You were on your way home when you died.
It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered that you were better off, trust me.
And that’s when you met me.
“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”
“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.
“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”
“Yup,” I said.
“I… I died?”
“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.
You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked.
“Is this the afterlife?”
“More or less,” I said.
“Are you god?” You asked.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”
Few things capture our imagination quite like death. It’s going to happen to us; we know it’s going to happen to us, and yet, we live our lives pretending it’s not going to happen. “Not to us,” at least, we think. “Not right now.” We run away from it every chance we get, and yet, somehow, we are preoccupied with it. Almost simultaneously we ignore death and worship its possibility. We write books about how life is short, but we never really live like it is. Who are we? What do you think happens after death?
“My kids… my wife,” you said.
“What about them?”
“Will they be all right?”
“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”
You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”
“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”
“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”
“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”
“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”
You followed along as we strode through the void.
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change;” and “Worn-out garments are shed by the body; Worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within the body. New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments.”
These are words from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy scriptures of Hinduism. In it are verses about the seemingly unending cycle of life, and of re-incarnation. Every version of a being acts and reacts, and their actions determine how they are going to be manifested in a next life. We commonly refer to this as “karma.” This continues nearly eternally, till the soul yearns for a higher sense of being, which it can ultimately achieve once it rids itself of all desires, ego, or pleasure. The yearning for a higher being is only truly met when no such yearning exists. So, is this life, the one we are living right now, just a mere test?
“Where are we going?”
“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”
“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”
“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”
I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.
“You’ve been a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point in doing that between each life.”
“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”
“Oh lots. Lots and lots. And into lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”
“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”
“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”
“Where do you come from?” You said.
“Oh sure,” I explained, “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”
“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”
Other religions such as Islam or Christianity don’t quite preach the idea of reincarnation, but when you look through the pages, they too treat this life as a test. It is the afterlife where life achieves completion and we get to live, truly. What you do in this life determines what the fate of your soul will be. While the concept of death is slightly different across certain religions and theologies, in that in some it happens over and over again, and in others you die once but live twice, nearly all religions encourage followers to think about the cascading effects of their actions at a macro-scale.
There are more modern ideas in this realm, of course. The simulation theory is just one of the more famous ones, where reality is potentially reduced to a high definition video game running in some scrawny teenager’s basement. It’s his reality and you and I are living in it. This is certainly not as grandiose of a possibility as something from scripture, but the logic that leads one to the simulation theory is ironclad. What does this all mean then?
“So what’s the point of it all?”
“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”
“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.
I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”
“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”
“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”
“Just me? What about everyone else?”
“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”
You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on Earth…”
“All you. Different incarnations of you.”
“Wait. I’m everyone?”
“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.
“I’m every human being who ever lived?”
“Or who will ever live, yes.”
“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”
“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.
“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.
“And you’re the millions he killed.”
“And you’re everyone who followed him.”
You fell silent.
“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”
You thought for a long time.
“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”
“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”
“You mean I’m a God?”
“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”
“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”
“An egg.” I answered. “Now, it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”
And I sent you on your way.
Whether you believe in an organized religion or not, we’ve all wondered what happens when our eyes close for that one last time. Maybe we watch our lifeless bodies as our souls float away. Maybe we try to call upon our loved ones to let them know it’s all going to be okay, but they just never listen. Maybe, nothing happens, at all. Maybe, there is no meaning?
Andy Weir’s short-story, supposedly written in less than an hour, does talk about an afterlife scenario. But, that’s not really the message it's trying to deliver. Maybe, his point is to highlight the ability of every person to both be the worst manifestation of humanity, but also be the best of it. Andy poses this when he says that the protagonist was both Hitler and the people he killed. It’s hypothetical, of course, but then again, how far are we at any given time from the worst version of ourselves?
I often find myself looking at pictures of famous, or infamous people for that matter, as babies. In the backdrop of reality, these baby faces can remind us about the innocence every human is capable of. Perhaps, one of the lessons from the Egg Theory is to remind people of the power of a situation to turn us into who we are. This is not to absolve anyone of wrongdoing or to take away from the gravity of their actions, but a chance to shed light on the fact that a lot of who we are is quite simply circumstance, and that we might be better able to prevent further atrocities if we are able to foresee the circumstances that lead to them.
This was, in large part, the focus of the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiments. College students were hired to play either guard or prisoner and their behavior would then be studied. In just over a day, the power imbalance had manifested into near total tyranny where the guards would abuse the prisoners to such an extent that a lot of them had to be discharged from the experiments. This ultimately led to the termination of the study after just six days. Some say the guards behaved like this because these guards were inherently bad people. Others say it was the power imbalance that was always set for an outcome like this. I urge you to read into it yourself, but these studies do demonstrate, and quite reassuringly so, that there may be more bad circumstances than bad people in this world.
The Egg Theory also need not only be about righteousness or evil. It can also be about looking at life through the eyes of others. Perhaps we would think of life differently if we could see ourselves through the eyes of a loved one. We often tend to be harsh on ourselves for mistakes, but if a friend were to make the same mistake, we would try and support them. Why should we treat ourselves harsher than we would treat a friend?
Imagine being a parent and finally getting to understand their worries for when they said they couldn’t sleep when you didn’t call. Imagine how we might rethink our world views if we could look at things through the eyes of someone who disagrees with us. In fact, that is supposedly the origin of the story. Not some near death experience that Andy Weir had, but rather a disagreement with his aunt.
What a world would that be like?
When empathy becomes more than just leaving words unsaid, and turns into a feeling, an emotion that you don’t have to interpret, but rather feel yourself. There is also the concept of being reborn and carrying over your lessons into the next life. What would you become if you could live again? If you knew then what you know now, how would you do things differently?
What if you never got that chance?
Who am I kidding, luckily, we get that chance everyday.
As Confucius once said, “Every man has two lives, and the second starts when he realizes he has just one.”
- MA, MM