Guess what? In this time of coronavirus I have five — I hate to brag, but count ‘em, five — co-morbidities. I prefer not to get, well, morbid about this, but if I should contract the reigning global plague, it’s a cinch I won’t stand a chance with the medical staff making decisions at the Triage Desk. I’m doubtful there’d be a respirator that has my name on it beside my hospital bed, (if, for that matter, there will even be a bed available for this prince of underlying conditions and numerous complications).
The word is that that they’ll decide who gets treated and who doesn’t using the ethical principal of pragmatic utilitarianism: trying to save as many as possible by deciding who has the best chance of survival and the longest span of life yet to live. By that reckoning it looks like I’d be done for. Making my way to an over-stretched hospital with my health status and Covid-19 symptoms could well become my death march.
But Elizabeth and I are not sitting around speculating about our chances in this high-stakes national and global trauma. We’re praying for all and following the rules for dodging the pandemic. Meanwhile, in splendid isolation, we’re blithely looking forward to the coming of Spring in this beautiful place by the river.
And these days, I’m pursuing something else which is, to be sure, a form of speculation, (as well as being a matter of faith). I’m thinking about life after life. That’s what I, what all of us some day will face, (it seems I, perhaps, a little sooner than most — we’ll have to see). So it’s good to reflect on just what this transition from life to new life through death might perhaps be like.
I can’t offer a cinematic sketch of what we all might face after we die. The few biblical accounts that exist of the afterlife, rife as they are with ancient middle-eastern imagery, fail to inspire. The one thing scripture repeatedly assures us is that in the life to come, we will see God ‘face to face.’ (1Corinthians 13:12, e.g.). What might that be like? For me, it’s best described in psycho-spiritual-emotional terms. I’ve not encountered elsewhere the afterlife described in this way, but here is what resonates with me. I look forward to three things when this life is done and the next is begun; they are anticipation, fulfillment and surprise.
What greater joy can there be than anticipating something you can hardly wait for? Who hasn’t experienced this forward-looking, hope-filled happiness? It’s been a sustaining component of my life since childhood. My take is that we’ll be spending the life to come standing on tiptoes, in the ‘Bring it on!’ joy of happy expectation. The great miracle of it all is that, even as we are ever looking forward to what’s in store for us, at the same moment we will experience profound fulfillment.
Fulfillment will come, I expect, (and hope), in the way I have always been filled and made whole, in knowing beauty, goodness and a sense of abiding peace. From as long as I can remember, the esthetic, that attraction to what is truly beautiful, has been for me the clearest and swiftest path to the Holy.
Then there is the fulfillment to be found in goodness, the source of all that sustains us spiritually: knowing goodness is what enables us to trust, to grow strong and to hope always. Finally, I expect that this next life will give us what we can now know only partially — peace at the core, all-pervasive peace. This completely fulfilling universal harmony and inner serenity will be a peace growing always deeper, a peace ever expanding, a peace that never ends.
But set in the midst of this glorious coexistence of anticipation and fulfillment, I look forward to one additional, perpetual delight. In that life beyond death, always there will be surprise. It’s not for nothing that whenever we do something good and loving for someone, we very often want to be secretive about it to give them the joy of experiencing something quite unexpected.
We say that we are ‘taken’ by surprise,’ startled that people could be so good, stunned that life could be so rich, struck that we are so much loved. That is how we will be ‘taken’ in this life after life, I imagine. Expect, after you die, to be mightily astonished, over and over again. Surprise will always be a part of this new existence. It will feed our soul’s thirst for amazement and will keep this ultimate life from ever becoming so uniformly and predictably wonderful that it threatens to get boring!
Setting it down like this risks rendering it at once either excessively overwrought or far too simplistic. And yet, at bottom, what I believe might be waiting for us is something we already know, but now only dimly, provisionally, incompletely: the life-changing, cherished experiences of anticipation, fulfillment and surprise.
So that’s my hunch, it’s what I hope to experience some day in some way, but not quite yet. I’d like to look forward to more wonderful things right here, to stay and be fulfilled as I’ve been and as I am just now. I’d like still to be surprised by the many good, beautiful and peace-giving people and things that continue to thrive on this side of dying.
Perhaps, in the end, the divide between this life and the life ahead is not so great. Perhaps this is a time given to me, to us, to practice: practice experiencing here what life might well be like over there in that near, even familiar but still far distant place.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2020