Thursday, December 29, 2005

Heavenly Ecstatic Utopia in Oakland, Calif.

I've been thinking about heaven lately, or the thought of heaven / paradise / nirvana / after-life, etc. A couple of weeks ago 20/20 had a show about heaven and started things off with a bang by interviewing the president of American Atheists, Ellen Johnson, who happens to be a television-ready, attractive, blonde-haired mother of two. "Is there a heaven?" asked intrepid Barbara Walters. Johnson smiled widely and said, "Nope." She actually said, "No, there is no heaven," but she said it in a cheerful tone that implied "Nope." It was great television. Johnson was gleeful to get that off her chest. "Is there a god?" continued Walters, for her follow-up. Johnson all but scoffed and said, "Naw." Or something to that effect. You get the idea. It's fun to be a nay-sayer when you know you won't get stoned or burned at the stake for your opinions. Viva America! But wait, there's more. Barbara wanted to know if Johnson gets depressed, knowing there's no after-life. "Well, it doesn't make me happy," she admitted, "But I can live my life to the fullest, knowing that that's all there is." So there you have it.

This is all there is: big-box discount stores, gas stations, telephone poles, Yosemite National Park, network television, our families and friends, animals, insects, clouds, wi-fi, art supplies, chocolate, Brad Pitt, viruses, plants, water, McDonald's, Howard Stern, the Pope, doughnuts, JC Penneys, books, make-up, shadows, rain, adult-contemporary music, you get the picture.

So we are all in heaven. All of us together. Either that or the alternative is that we are all going to a separate place, a heaven beyond our scope and imagination, a heaven reflecting the best of us, as explained by Maria Shriver in the same 20/20 episode, heaven is where we are completely at peace and surrounded by love, beauty, and acceptance. So I try to imagine this place. This perfect peaceful, beautiful, accepting existence and I find I'm at odds with it.

Even as a child, didn't you find the concept of heaven a bit, ummm, dull? The clouds and angels floating and strumming their harps. It seemed a little, hmmm, monotonous. Bear with me here; I know I'm not stating anything new, especially to all the godless heathens out there. It seems to me that the Christian ideal of heaven stemmed from a hellish life on earth filled with strife, powerlessness, disease, famine, war and ignorant superstition. Then that peaceful, blissful stupidness called heaven might sound pretty good. Especially if most of your children had died in infancy or childhood and your life expectency was only 40 at the most. Then you might enjoy those cushiony clouds and soft harp tunes as you float about in a narcotic haze, free from worry and loss. After all, all your lost relatives will be there too, right? No crops to till, no dictatorships to hide from, no invading Gauls.

But here in the modern American world, we sort of thrive on competition, conflict, aggression, or at least ambition. Where's all that in the after-life? Gone--poof! What have you got left? What are you going to do with yourself for all of eternity with all the life skills you honed back on earth completely useless? How are you going to rock out to Hendrix when you're all just floating around with a big smile on your face? How are you going to enjoy the narrative arc that is your existence when there's no conflict to battle against and overcome? How are you going to enjoy yourself when it's always enjoyable for the rest of time and beyond? You're going to go apeshit crazy. You might even head over to hell for a little nightcap once in a while. At least the sinners there lived a little on earth, as long as the homicidal ones are tucked away safely in the most firey of pits. At least with Satan, you know where you stand. God is just too damn mysterious with his giveth and taketh away. In the face of all the suffering on earth, how are we to embrace this god, or allah, or whoever?

It does make more sense to put all your faith and wonder in the power of nature, science and art. Let's embrace what we have in the here and now and let our heaven flow from our natural selves. Let's read and discuss the world and its ever-changing sameness and forget about the after-life and all the rules and regulations that bind us to that idea. What if we just went out and made some heaven right here on earth and that is our legacy, our after-life, the rememberence of our presence and how we affected those around us. Did we enhance life or make it more difficult? Were we good on a cross-country trip, or a high maintenance pain-in-the-ass? Did we exude love or did we cause fear and panic in our wake? I know I'm simplifying here.

What if you're a big neurotic with a horrible childhood background and no close relatives to cushion the blows of your growing-up existence? What if you can't find close and abiding love and are forced to wander the earth alone with your pets for company on a Saturday night? What if you can't earn respect because you're physically too short/fat/big-nosed/nobby-kneed, etc.? What if you're mentally ill? How are you going to exude all that warmth and love with these and other problems causing you hell on earth? You just have to because that's all there is.

This is it, so go do your thing, or appreciate someone else's thing. Do your best. Remember: This is all there is. Work it.

These photos were all taken in my North Oakland neighborhood--my own little slice of heaven.


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shoister, gone fallow said...

Not sure about the role of park rangers in heaven on earth, but had to mention Albert Brooks' vision of heaven in the film Defending Your Life, particularly two heart-wrenching moments: his discovery of himself in the Past Life Pavilion being chased by predators; his helpless wave of sorrow as an infant unable to intervene, from the bars of his crib, in the arguments of his parents. The movie was crap in totality, I'm sure, but these images surround all of my mediations of the afterlife: in the first instance curing hubris, in the second reminding me of the suffering that binds us: drawn in with every breath, dispelled with every exhale.
Additional evidence.

Susu said...

And I always meant to watch that movie that Diane Keaton made about different people's visions of the afterlife. Wanna watch it with me?


Anonymous said...

Hey, does that make you an atheist? It's me, D.Tra...your post is so bitter inspires longing and yearning and the need to watch yet another movie: The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. It may be the corniest thing you will ever see, but I think Tony Randall sums it all up very well at the end...and don't be surprised if you need the proverbial hanky when the credits start to roll.