Reincarnation: brought to you by the same earnest folk who remind you to "Be here now."
Still it's satisfying to think that the yutz who didn't want to miss his exit so he cut across three lanes without signalling, missed you by a foot, drove up the embankment to the road, then flipped you the bird, may one day return as a lowly slug and get eaten by a scrub jay.
And who couldn't use a second chance? A friend once told me "When I come back, I'm going to be a dolphin. I want to be sleek and have a blowhole." Well, yes. Who wouldn't?
So how do we know we get do-overs? What proof do we have that the cosmos dishes out gold stars and frownie faces? The channeled statements of the dead. If this is the case, I wouldn't be in such a hurry to advertise. Death, it seems, is not very good for you.
First of all, dead people get seriously stupid. Dumber than a chunk of sidewalk. Einstein, who believed mathematics was poetry, the language of the universe, could no longer calculate a square root. I once asked a channeler to contact Murray Gell-Mann. I realize the esteemed Dr. Gell-Mann, may his big brain scintillate for decades to come, is not dead. I just wanted to see what would happen. Forgive me, I had no idea quarks were a gift from an ancient Pleidian named Izzy-Ra. Also, I don't want to alarm you, but I tried your kugel recipe. I grovel before your superior talents, sir, but I think I'll go back to boiling the noodles before baking.
Don't take my word for it. Ask a dead person a question. Nothing tricky, like "What's the Hubble constant?" or "Why is 'phonetics' not spelled phonetically?" Ask him or her something easy. Ask the person where I lost my keys. Then call me. If I find them, it's one point for the born-again-and-agains.
You also have to wonder about their seductive maunderings. "It's beautiful here, it's so peaceful, your puppy who got run over when you were five is waiting for you!" Doesn't this sound just the smallest bit like a telemarketer? What if the dead are actually working a pyramid con scheme? What if channelers and mediums are actually focus group facilitators? What if all those beckoning figures at the end of the tunnel are there to get you to sign something?
And what if, behind that bright loving light, are the dead, wearing headsets and punching autodialers? And the biggest, shiniest guy of all floats around their drab cubicles barking the steak knives speech from Glengarry Glen Ross?
Or maybe existence on the other side of the veil really is all chirpy and cheery and pink and gooshy. This is not good news for me. I would not cope well with this afterlife. I can't stand perky people on this side. I want to bite them but I'm afraid they'll stick to my teeth. Promise me, I beg you, if I return to spout trite insights, you will dig me up, scoop out my heart with a rusty spoon and boil it in balsamic vinegar.
Which brings up another problem. How come the dead don't whine? So what if everything's so beautiful and perfect on the other side? Everybody whines! What the hell happens to these dead people?
Remember your Auntie Crab and Unde Burp, who found fault with everything. Eventually Auntie Crab crumps. At the funeral everyone finally exhales. Then they take turns imitating her griping about the eulogy, the turnout, little black dresses, cheap hooch, and Jell-O salad. Six months later Auntie Crab starts sending messages. Now that she's dead, she is finally truly happy. The implication here is that the best thing we can do for the chronic kvetch in our life is put her down, like an evil incontinent cat.
Speaking of which, how come we never hear from anyone in hell? For motivation to repent, it would be hard to beat a voice from the fiery pit. I can only imagine:
Me: Uncle Burp? Is that you?
Then there are the apocalyptic predictions. Nothing like a touch of death to inspire grandiosity. The Skinner box part of life eludes some guy through his entire pre-moribund existence. He expires operantly unconditioned. Now he's back and he's really chatty about the impending doom of humanity. Lots of finger-shaking from beyond the grave. This from a man who died in a tragic anvil experiment - after all, the coyote always walked away.
Maybe, just maybe, this time the species is on the verge of extinction. Humans are special, and I'm fond of several of them. I do not want to become extinct. But suppose it happens. Suppose we poison, fry, and detonate our species to oblivion. Homo sapiens circles the drain and is sucked at last beyond the Great U-Bend. What happens? We come back as sulfur-loving microbes dustered at scalding breaches in the sea floor under countless tons of water, and we work our way up to being cockroaches. And we deserve it for being so careless as to lay waste to an entire planet.
If reincarnation is the way of the cosmos, then extinction should not be a problem. Time is on the side of Life with a capital L. If it doesn't include a certain bunch of great apes, the ones who shave, the ones who diet, the universe will go right on expanding. Presumably Life will find a way to carry on.
Reincarnation offers a placebo for thanatophobia, and placebos can be amazingly effective. Why get all prickly about such a cuddly, hopeful belief?. Well, if you calculate the ratio of bodies to souls, you have to bring in vast numbers of souls from other planets to make the math work out. It perverts personal responsibility to a control freak's dream: You choose the circumstances of your birth. It also replaces social responsibility with fate.
Because it replaces social responsibility with fate. You bumble through life, you die, you get your grades. (Think of it. You're going to hear "Not living up to your potential" even when you're dead.) You are assigned to your next life as a punishment or as a reward. Good news, perhaps, for babies Trump and Gates. Hurrah for the divine right of kings! But consider a starving Tutsi toddler who watched his room get hacked to pieces by the neighbors. What do you say? "Let's get you the hell out of here and by the way, have a sandwich." Or "Firm but fair, laddie. You musta really screwed up last time. I sure hope you learned your lesson."
Because it perverts personal responsibility to a control freak's dream. In this version, you, not Mrs. Grundy or the archetypal Dad, choose the circumstances of your birth. The essentials come from Tibetan Buddhism, a wise and compassionate tradition. Remember all the stoners who read The Tibetan Book of the Dead? Maybe it was the dope, maybe it was television, but we now have a population with the attention span of a chihuahua. A very American chihuahua full of pioneer spirit, can-do enthusiasm, and a nasty little territorial domain habit. An American Chihuahua for the millennium who barks the Twelve-Step slogan: "Take what you.like and leave the rest."
We'll take the "choice of rebirth" part. Choices put us in the driver's seat. And thirty-one flavors and 500 channels aren't enough. So why did I choose myopia, chubby knees, and a predisposition to heart disease? Never mind, I'm sure I had my reasons. We'll even take the Bardo concept - sort of a post-mortem Department of Motor Vehicles, right? Purgatory with a lot of waiting in line?
But the lifetime of meditation, service, and discipline required to calm the mind so that the soul can withstand the onslaught of forty-two peaceful deities, fifty-eight wrathful ones, flashing lights, the whirlwinds of karma, a barrage of visions - excuse me, my beeper just went off. What was I saying? Oh yeah, the vision thing. Who has the time?
Think of weary cafeteria ladies, janitors who sign their paychecks with an X, junkie babies, schizophrenics who sleep in cardboard boxes. A psychic once told me my profoundly retarded sister had chosen her brain and body so that she could help my mother grow. I asked if he could see any dental work in his future. He didn't get it.
Accepting the concept of reincarnation leads to a callousness about life and a callowness about death. Because when we invoke the power of choice where there is no power and no choice, we pass the irretrievable minutes of the one life we are sure of in illusion. And real choices, hard ones, are waiting.
Like it or not, things end. Personally I work better under a deadline.
Kat Meltzer writes from San Francisco.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group