The notion of soul has preoccupied me for most of my life.
“Is Lisa going to heaven?” I asked my mother one evening after bedtime prayers. Lisa was a shabby, much-loved stuffed animal, and when Mom explained that heaven was for people only, I was aghast. I wasn’t too clear on the concept of the hereafter, but I was convinced with every ounce of my three-year-old self that Lisa was people, and that if she wasn’t going to heaven, well, neither was I.
A few years later the nuns who taught at my grade school elaborated on their idea of “people”. In short, they said, people have souls, unlike the family cat, or the old oak tree in whose branches I dreamed away summer afternoons, or the fossils that my friends and I found in rocks by the river. Again I was struck by a feeling of wrongness.
One of the surprises of adulthood has been how few of my childhood beliefs I’ve abandoned.
The distinction between humans and everything else still seems to me an artificial one. Physicists tell us that everything we can see is made of the same stuff. Not only that, these atoms are in constant motion, zipping busily throughout our universe. The atoms that make up our bodies today last week may have lived in somebody else, or in a bird, or a drop of water, a grain of sand, a speck of dust in the rings of Saturn, or a mote in the heart of a distant star. It is literally all one, a vast field of energy whose parts are in constant communication, intelligence made visible. This tells me that whatever makes me a human also gives rise to the seemingly infinite profusion of creation, and links me with it into a seamless, often mysterious whole. It is this binding energy that I choose to call “soul”.
I’m sure my idea of “soul” won’t satisfy either clergy or scientist, yet I’m equally sure that I see it everywhere: in the eyes my pets when I talk to them; in an old wood chair whose lines speak to me of the skill of its maker and the care with which my grandparents and parents tended it; in a rock, born in the sediment of ancient seas and filled with fossilized remains of creatures from those seas; in the birth, death and rebirth each year of the garden behind my house; and in cold reaches of spaces, lit by the fires of stars and linked by the background radiation left over from the birth of our universe.
Our world is beautiful in its mystery, and I believe that we do it and ourselves an injustice by holding ourselves apart from it. “It’s a magical world,” as Calvin said to Hobbes in Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. I like to think of it as our souls’ attempt to envision heaven.
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