I can remember the word “heaven” being tossed about since I was a child. At Sunday school, as an altar boy during Catholic Mass, throughout the parochial education I received in elementary and high school, and in virtually every religious ceremony I have ever attended, elements of an ethereal afterlife were always suggested.
When I was 10 years old, my homeroom teacher showed us a small painting of a world with billowing clouds and endless streets made of golden bricks (flanked on either side by singing choirs of angels no less). He showed this painting numerous times and held it as if he was dangling fruit to tempt the hungry.
I understand what that was now. What is deemed as an “education” by some is often a form of propaganda, even if it is well-intended. I see that now, and I actively question the need for the existence of heaven and any form of an afterlife.
I get it. Death is scary, and the fact that all beings are not immune to it does not make it feel any less terrifying. But does this justify the desire for a payoff at the end?
And what if the end is nothing more than blood and bones dissolving into the earth? Is that so bad?
For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine that when we die there is absolutely nothing else that follows. As bleak as that sounds, this scenario offers one glimmering possibility that comes to mind.
What if heaven is a place of our own making while we are alive and breathing?
During our lifetimes . . .
- What if we chose to deeply and joyously love those who love us and to build long and meaningful relationships?
- What if we relinquished scenarios and people who cause harm and unhappiness?
- What if we regularly gave ourselves time to rest and refresh our spirits?
- What if we invested intention and willfulness within every second of every day against forces that fuel our discontent?
- What if that which gives us joy in real time is actually the heaven we seek?
No one truly knows what happens after we take our last breath. I imagine that, after years of steady engagement, the human body does not completely shut down immediately. After the heart stops beating and the lungs stop breathing, other, more remote, corridors of the body take their time to cease operations. Beyond the biological disintegration, no one truly knows what happens.
If there is, in fact, heaven after we die, then so be it, but whether or not there is, would we not be better off to make the most out of what we have right now? To have adventures and be audacious? To go big? Or, if it pleases you, to find depth and joy within the small footprint of your daily existence? Travel? Learn new things? Actively refuse to live a life of discontent?
I propose that we explore the vast, unlimited possibilities of life before death.
Heaven could be somewhere laid out right in front of you, but you have not seen it for what it is yet.
And when we die, we can go toward the unknown knowing the thrill and exuberance of the lives that we have lived already.
If you build your own heaven in the here and now, then come what may, you will always have the sweet and wholesome memory of it until the end.
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