Can you take it with you when you die?
A very rich man was close to death. As death grew closer he grew more and more unhappy at the idea of leaving all his wealth behind. Night and day he prayed fervently to God: “God! I know everything is possible to you. I beseech you to let me take some of my riches with me when I die.”
This went on for days without an answer. Finally, after hours of constant prayer, he heard a voice from the sky say: “Very well. You can take what ever will fit into one small suitcase.”
The man was overjoyed and spent at least a minute thanking his maker effusively before he set about the important work of deciding what to take. After long hours of solitary deliberation he made up his mind that the best thing to do was fill his suitcase with gold bars. This he did at the dead of night and dragged the suitcase to his bedside.
Much to the mystification of his family he insisted on keeping the suitcase at the side of his bed from then on.
Sure enough, on the night he died God kept his promise and he found himself at the gates of heaven dragging his heavy case towards Saint Peter. But St Peter found the situation highly irregular and wouldn’t let him take the suitcase in with him.
“But God has given me a special dispensation. I can take just one case of worldly goods into heaven with me,” the man insisted desperately. Saint Peter, inwardly thinking this was all some kind of delusion, reluctantly sent an angel off to ask God what the deal was here.
Ten thousand years later (our time but in a twinkling of an eye up there) the angel returned and to the astonishment of Saint Peter, confirmed the man’s story.
“Streuth!” the Saint muttered, having been too busy to update his oaths since the population explosion of the twentieth century, “I’d better let you in then. But I can’t let you through these gates until I’ve seen what’s in that suitcase. You can’t be too careful, even in heaven. The devil still has some scary tricks up his sleeve.”
So, the man proudly opened his suitcase to display the wonders of his wealth. Saint Peter’s eyebrows shot up over his head: “All this hassle and you brought paving stones!”
[I have adapted this joke from a wonderful book called “Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar . . . understanding philosophy through jokes” – pages 177-178]
The joke has more than one sting to it.
We know we couldn’t take a suitcase up to heaven and, in the present security conscious climate, you’d probably be gunned down by a guardian angel long before you got within ten thousand leagues of the pearly gates if you were foolish enough to try. We may even feel there is no heaven to which we could carry anything at all. If there is a heaven and, when we go, we could take with us the stuff that is precious to us here, it would count for next to nothing up there anyway.
What can’t be lost in a shipwreck?
“You possess only what will not be lost in a shipwreck.”
[El Gazali: I met this first in Tahir Shah’s “In Arabian Nights” ]
And what is that exactly?
To the materialist it’s obvious. There is nothing that can’t be lost in a shipwreck – goods, friends, family, consciousness, individuality, life itself. (Well, strictly speaking you probably won’t lose your house in a shipwreck exactly, but you get the point.) Nothing left over. Death = zero, the great black void. All that remains of you lies rather than lives, for a few more years, in the memories of those you leave behind. And when they die too, those few faint traces of your life die with them.
Those who feel there might be something else can give a different answer, with very varying degrees of confidence admittedly. “My mind lives on,’ they might say, “because I have an immortal soul. And I’ll meet my loved ones on the other side.”
“Yeh, right!” the sceptic responds, shaking his head at the follies of his fellows. Too many people, he feels, still believe too many impossible things before breakfast and for the rest of the day as well!
Most of the answers in the monotheistic religions I grew up with take on some variation of the “I’ll meet my loved ones” form.
In the East – and it’s India, China and the Far East I’m thinking of here – they’re not so sure about whether I have a soul in exactly that sense and whether I will remember who I was in the shape I take on next. I was put off Buddhism, many years ago, when I attended a talk by a Tibetan monk, who insisted I could well come back as a rat or a dog.
This seemed a far cry from the sophisticated analysis of mental states I had come to admire so much from reading about Buddhism’s core teachings and about the meditative experience, which I was experimenting with myself at the time. While other views of reincarnation are less shape-shiftingly dissonant with our sense of self, they all entail a greater reduction in our sense of who we are than the Christian or Islamic traditions do.
Eastern traditions would generally agree, though, that my mind is able to function in some way and to some degree independently of my brain and that therefore there will be something that is not lost in the shipwreck, though it may not be immediately recognisable to me or anyone else who knew me. The Dalai Lama, for example, is extremely sceptical about Western near death experiences (NDEs) that describe being met by loved ones after what may or not be an experience of death as it will really be. He feels the predeceased would already have been reincarnated and therefore unavailable. They’d be otherwise engaged, so to speak, unavoidably detained elsewhere, reaping what they had sown perhaps among the scent-drenched pleasures of a dog’s life, if my unfortunate and possibly misleading encounter with the monk is anything to go by.
The Bahá’í view is that we take with us into the next life what we have made of our souls in this one. This world is the womb of the next.
The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.
What we have learned of love and wisdom, what has nurtured our innate character – the soul, goes with us. We leave all else behind. Clearly that matters to me as an individual if I am a believer: why should it matter to you if you are not?
That is something we can explore together in the next post.