Friday, June 3, 2011

A pretty fiction

I was at a funeral on Wednesday for a relative of Wendy's that I had never met in person.  It was a pretty standard sort of affair with a gathering in a graveyard and a bunch of speeches, songs and readings.  I thought the speeches and songs were fine but the readings really got me irritated; they were not just religious in nature but portrayed the afterlife in ways that are ridiculous.  One of the readings was the entirety of the book When I Get Where I'm Going which describes heaven with some degree of authority.  The idea that somehow the authors of the book have some kind of direct line to the afterlife to determine how it will play out is silly as is the utter certainty that the person in question is going there.  Even more absurd is the fact that people stand around talking about how the person in question is now endlessly, perfectly happy and yet they are desperately sad about it.  If we really believed in these words we would have joyous celebrations for the dead who have so recently gone on to the happiest place in the universe.  When we die our time is over and the only thing we leave behind is the memories in those we touch and the changes we make in the world.

The book talks about how heaven is a place of perfection.  You can explore without fear of being lost, love without fear of rejection, fly without fear of falling.  No one in this version of heaven ever feels bad for any reason.  There are endless descriptions of poetic but nonsensical things that can be done by those in heaven and the book raves about how wonderful things are for them.  Unsurprisingly I find it all to be a bunch of ridiculous drivel.  The excitement and the rush of falling in love are almost entirely based on the possibility of rejection.  Exploring is all well and good but once I know that there is no possibility of loss, no possibility of injury and no possibility that I might actually have to do a good job I am going to get bored.  The most exciting and interesting things in our lives revolve around risk and the need to do things right to avoid a bad outcome.  Any time you see a situation where there can be no bad outcome you know that how much you try and how good you are has is irrelevant - and in that situation people get utterly bored.  A place where nothing can go wrong, nothing bad can happen and there are no limits is a place in which there is no reason to try anything.  It describes hell much better than heaven.  As anyone who has ever used a 'god mode' cheat in a video game will tell you being unable to lose makes playing at all feel utterly pointless after about 5 minutes.

The thing that boggles my mind is the necessity to come up with such fictions.  People talk about how it is a useful thing to believe that we will continue forever in some fashion but fail to acknowledge that we *know* for a fact that the things we do and the memories people have of us continue long after we die.  Much of what we are is in many ways immortal and there is no need to invoke a invisible superman to see that.  Not only that but life becomes all the sweeter for the knowledge that it is limited.  I won't get a second chance, I don't have forever and the answers will not all be forthcoming at the end.  I have but one life and these facts make that life and how it is lived ever more precious.


  1. Alternately, you can view the fact that at some point in the future (though it is weird to call it the future, since it is not *our* future) it will no longer be true that we ever existed as putting a bit of a damper in finding meaning in anything. Or, to put that a different way, it can make you realize that while there is meaning in things, meaning itself is not the sort of thing you wanted it to be, and you don't care about the thing that meaning actually turns out to be.

    Anyway, it's worth noting that people who bought the book you mention in this post also bought (according to Amazon) a book by Glenn Beck. That's about all I need to know.

  2. People use 'god mode' cheats all the time and for much longer than 5 minutes. Some of the most used features of the D2 map-hack I had was an auto-quaff mod to keep you from dying and an auto-quit mod which had you immediately leave the game if someone toggled hostile mode against you. (Useful for hardcore characters, for example.)

    People also spend an absurd amount of time doing things like watching reality television where nothing can go wrong for them. I think you'd find a lot of people are actually very interested in a place where nothing bad can ever happen to them.

    When I went to Japan I spent a fair amount of time exploring and really enjoyed it, but it had nothing to do with the potential of getting lost. I may not have been able to tell you precisely where I was but I had utmost confidence that I would be able to find my way back to the hostel no matter where I went. Frankly if I thought there was any reasonable chance I was going to get injured I wouldn't have gone.

  3. I thoroughly enjoy knitting and gardening but not with any thought to the risk of something going wrong. What motivates me is the chance of something going right!
    I'm OK with survivors telling themselves whatever they need to accept a loved one's death, get beyond it, and carry on with their own lives.

  4. Pretty fictions are necessary because funerals are time when people need to talk but there are so few things that are appropriate to say. Any mention of the weather is ignoring the elephant in the room. Saying "I guess we won't be seeing Joe ever again" would be offensive and stupid. It is a lot nicer to say "Joe will be waiting for you in heaven."

  5. @Dave

    You are using a strawman argument here. Nobody is saying that if you don't believe in heaven you walk around saying "I guess we won't be seeing Joe ever again." You might well say something like "I will always remember the way Joe volunteered for the local kids sports club" or "Joe's legacy of loyalty and selflessness lives on in his children". Both of those things have the advantage of being true, requiring no particular faith to believe, and being really positive things to think about on a sad occasion. To my mind saying "Joe will be waiting for you in heaven" is offensive and stupid because it assumes a particular belief set on the part of the listener and suggests that you have nothing nice to say aside from making up stories.


    I think I wasn't clear in what I said originally. People will use any cheat, mod, drug, or any other technique to achieve victory over other people. In a competitive game where other players can kill you or simply be better than you there is every reason to use 'god mode', you are completely right on that. I think you will find the use of 'god mode' is vastly less and not for any great length of time when applied to single player games where competition with other people isn't part of the game.

    Also you might not have thought that you would get lost or that something bad might happen... but mountain climbers don't climb mountains thinking that they will die either. They are convinced that it is a challenge that they are up for. That challenge has risks that they are certain they can surmount and usually they are right. If you were actually invulnerable and could never become lost then I am sure you would find exploring very uninteresting. Consider for example the rush of playing a really tight game against excellent opponents. There is a tremendous feeling of achievement upon victory that is entirely absent when your opponents are so hopeless they literally cannot beat you. Would a chess master be interested in playing against an AI that literally just moved a pawn at random forward one space on each move? They would not because there is no challenge - no possibility of losing.


    Imagine gardening worked like this: You plant the seeds. Whether or not you water them is irrelevant, the plants grow. Where you plant them is irrelevant, the plants grow. No matter what you do or what happens the plants always grow perfectly. You could ignore them, pay attention to them, drown them or stomp on them but they always grow perfectly. Would that be interesting beyond the first experience? I think you would be utterly uninterested when your skill, your perserverance and your technique were completely irrelevant to the outcome. You might plant flowers for the look but I doubt very much that gardening would be *interesting*.

  6. But in your hypothetical gardening example, while many gardeners would be a little disappointed to lose their hobby, I think you'd see a much larger group of people "gardening".

  7. Heaven is supposedly full of tons of people, right? Why can't I play a really right game against excellent opponents there? Because the losers might feel bad?

    Your point is not having the ability to lose makes you feel bad. Therefore you wouldn't be incapable of losing in your heaven, and could actually find a really tight game against excellent opponents. There would be people playing games and never losing, and people playing games and never winning, and people playing tactically strong games and winning some of the time. They just wouldn't necessarily be playing against each other.

    As for the gardening... Isn't that exactly what tv is? It doesn't matter if I watch the Red Wings play game 7 against the Sharks or not. It doesn't matter if I wear my jersey or not. I could post about them in online forums or just play Final Fantasy instead and it wouldn't matter. But I do watch them play. So do an awful lot of other people.

    80% of the adult Canadian population watched at least part of the men's gold medal hockey game in the Olympics. 80%! Not a single one of them changed the outcome of the game.

    You claim exploring is only interesting because of the potential for disaster. What about reading a book? Did 150 million people buy The Lord of the Rings because when it comes right down to it the thrill of getting a paper cut excites them? No, they wanted to explore a world designed and detailed by a pretty good imagination.