What happens after we die? Is there an afterlife? As endlessly fascinating as I find these questions, the answer doesn’t really matter. In particular, it doesn’t really matter whether we are reincarnated or reborn in some manner, or whether we did live a different life at some point in the past.
Obviously, the important thing is to live as well as possible in the present moment. More on that in a bit.
What if I am the reincarnation of someone who lived a terrible life and died in a horrible manner? It would be hard to imagine how remembering or becoming aware of any of that could improve my current life in some way. I still have to do my best to be a good person and live a good life this time around, whether I was the villain or the victim. Bad experiences in the past don’t let me off the hook in the present. That’s true whether we’re talking about stuff in the 1980s or the 980s. There is plenty in one lifetime to process. We have plenty to learn about forgiveness and healing in the present day.
What if I am instead the reincarnation of someone illustrious and famous? That just sounds like a moral hazard waiting to happen. Going by the numbers, most people (i.e. possible soul-lifetimes) either died before the age of 7 or lived lives of total obscurity. The chances that I was ever anyone famous – famous then and famous now – are vanishingly small. But if I was, say, Cleopatra* or Florence Nightingale, there are two major hazards for 21st Century Me. I can’t go around resting on past accomplishments or expecting special treatment. Just like the only workout that counts is the one I did within the last 48 hours, the only reputation that matters is the one I’m building today. The other problem is that, if I was incredibly famous in a past life – famous in a good way – I should be doing something even more awesome than that in this lifetime. If that was my foundation, I’m not doing all that much with it…
What if I die in this lifetime and I’m reborn at some time in the future? So what? Presumably I won’t remember anything from this time around. I won’t have the same biography or the same social network. The only thing I would have to go on is whatever spiritual lessons I was able to learn and make permanent. Are there separate degree programs depending on whether we live one lifetime or many? I doubt it. It seems to me that what makes a good life is likely the same either way.
Love thy neighbor. We have to try to learn to love others. The harder we have to work, the more points we get. We have to find a way to stop judging and blaming and comparing and just love. We have to learn to be aware of the outward ripples of our thoughts and speech and actions, and be considerate of the impact we have on others.
Live the best life possible. The world is here for us to experience and appreciate. We have to learn how to stop worrying and distracting ourselves and chasing material goodies, and just be.
Express the spark. Each of us has something special to give, and just a brief window of opportunity to get it out and share it with the world. Whatever it is that we’re here to contribute, it’s our job to put it out there and squeeze out every drop of creative output that we can.
Make the world a better place. What legacy do we leave when we’re gone? A patch of garden? An image of true friendship? An inspiration of courage or loyalty or patience? A creative project? A resolved problem? An innovation? A lifetime is enough to leave at least a tiny mark of positive change in the world. If we can do this, it’s a win, no matter what happens on the other side.
* Plutarch says Cleopatra spoke at least nine languages and rarely needed an interpreter.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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