One Life to Live?

Okay, so Sascha had opened me up to the possibility that a psychic could see my future better than I could. And first Marvin, then Linda Goodman, showed me that there was more to astrology than I had thought.

But if there is a purpose to our lives – if we are more than just random accidents – then what the hell is it?

The single fact of life that had made atheism comfortable was the inherent injustice of life on earth. No amount of exposure to wild-eyed optimists, Catholic programming or the “all men are created equal” clause of Jefferson’s Declaration could ever convince me that life here is fair.

A quick glance around shows us that the race is not always to the swift, and the money and pretty girls are not always to the good. That’s just the way it is. Children are born into such different circumstances and have to cope with such different bodies and events – not even an omniscient God would be able to show me the fairness of sending some people to Heaven, the rest to Hell, based on one shot at existence. Especially not when some kids check out at 4 – well before the “age of reason” declared by theologians, and free of responsibility for any wrongdoing – while the rest of us get enough time to seal our damnation.

Why did I think this life was a one-shot deal? Well, that’s how I was trained. We Catholics muddled through, and when blatantly unfair things happened – real, searing tragedies – we’d read the book of Job, and talk about God moving in mysterious ways.

Run, Baby, Run

As a kid I read Christian comic books like “Run, Baby, Run,” the autobiography of Nicky Cruz, and shivered in fear. Cruz led a brutal New York City gang called the Mau Maus, and one of his best friends was stabbed to death while still in the gang. What chilled me about the death of Cruz’s friend was not so much the way Cruz described the air leaving the young man’s lungs for the last time – “like a tire deflating,” Cruz said – but what that deflation signified: That man’s soul was going to Hell. Had Cruz died that day instead of his friend, it would have been Cruz’s soul in perdition. Through sheer chance, though – or what some Christians call “God’s grace” – Nicky lived long enough to meet and be saved by a kind preacher named David Wilkerson.

Wilkerson, whose own autobiography – “The Cross and the Switchblade” – would also become a popular comic book, had left his home in the suburbs to minister to the tough kids on the streets of New York. His was an act of great kindness, and it undoubtedly saved a great many kids from the fate of Cruz’s friend. Underlying Wilkerson’s urgency was the belief that this life is the only chance any of us have: If he didn’t manage to reach these kids within a few short years, they’d spend eternity with the devil.

This belief led Wilkerson to take great risks, as it had led countless Christian missionaries to take similar risks in parts of Africa, China and the South Seas. Some cultural historians would take the argument even further: They’d say that the belief that we have but one life to live has been the engine driving all of Western Civilization – the spur that led Europeans to create wealth while Hindus felt no rush.

I was taught that the missionaries were right: All people needed to convert to Christianity, and specifically to my family’s brand of Christianity – Catholicism. Those who resisted would go to Hell forever. It’s hard for some non-Christians to imagine this, but at some level many of the persecutors of the Spanish Inquisition felt that they were performing an act of kindness. Torture in this life, by their view, is nothing compared to the eternal tortures of the damned.

I heard about the missionaries, and gave them money along with my classmates, but all I could think of were the pagans who never met one. What about the generations of Chinese who lived and died for millennia before a preacher made it to their shores? The aborigines, confronted with strange white men who looked upset about something they could not communicate? What about the Jews who had the message pounded into them but still held out, wanting to preserve the religion of their parents – an impulse we Christians applauded when the religion to be preserved was the “right” religion, but scorned when someone’s parents had the “wrong” faith?

More to the point: How did we come to believe that God would create all these souls, only to discard most of them just because a few lazy, incompetent or bullying preachers gave Him bad PR?

An even more subversive question: Why do we expect the same Deity who created this brutal mess of a planet to suddenly become kind to Christians, giving us all of what we wanted, just because we died and are now in a different part of His Universe? Life is chock-full of suffering here, even for Christians who spend all of their lives with other believers. Why should the afterlife be so much easier? What did we ever do to deserve a blissful eternity? And if you want to say ‘We didn’t do it, Jesus redeemed us,’ then why can’t you feel the redemption now?

Ah, when you try to harmonize the idea of a just God with the miserable lives around you, the questions never stop…

Unless, that is, we get more than one shot.

Second chances?

Marvin told me that it looked as though we might. He said that astrologers tend to see one’s particular human existence is merely the latest in a long line of vehicles for that same soul.

Perhaps because of my training, that explanation seemed a little weird to me. It seemed to give God a little too much slack, and I didn’t want to do that because I was still angry at Him for various things.

It seemed to me that the doctrine of reincarnation asked people to imagine that there is justice, without ever actually showing it to them: “Don’t like the way your life’s going? That’s okay, I’ll convince you that you used to be a tyrant, so the pain you’re feeling now is just exactly what you deserve. There – now do you feel better?”

My family background is Irish, so I’m familiar with the hollow boast “We’re descended from kings.” If you go back far enough in most people’s lineage, you can find royal blood somewhere, even if your great-great-great-etc. was just the king of a garbage dump. I don’t begrudge people who take comfort in it – a royal pedigree may be the only consolation you have if the English are treading on you – but it never did much for me personally.

And I had heard the standup comedians: “Have you ever noticed that when people look for past lives, every single one of them spent time as Cleopatra? I mean, I knew she got around, but still…”

I hadn’t actually heard anyone talk about their own past lives, but I laughed with everyone at jokes about Shirley MacLaine. Grasping after a significant past seemed a likely motive for fantasies about a previous existence.

So far, my whole approach had rested on logic: Did this idea make sense? Because I started from the idea that it did not, I naturally enough found logical supports for my position, just as those who thought the Earth was flat found plenty of support for that idea.

More evidence than I had imagined

What I didn’t know about reincarnation was that there was evidence for it. Not “proof,” mind you – but more evidence than I had ever imagined.

Marvin lent me a book by Christopher Bache called “Lifecycles: Reincarnation and the Web of Life.” Bache had a Ph.D in theology, studied at Notre Dame; he used language I could relate to. More to the point, he told stories I’d never heard before – and he said there were many more like them.

He opened with the story of a young girl who grew up near Des Moines, Iowa. As soon as she was old enough to talk, she began insisting that she used to be someone else. She told her parents and others that her name used to be Joe Williams, and she lived in St. Louis. As Joe Williams, she had had a wife and three daughters. As Joe, she had been killed in a motorcycle accident two to three years before being born as a little girl. She said that Joe’s death had left his mother devastated, and she wanted to go see her “other mother” in order to comfort her.

The girl had never been outside Des Moines, and had no relatives in St. Louis. Her father and mother had no interest in reincarnation, and tried to discourage her from telling these stories. But the girl kept asking them to let her visit her other mother, and eventually word of her stories got out. A reincarnation researcher – who knew there even was such a job? – got wind of it, and showed up to interview the little girl.

He wrote down everything the little girl said about her life as Joe Williams, and did what he could to rule out other sources from which she could have gotten the story – relatives, friends of the family, TV, books. Finally, he convinced her parents to make the trip to St. Louis to see what they could find out.

The little girl had given an address at which her mom lived, but it turned out that there was no Mrs. Williams at that address. The phone book listed a woman with the correct first name, so they went to that address, instead. The little girl said it would be a small brick house, and that they would not be able to enter by the front door. She said that her other mother’s right leg was hurt. She also insisted on bringing a bouquet of blue flowers with which to greet the woman.

When they got to the house, which was small and made of brick, there was a sign on the front door asking all visitors to please use the rear entrance. This they did. An older woman came to the door. She said that, yes, she was Mrs. Williams, but she was on her way to the doctor and would they please come back in an hour or so. The researcher agreed that they would. The little girl from Des Moines began to cry softly when she saw this woman. And the woman’s right leg was wrapped up.

When the older woman came back from the doctor’s, she invited the visitors in. Yes, she said, she had indeed lost a son named Joe in a motorcycle accident some ten years earlier. The little girl walked up to a picture of a man, a woman, and three little girls. After identifying the man as Joe, the little girl correctly named Joe’s wife and all three of his children. The old woman was amazed. The little girl gave the woman the bouquet of blue flowers. “Why, the last thing Joe gave me before his accident was blue flowers,” the woman said.

The woman said that she had moved since her son’s death. Before the move, she had indeed lived at the address originally given by the little girl.

The researcher established as thoroughly as he could that there was no relation, whether by blood or otherwise, between the two families. The little girl spent the afternoon doting on the older woman, bringing her drinks of water and so on, far more comfortable than she usually was when she was meeting a new adult.

At some point it was time to leave, and the girl comforted the older woman as best she could. She seemed to think that she had accomplished her goal. Her family brought her back to Iowa, and subsequent interviews showed that she no longer dwelt on the story of Joe Williams. Instead, she seemed to be adjusting quite well to her life as a little girl in Des Moines.

More research

I found the story fascinating. I appreciated the care taken by the researcher to eliminate possible connections between the young girl and the older Mrs. Williams —making sure there were no relatives, friends, television stories or other sources from which she could have learned of this family. Moreover, her parents did not believe in reincarnation, and far from encouraging the girl’s stories, had actively tried to discourage her from talking about this ‘other life.’

The little girl was not an adult looking to understand the meaning of life; nor did she seem to want evidence of a previous existence to compensate for unhappiness in this one. The little girl did not remain in contact with the older woman after the meeting, and the older woman had no money that the girl or her family might want to inherit. I could see no motive for the little girl’s stories beyond the one she gave: a desire to comfort an older woman who had suffered a painful loss.

I had never heard a story quite like it. But it turned out that there were many more.

Dr. Ian Stevenson, who had been the chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Virginia and is now psychiatry professor emeritus, has been collecting stories just like that one for decades. During the 1960s, the Journal of the American Medical Association gave a favorable review to Stevenson’s book “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.” And Stevenson’s work continued, focusing on the spontaneous memories of children who seemed to have no connection to the families they cited as their previous homes.

Having learned about enough of those cases, I felt safer dipping into the other kind: the reports given by hypnotized adults. I read “Coming Back” by Raymond Moody, the man who added the phrase “near-death experience to the English language. I appreciated Moody’s skepticism, as I would later appreciate the initial skepticism of Dr. Brian Weiss, author of “Many Lives, Many Masters.” I enjoyed the approach of University of Toronto professor Joel Whitton in “Life Between Life.” These writers were not fools, and I felt that I could trust them.

And I needed to trust them, even more than I needed to trust Ian Stevenson, because hypnotism offers many pitfalls. Children and adults can be convinced that they have seen things they could not possibly see. Nonetheless, hypnotism also holds out tremendous possibilities.

Maybe I could get hypnotized and find a few past lives of my own, I thought — lives that would feel so real that I would know I had lived them. Then I would finally know that I would not die — and that my father had not really died, and my brother and sisters and mother and grandmother and uncles and aunts and best friends and even worst enemies would also not really die.

I had read enough, it seemed to me. It was time to get some personal experience.

Originally published by The Guy Code, May 15, 2001. 

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