Reviewing a Possible Past Life

As I drove home from the hypnotist’s office, I felt that it was too soon for me to say. I went over the main events in my mind – finding myself in a Berlin hotel room, sitting outside the office of the superior officer to whom I was supposed to report, leaving quickly, discarding the uniform, going through some hilly terrain to reach a small town outside of Germany. Watching the local shopkeeper die of stab wounds; the closest thing I had in that town to a friend. Seeing the wreckage of a German plane in a tree as a sign that the war was ending. Sitting alone in my small room, laboring to breathe after being kicked by a horse. My body giving up its ghost – me – and me, as that ghost, confused by what had happened. Wandering in the woods for a few weeks and then, still lonely, still sad, joining a group of souls that had likewise avoided committing evil, but with whom I otherwise felt little affinity.

I had wanted a vivid experience – one that would leave no doubt in my mind that our souls survive bodily death. I had wanted to smell things, to know things, to feel details so sharp that I could not question the notion that I had experienced them myself. I hoped for an experience that would feel like an actual memory – one that would make me say, “Oh, yeah – I remember that. I did that.”

This experience was not like that. Instead it left me disturbed. When the hypnotist asked me to look at my feet and tell him what I saw, my first reaction was not “Oh, yeah,” but “Noooo…”

I had not expected to see myself in the SS. Far from it. I grew up in the U.S., and the war coverage I had seen was always told from the American side. I had not yet seen the movie “Das Boot,” which looks at the war from the perspective of a German U-boat; thus, I had never watched a movie or read a book that evoked sympathy for the Germans. Now I was seeing myself as a Nazi. And not just a Nazi, but a low-level member of its military elite. Seeing those boots on my feet was genuinely chilling; if the hypnotist had not gently prodded me to accept what I saw and let it unfold, I might have come out of the hypnosis right then.

So the hypnosis had not given me the satisfaction I sought – it had not shown me a life as a brilliant artist, a great lover or a beneficent king. It had shown me a life in which I was a member of one of the cruelest organizations in human history.

Not a hero, not vivid

Moreover, I couldn’t see myself as a hero at any point. Certainly I was glad to see myself abandon the service and its uniform, but I also knew, both during the session and afterward, that I had done nothing to prevent the organization’s great crimes. All I had done was to choose not to participate myself. A good move, to be sure – but hardly one to brag about. For I knew what was happening – I knew the mission – and I did not seek to thwart it. Again, had the hypnotic session been the fulfillment of a wish, I would have expected to see myself display a more active heroism.

And I had been lonely the entire time. I saw no evidence of romantic love in my past life, or even unromantic sex. There may have been some of each, but if so, it must not have been terribly significant.

So – the experience was not as vivid as I hoped it would be. I did not smell any smells, did not feel certain that the scenes in my imagination were actual memories. Nonetheless, because the scenes fulfilled no fantasies of luxury or heroism, or even romantic love, I found it more credible than I otherwise might have.

In addition, the way the ‘life’ unfolded, under the hypnotist’s guidance, was interesting. It had not moved the way a dream moves. The sequence of scenes made sense – events followed logically from what had come before – and there were no bizarre figures or inexplicable backdrops such as we find in dreams. The ordinariness of the images gave them gravity, the way a black-and-white movie can seem somehow more real than a well-lit, full-color extravaganza.

Other elements made sense, too. For as long as I can remember, I have been suspicious of large groups. Religious organizations, political parties, fraternities, even sports teams make me a little leery. Possibly, that stems from a life in which I saw the darkest side of group cohesion.

In addition, I have no fantasies of being the boss. I’ve always thought it was because I don’t want the responsibility. Now it occurred to me that there might be another reason: Maybe I don’t want the visibility, either. Maybe I had already seen the potential benefits of keeping a low profile – it’s easier to walk away unnoticed. Maybe I want to be able to cut and run with little trouble, in case the organization becomes poisonous.

I was not born Jewish in this life, but was raised by a mother who believes that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Jewish people have played large and benevolent roles in my life, from my father’s boss to childhood friends to friends and roommates in college and beyond. And some part of me may have generalized what I learned as a defecting SS member – I was raised to despise prejudice, and that lesson has stuck even as other lessons have faded.

I had also been given more educational opportunities than most people. A wealthy great-uncle had paid for me to go to a boarding school for high school. I knew that most people received no such opportunity, and felt some guilt for it; it didn’t seem fair.

Now I wondered – was I given this family and education in part as a reward for the character I showed last time out?

Hard to say.

Of course, it was also possible that my brain had produced this story to fit my background. Maybe, in the guilt I felt about those educational opportunities, my unconscious had created a persona that could explain them: I had been assigned an evil job in a previous life, and because I had refused it, the life I have now is something I can appreciate without guilt. And the affinity I feel for Jewish people, and my resistance to groups like fraternities – these things, too, can be explained. And the loneliness that I felt in my life – this was not new. And my concave chest: Rather than the product of a simple, meaningless birth defect, perhaps it was the result of a decades-ago kick from a horse.

The horse thing seemed particularly far-fetched.

Didn’t feel dream-like

Nonetheless, the images remained. As the story did not unfold like a dream, it also did not fade the way dreams often do. I could still see myself bent in that chair, alone in a small room in a country bordering Germany, laboring to breathe. I could see myself waiting outside the office of a superior officer who’d never seen my face, and never would. And I could wonder what had happened to his soul, if this was the next step for mine. Where did the souls of those who carried out the Final Solution go, if earthly death is not so final?

I did not know. I did not know anything. With little prompting, my brain had generated a coherent, sensible story about myself in a previous existence on Earth – a story that seemed a fit precursor to the life I was actually leading. That story had not reproduced stories I had heard as a child, and had not been the fulfillment of a wish that I see myself as a powerful or famous person.

I looked forward to talking about the experience with Whitney, the woman I was seeing at the time.

I had met Whitney during my drive west. Stopping off in Kentucky to surprise an old friend of mine, I ended up in a Lexington bar with a few of his friends.

Two women walked past us to reach a table 20 feet away. One of them looked terrific, and I decided I had nothing to lose by approaching her. I was just travelling through, after all; if she rejected me, I wouldn’t have to face her again. Nor would I need to see most of the people who would know that she had turned me down. Travel is a liberating thing.

So I walked over to their table, saying, “Excuse me, I’m just passing through this town, and I’m conducting a survey. I was wondering if you guys would mind telling me whether or not you believe in reincarnation.”

The woman I didn’t want looked at me with revulsion, as if I had cheerfully offered to vomit on their table. Whitney, though, smiled warmly, saying, “Well, I don’t know, but I’m open to the possibility.”

As it turned out, she was open to another sort of possibility, too. We had a lovely conversation, and when I got to New Mexico I sent her a postcard, thinking I’d never see her again. When she got it, though, she called, and told me that she had some frequent flier miles saved up; would I like a visitor anytime soon?

By the time I went to the hypnotist we had been dating for maybe ten months. Unlike the woman I had left behind in Boston, Whitney was easy for me to get along with. We hardly ever fought. Mostly we had sweet conversations each night, and her job enabled her to visit every month and a half or so.

Our history of sweet conversations, combined with her interest in my talk about New Age topics like reincarnation, made me think that she would enjoy hearing about my trip to the hypnotist. I had been wanting to go for so long, after all, and had finally gotten the money to do so by guessing the number of pennies in the jar; she had certainly enjoyed hearing about that.

Save the money?

When I told her about the trip, though, she did not sound pleased. I couldn’t understand why not. Did she think I was crazy? Did she disapprove of my possible Nazi past? I imagined all the reasons I might react badly to such a story, and tried them out on her as possibilities, but none were correct.

“I guess I just -” she began. “I guess that I – well, this may sound selfish, but – well, Bill, you saved up that money, and I can’t help but think that you might have used it toward a plane ticket to come and visit me.”

“Really?” I said. “That’s what’s bothering you?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, I’ve been telling myself for so long that you’re just starting out there, and your rent was expensive for a while, and now you’re doing a little better, but I keep coming out there and I don’t ask much from you, Bill, I really don’t. And it was easier for me to tell myself that you just can’t afford to visit me, and that you would if you could — but then when you go and spend $50 on hypnosis and past lives — I mean, I know it’s important to you and all that, Bill, but I just wish — I just wish you might have saved that money toward a trip out here.”

I was hurt, and I reacted defensively. I told her again about the pennies, and how I thought I was supposed to use that money for past-life exploration – that was what I had told my higher self, or whatever, I would do with it, and I felt that I had to live up to that.

I tried to reassure her that I really did want to visit her, but I felt angry that she had not appreciated the importance of the experience I had just had. She was the first person I had told about it, and I had counted on her to talk me through it for a little while, and now instead we were talking about her frustration that I hadn’t spent the money on her.

The truth was, I had never even considered using that money to visit her. I meant that money to go toward spiritual exploration – that was the whole reason I had moved to New Mexico – and as beautiful as Whitney was, the idea of spending that money on a plane ticket to Kentucky had never even crossed my mind.

And now, of course, I wanted to visit her even less.

I didn’t know anyone else with whom I could talk about my experience, so I kept quiet for a time.

Originally published by The Guy Code, July 13, 2001. 

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