It only took the sight of one dead bee to make me realize there is no heaven.
Perhaps an explanation is in order.
As some of you know, I swim each afternoon. Considering the pressure cooker that my brain feels like over the course of the trading day, my swim is a relaxing, soul-restoring, and delightfully repetitive meditation of waves, ripples, and rhythm.
As my pool is near both of my bee hives, I invariably will spot a honeybee or two in the water. More often than not, they will still be alive, and I always get them out of the water swiftly. I’ve learned to be judicious in how I handle them, typically cupping both my hands to make a deep little pool so that they don’t sting me. I’ll get them out of the water, gently flip them upright with my index finger, and watch them for a few moments as they buzz their wings dry and zip away back to their duties. I’m the same way with spiders in the house. They always get safe passage to the outdoors.
So there it was, another bee floating on the water’s surface in need of salvation. This time, I was too late. She looked still when I saw her in the water, and after I got her to the dry edge, she was clearly dead. And, in a flash, I realized this is everyone’s fate. Once you’re dead, you’re dead.
Brilliant, eh? But allow me to explain why for me this was more of an epiphany than the banal conclusion it resembles.
Most of us grow up with a vaguely similar notion of the afterlife, which goes something like this:
- You are being watched by God;
- If you are a good person, you will go to heaven after you die;
- If you are a bad person, you will go to hell after you die;
- Heaven is a perfect place in which you are reborn, you never die, and you are once again with all the people you loved in your life and, far more important, even your dogs.
- Hell is a place of never-ending agony where you live out eternity regretting how you lived on Earth.
That’s it, right? I thought so.
It’s no accident that this model of the afterlife barely varies one iota from what life is like right here on this planet. Indeed, heaven is virtually indistinguishable from Earth, except that you don’t die and all the jerks have disappeared. Because on Earth:
- You are being watched (by your teacher or parents as a child, and by your boss as an adult);
- If you are a good child/student/employee, you will live comfortably and maybe even get rich;
- If you are a bad child/student/employee, you will be impoverished and maybe wind up in prison;
- An affluent life is a perfect place where you get to mingle with family and friends and, far more important, your dogs;
- An imprisoned life is one of loneliness, fear, and boredom where you live out your sentence regretting how you lived your life while free.
One and the same, correct? We’ve taken life on Earth and simply slapped it into a celestial setting. Same actors. Different stage.
Yet this dead bee wasn’t in bee heaven. He was just a soaking blob of organic matter, soon to decompose and be absorbed back into the soil to fertilize my lilies. Because there is no bee heaven. Or mosquito heaven. Or even dog heaven, although that sure would be a fun place to visit.
Because if a living thing dies, and their soul, memories, and spirit pass on to another life, what’s the dividing line? Is it humans only? Why just them? Why not chimps, whales, and elephants? Those are all marvelous creatures. They are intelligent, social, and God knows far more deserving of eternal bliss than most humans. Why would people and no other living thing “pass on” to somewhere better? It makes absolutely no sense.
Clearly it satisfies a human craving. We are creatures who are uncomfortable with imbalance and dissonance. Heaven and hell were conjured up, I believe, as mental constructs in order to rectify the imbalances we see in this life.
Take Jared Kushner (please!) This is a person I consider wholeheartedly deserving of massive doses of punishment. Yet his life couldn’t be more cushy, luxurious, or peaceful. This is a disconnect. There is cognitive dissonance. How would someone grappling with that resolve it? They’d accept as fact that Jared Kushner will simply go to hell, and thus, the universe is in balance once more. Sinners get punished. Saints get rewarded. It’s all cool in Bible school.
Yet just as my waterlogged little friend showed to me, Mr. Kushner is no more destined for damnation than the former honey-maker was now flying from one heavenly flower to another. Our pains and pleasures are confined to this life alone.
What is the truth, then?
I think it’s an important part of our existence to ponder these things and come up with our own thoughts and theories. We can conjure them up and dismiss them over the course of our lives. We might actually land upon the truth. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll come to find whether or not we guessed right or not. But all this led me to another thought.
Our lives, I concluded, were spent as raindrops coming down from the sky. Each raindrop has, for a while, an opportunity for individuation. How long that lasts is unknown. Perhaps it will merge with another raindrop along the way. Perhaps the wind will blow it into a fine mist and into nothingness.
But at some point, the raindrops will be returned to the ocean. They will lose their individual nature. The water droplet is returned again to the seemingly infinite sea. And what was once distinguishable as a unit, with its own lifespan, its own memories, its own history, has now been reabsorbed into the whole. That which once was still exists, but in a vast and unified form.
And from where is new individuated life drawn? From the same sea. Up the vapor goes, into the clouds, and eventually the raindrops are born anew, tumbling from the hydroponic nursery and making each of their inevitable trips back to the ocean from which they all came. Such is the circle, with one tremendous unity and a continuous cycle of birth, experience, and rejoining.
For me to hold up a water cycle as a metaphor for spiritual life may seem odd, and although I dreamed all of this up while doing laps back and forth, I am quite certain this isn’t a new idea. But the system I imagined made abundant sense to me as I continued to recognize the utter lack of distinction between my own fate and that of the deceased honeybee.
This system’s schema isn’t complete, however. If we are all indeed raindrops, returning to our source, does our behavior truly mean nothing? Is there no consequence for destruction and hate? Is there no price to pay for the wickedness we deliberately foist upon others?
Perhaps not. It could well be that the things we consider to be right and wrong are irrelevant to cumulative cosmic wisdom. I’ve contemplated this before, and honestly, it is comforting to me that an old thought and a new thought align so well. Specifically, as I wrote two years ago:
Consider a universe in which there was an overarching and self-aware intelligence. This force was a creative one, both in a physical and spiritual sense, and for our purposes of comprehension, we anthropomorphize this entity with simple terms like “he” and “God”. But accept for the moment that there has been a force which, in our own language, we consider to be creative, intelligent, and even emotional.
Let us further suppose this force is, by its nature, always in the act of creation. Whether those creations be inanimate (boulders, sun flares, comets), animate (an Asian lily, a maple leaf), or sentient (a tiger, your dog, or a favorite Uncle), they all serve dual roles. One role is that of expression. There is beauty and elegance in these forms. We, as humans, have the most incomprehensibly minute means to understand what is around us, limited by both our perspective and our senses, but we can still have our breath taken away if we drink in deeply enough what we can witness.
Yet beyond this, these creations themselves have their own ability to create and express. My sitting here typing these words is a form of that expression. Your reading of these words, and your own interpretation of them, and actions from them, is likewise an expression.
And so, in our lives, we do right and wrong. We fight. We kill. We teach. We have arguments and reconciliations. We build up and destroy. We learn and we forget. Because this is complicated stuff. The seemingly infinite variety of life out there, and the likewise infinite possibilities of interactions among and between those life forms, makes for quite an interesting bouillabaisse of possibilities, wouldn’t you say? And who is learning, growing, and comprehending from all of this? I would say the Source of all of this creation in the first place.
So instead of the old model of humans getting cranked out to scurry around, trying to adhere to a codification of rules (the content of which no two cultures can really seem to agree upon) that will result in ecstacy or torment, I would suggest instead the possibility of a nobler purpose. And that is our existence is that of instructor, teacher, and experimenter. It’s the big guy upstairs learning from us, not the other way around.
And if that’s the case, isn’t that an awfully optimistic view of it all? (Which, I confess, is ironic, coming from the likes of me). That is, an overarching force of life and creation which, through the ages, is slowly, clumsily, but at least steadfastly, moving toward greater understanding and wisdom, all through the course of an act of Self-Contemplation whose scale and longevity is impossible for us to appreciate?
The most comforting knowledge for me is our own vast ignorance. How foolish it would be to believe we understand even one-millionth of the truth.
My honeybees, in their own way, accept that they know all they need to know. They have no comprehension of life outside the world of flowers, wax combs, and nectar. Dipping in for a sip of water, the find themselves in great peril, doomed to drown. And yet an incomprehensible, mysterious force saves them, and they go on to live another day. They don’t know how they were saved, or why. But they are saved nonetheless, in spite of their ignorance.
So, too, are we. I can only strive to be decent before I splash back into the ocean below, and perhaps add a speck of wisdom to the whole once my journey is complete.