The Undiscovered Country

On the way to a conference last week, I caught a connecting flight in Charlotte.

As I approached my gate, I looked up and noticed a sign: Terminal Destinations. It was an airport health spa, but it reminded me of the debate I was on my way to hear between Dinesh D’Souza, a Christian apologist and author of Life After Death, and Michael Shermer, a historian of science, founder of Skeptic magazine, and author of Why People Believe Weird Things.

The two men have polar views on the subject of life after death, something we all consider from time to time, however vaguely.

Shakespeare called death “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” No one knows what lies beyond the veil. Yet the idea of an afterlife is an old and enduring one.

Ancient Egyptians believed the soul leaves the body and travels to the Kingdom of the Dead. Royal tombs were filled with food, clothing, jewelry, even slaves, for enjoyment in the next life.

In The Odyssey, Homer refers to an afterlife of eternal bliss in Elysium. In The Myth of Er, Plato describes souls being sent to the heavens for a reward or underground for punishment. The Vikings envisioned Valhalla, where after death they would do battle by day and enjoy victory feasts and revels at night. American Indians dreamed of Happy Hunting Grounds full of deer and bison.

The afterlife is a key component of every major religion. Buddhists and Hindus have traditionally believed in reincarnation. Muslims imagine heaven as an oasis with palm trees and dates. For Christians, Jesus’s resurrection and promise of eternal life is foundational. Many take comfort in the words of Saint Paul: “We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”

Of course, the opposing view, the notion that “when we die, we die, and that’s it” doesn’t give anyone a warm, fuzzy feeling. As Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Polls show that more than 80 percent of Americans believe in some form of afterlife. In non-Western cultures, the percentage approaches 100 percent.

Even those with an entirely secular viewpoint prefer to believe that some part of them lives on after death, that they will ultimately be reunited with family and friends. (“And pets!” a neighbor chimes in.)

Many find consolation in the afterlife for another reason. It’s tough to watch how often the wicked triumph and the good suffer in this world. There’s something reassuring about cosmic justice, the idea that some day we will each be held to account. I remember how, as a child, when some poseur or busybody in my hometown would pass away, I would hear my father remark — with just a trace of irony — that he had “gone to his reward.”

Of course, skeptics and rationalists like Shermer reject this whole line of thinking. Shermer argues that we are material creatures and when our bodies disintegrate there is simply nothing left to support consciousness. Anything else is wishful thinking.

D’Souza dismisses this materialist view, although he concedes it is natural to have doubts. He tells the story of the English vicar who was asked whether he expected to go to heaven and what he thought he would find there. “Well, I suppose I believe in eternal bliss if it comes to that,” he replied, “but I wish you wouldn’t bring up such depressing subjects.”

Shermer understands these migivings. If we were certain of an afterlife, he argues, we would not fear death as we do, mourn quite so agonizingly the death of loved ones, or hold debates on the subject. As one of the nation’s preeminent skeptics, he has studied near-death experiences, past-lives research, and psychic mediumship and found them all wanting.

How about all those patients who reportedly died, were enveloped in peace and white light, and then returned to tell us about it?

Their accounts are unreliable, he says. Most had experienced serious trauma or were heavily sedated. On close inspection, research into post-life experiences is generally weak, anecdotal, or terminally flawed. He adds, “All those patients who supposedly died and came back have one thing in common. They weren’t actually dead.”

There are dissenters in the scientific community, however. One of them is respected physicist Paul Davies, who writes in The Fifth Miracle that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of life but in favor of mind, that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way.

Philosophers add that just because we aren’t able to detect another realm with our five senses, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the numinous doesn’t exist.

In sum, we don’t have scientific proof of the afterlife. (And if such a thing were possible, what would be the role of faith?) Nor can skeptics persuade the majority that death is the end.

So rather than engaging in metaphysical speculations, perhaps we should concentrate on life before death.

A friend once asked me the old question about what I would do if I knew I had only six weeks to live. I know he was just trying to find out whether I’d play Augusta National or take a trip to Bora Bora or whatever. But I answered that I’d probably be so depressed by the news I wouldn’t find much joy in anything.

Then he amended his question. “Okay, let’s say you just got hit by a bus. You’re dead. What do you most regret not having done?”

Now that’s a provocative question.

Death reminds us that our time here is limited, vanishing, and exceedingly precious. It puts things in perspective and suggests we get moving. What is your plan for living the best possible life? What are your grandest dreams and aspirations? Are you pursuing them or putting them off for “someday”?

Death is a reminder that our purpose is not just to survive but to flourish. The great challenge of life is to use your time and freedom to do and become what you want.

That isn’t always easy. It takes courage. As Shakespeare said, “Cowards die many times before their deaths / The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Yet many of us live in denial of death. (Perhaps teenagers especially.) When I was an investment manager, I routinely dealt with individuals who were too spooked by the prospect of their own demise to set up an estate plan or even write a simple will. This feeling is widespread, apparently. Studies show that seven in 10 Americans die intestate.

What are they hiding from? It is only when you accept your own impermanence that you recognize what is most important in life. Death prioritizes things, especially as you get older, and forces you to confront the shallowness of material pursuits. Your focus inevitably moves from the ephemeral to the transcendental.

Accepting rather than ignoring death can cause a radical shift in perspective. You realize how important it is to live fully rather than face the pain of not having lived. You appreciate the meaning that can be found in work, in family, in faith, in friends, and in community.

Meditating on your own death helps you develop an attitude of equanimity, an acceptance of your ultimate fate. A stoic outlook is the mark of a mature, reflective person. As Mark Twain said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Preparing for death is not just a matter of deciding what to leave to whom. The thought of our passing motivates us to talk to others, give advice, say things we have been meaning to say, and give thanks for being alive. It is only when we take full account of death that we are able to say yes to life.

Sometimes, of course, we are forced to confront the passing of those near us, often when we least expect it. While only time salves this wound, in retrospect mourning and saying goodbye are some of our most poignant moments. It is all part of the grand tapestry.

And it raises again the fundamental questions. Am I a good father? Son? Brother? Friend? Mate? Community member? Am I acting ethically? Am I making good use of my talents and abilities? Am I living fully?

I don’t think you can answer these questions honestly until you’ve fully accepted your own mortality.

And when you have, you can thank death. Why? For making your choices perfectly clear.

[Ed. Note: Alexander Green, Investment Director of The Oxford Club, has more than 20 years of experience as a research analyst, investment advisor, financial writer, and portfolio manager. He is the author of The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, as well as the editor of “Spiritual Wealth,” a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life.

Alex is an expert panelist with the Liberty Street League, ETR’s exclusive club based on the principles of self-determination and self-responsibility. The League is dedicated to helping members take advantage of under-the-radar, “off Wall Street,” wealth-building opportunities, including precious metals, Internet businesses, fine art, commodities, real estate, and much more. Find out more about the Liberty Street League — and how you can get a free copy of Michael Masterson’s book, Ready, Fire, Aim, by signing up for a trial subscription to the Liberty Street League newsletter — here.

As Alex just noted, our time here on Earth is short. Are you taking advantage of all life has to offer? Or are you letting it just pass you by? If you need help prioritizing what you want out of life… and a proven plan to get it quickly and efficiently… you must read Michael Masterson’s latest book, The Pledge: Your Master Plan for an Abundant Life. The book will be published in November. Meanwhile, you can pick up a free excerpt and get on the list to be notified when it goes on sale.]