I believe in an afterlife. My after life has no wings, no virgins, no right hand of an old bearded father figure to sit by. My afterlife has no immortal soul, no eternal rest, no karmic accounting, no return path. I am after all a scientist, a biologist who subscribes to an Evolutionary outlook and long ago was forced to give up notions of a soul or other comforting but irrational vitalistic ideas. It may seem to many that this life of rationality is hard on the spirit – bleak and without meaning since there is no “greater kingdom” to aspire to. That is why a belief in the afterlife is so important.
Here’s my afterlife. I am a professor and I teach college students. They are bright and eager and they are going to make big changes in our world. They are going to be scientists or artists, writers, musicians, doctors, researchers, philosophers, who will alter our world in what I imagine will be unimaginable ways –as my generation has done over the last several decades, and others before us. I feel better about getting old when I see the talent and the curiosity and the energy that they bring to everything. I had the recent pleasure of seeing Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute orchestra playing a benefit performance at Carnegie Hall and I thought to myself, these remarkable young musicians will be playing and making beautiful music for the next 70 years, well into my afterlife. I feel the same about the endlessly curious students in my classes.
Each year when the University Commencement rolls around, regular as the spring blossoming must have been for our agricultural ancestors, I have the same sense of renewal, watching the graduates at the starting line, ready to charge out into the world and remake it yet again. So my admission into the after life means helping the next generation to take their place, to incrementally, and occasionally in great leaps, make this world even more interesting and more humane. My afterlife is life after me. And I’m betting it will be great fun.
There are some who think that technological and intellectual advancement risks the danger of annihilation. Why haven’t we heard from advanced civilizations on other planets? Because nobody gets advanced enough to communicate without blowing themselves to smithereens or hopelessly messing up their planet or causing some other catastrophe. I think not. I think if we stop our selfish worrying about a promised afterlife for our souls, and start thinking more generously about the life after us here, there will be human civilizations on planet Earth for many millennia. And with life-after assured we could all feel much better about growing old and dying.
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