threat of Ibsen’s Button-molder, who simply foretells that Peer Gynt will be melted in his ladle and recast into something new.
Artists have their own stratagems, apart from engendering new humans: the paintings or pots or plays, the songs and stories we make. It’s an illusion, of course: who actually reads that 17th Century emperor of letters John Dryden today? If you’re not both a genius *and* extremely lucky, will you even merit a NY Times obit? My 30+ plays, 200 dramatic sketches, 5 novels, 40 short stories, 20 bins of puppets, hours of public radio, thousands of performances, and infinite press releases and grant applications—indeed, they express my heart to varying degrees, at least a cioppino of diverse ingredients—the fish stew of a soul. But who will be there to eat it?
In fact I think I’m pretty much past the supposition that fame would promise eternal life or even that it adds much meaning to the brief span of our years. Of course I want readers for our novels, audiences for our plays, just as I have a mate for making love. But I know only that I’m compelled to tell stories as best I can, to connect with my fellows as best I can, to love my family as best I can, with no intimations of immortality.