THIS BODY IS ALL THERE IS
Updated: Apr 16
"Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It's not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us."
~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
I don’t believe in an afterlife. I wish I did. But I don’t.
For several years after the death of my father, I kept hoping and waiting for some kind of evidence of him persisting beyond the moment my little 10-year old ears heard my mother choke out the words “Daddy died”. I dreamed about him a few times and tried to convince myself that this was some kind of visitation. But really, it wasn’t convincing enough. When I awoke from each dream, all I experienced was renewed grief, and the clear knowing that dead is dead and he was gone.
In Judaism, the religion of my ancestors, my culture, my family, and my heart, there is mention made of ha’olam ha’ba, the world to come. This paradise, though, is not the same as a personal afterlife where individuals go to experience the Garden of Eden. To be honest, it was something that had always felt to me like a bit of an afterthought. And it certainly didn’t have much of a role in my liberal Jewish education.
What matters more in Judaism is the DOING. Believe or not, whatever. What is important is what you DO, here, now, in ha’olam ha’zeh, this world. Central to being a Jew is what you DO (and don’t do) in this body and in this lifetime:
light candles ~ say blessings ~ work ~ except for the times you don’t work ~ study ~ give charity ~ make love ~ raise children ~ don’t kill ~ don’t eat pork ~ keep your promises ~ return lost property ~ do the deeds specified in the holy books: all 613 of them! (Yes, precisely this many. Look it up. If you’re a committed rule follower this is the religion for you!)
What we do in however many years we are lucky enough to be in this body, dictates how we will be remembered. And being remembered is the kind of afterlife I can get behind.
It is said that we die three times. (I have actually heard this attributed to several different cultures, but whoever claims it, it feels so right in my body.)
We die when the physical processes of the body stop. When a heart stops, when brain activity ceases.
We die when the body, now cold, is buried ~ or cremated, or composted, or sunk in the ocean, or left for the birds.
We die when our name is said for the very last time.
I have experienced grief. Deep, painful losses that have left permanent wounds and forever changed me. I have seen bodies die and seen them buried when I didn’t think these were things I could do, did not think they were things I would survive. But it is the last death that really gets me ~ universally, existentially. Every time I watched the Disney Pixar movie Coco, I wept. (And yes, with young children I had a habit of watching children’s movies multiple times.) On the Mexican Day of the Dead, the living visit the dead. And when there are no descendants left to bring food and music and memories, the spirit simply…fades away. For some reason when this happens in brightly coloured animation set to music, it seems all the more powerful. The thought of not being remembered is indeed, my idea of hell.
In Judaism we traditionally name our children after deceased ancestors. My first child is named for my father, Bruce; my second is named after my mother’s brother, Stefan; the third is named for his great grandfather, Merrill; and the youngest, for his aunt, Susan. I say their names, and my children literally carry these names as part of who they will be, how they will be called, as they live in their tiny bodies. They carry the responsibility to keep the dead alive. They embody the afterlife.
Maybe this is why we all seem to love the internet so much ~ it holds the promise of eternal life. I enter my name and my face and my words on my social media profiles, and I wait for the little hit of dopamine my brain gets every time I’m acknowledged. Like cave drawings for the contemporary era, I make my mark. “Remember,” I warn my teenagers, “what you put up on the internet, every stupid comment, every drunken photo, will follow you to every date and every job interview. They never go away.” But isn’t that part of the appeal? They will never go away. I will never go away. I will live forever in this chronicle of my lifetime, proof that I existed. My name will be seen, marked, remembered. Forever.
But what about a soul? Surely there must be a pretty valid reason that world religions and thinkers far wiser than I have forever discussed the existence of the soul. Surely we must be more than just a temporary sack of meat. How can it be that our body is only ‘just’ a body? It’s a scary thought, I guess. We WANT to believe that there is more ~ more meaning, more existence, more time, more space, more energy, more than just this skin suit.
I do have a vague sense that we are imbued with some ineffable thing called spirit or life energy, but this too feels like something deeply embedded in my body. I cannot really believe that this will carry on in any cohesive way, after death. To me, a belief in afterlife, ghosts, spirits ~ whatever we call them ~ has always struck me as profoundly egotistical. “How can something as important as me/my loved one, just end?” A form of comfort and reassurance that I have never received in my own life.
Look into the night sky, away from the light pollution of the city. Feel insignificant? You bet! Suddenly the dripping faucet in the kitchen and your kid getting sent to the principal’s office and the bill that didn’t get paid and that girl who just broke up with you mean…absolutely nothing. But I feel like they mean so much! I don’t want to feel insignificant! I want to matter! So maybe I grab onto the concept of a soul that will allow me to feel like there’s more, like I’m part of something bigger.
There is a whole movement built around the idea that “I am more than my body”. And I get it. Body positivity is an understandable and worthy response to generation after generation of (mostly) women being taught that our bodies aren’t good enough, thin enough, strong enough, sexy enough, white enough, healthy enough, young enough, smooth enough, nurturing enough, feminine enough…enough. We want to claim our righteous power by telling ourselves that what is “on the outside” (our physical body) doesn’t matter as much as what’s “on the inside” (our spirit, personality, soul, emotions, behaviours…)
But what if we have it upside down? What if I’m not more than my body ~ what if my body is just so much more than I ever gave it credit for?
Google any holistic wellness practice (slash business) in the rapidly growing wellness industry, and you will find references to mind, body, and spirit. These are referred to and conceived of as separate and distinct entities. It almost starts to sound as if these three were siblings, like the three little pigs, able to live as separate and distinct individuals, each with their own house and decor preferences. Body lives in a yurt full of bubble baths and massage tables, yoga mats and plinky-plunky music. Mind lives in a sleek glass condo stocked with word games and meditation apps and expensive artwork everywhere. And Spirit has no need for a house at all as it creates it’s own home from a tiny ball of light that just grows and grows, expanding like urban sprawl over everything and everyone. Sure, they’re relatives, but they’d all kind of have preferred to be only children.
I grew up learning that the mind lived in the brain, and the brain was the supercomputer whose job it was to direct the body on what to do. But what is my brain if not part of my body? There it is, protected right up there in my skull. More complex than any of my other organs, to be sure, but an organ nonetheless. Just because we don’t understand it all doesn’t mean it is any more super-human or extra-human or esoteric than my liver or pancreas. It is a spectacular bit of tissue and chemicals and electrics ~ and it is part of my body!
Not only is my mind/brain part of my body, it is reliant on the rest of my body to become it’s best self. As much as the brain tells the body what to do, the body teaches the brain. As babies explore their world, they are feeding information into their brain at a remarkable rate. What they touch and see and hear and taste and smell teaches their brain. And how they in turn are touched, seen and heard teaches the brain even more. We learn to speak by being spoken to. We learn to love by being loved.
And bodies that are traumatized teach their brains to fight, flee, freeze, and fawn. Traumatized brains can be every bit as wounded as scar tissue and broken bones. Sometimes the wounds are visible, and sometimes not. How many people have been told by medical professionals that something is “all in their head” to dismiss their very real experience of pain. And even if true, the head is still part of the body. The pain is real.
It is all real, and it all lives in this body. Every memory, every experience, every feeling, every contradiction, every relationship ~ my body holds multitudes! I am a body being, and a body doing, and a body thinking, and a body creating, and a body moving, and a body feeling.
My emotional life too, lives in this body. Think about how we describe our emotions: butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the chest, heart palpitations, goose bumps, weak in the knees, calm, energized, crying, sobbing, aroused… These are not metaphors. (Ok, maybe the parts about geese and butterflies.) These are the ways I know my emotional self. My emotions live in this body.
If I say ‘I’m scared’ without the familiar tightness in my throat and stomach, it’s just words.
If I say ‘I hate you’ without the sense of tension in my muscles, it’s just words.
If I say ‘I love you’ without the feeling of softness in my heart, it’s just words.
But so many of us are never taught to learn the language of the body. Like the quest for space exploration without knowing even a fraction of what exists here on earth, we are more inclined to go outside the body before diving deep into its oceans.
This body is so full, with whole lifetimes worth to explore. This perfectly imperfect body is all I have and all I am. This is the body that allows me to connect to everyone and everything that has ever meant anything to me, that holds every experience and every memory, that has made me who I am. I don’t need to go searching. The miracle is right here.
And so my afterlife exists in the memories carried forward by those who knew and loved me. We live on after death by the legacies we leave, the work we have done, the imprint we have made, the hearts and lives and other bodies we have touched.
I want to be remembered well, with love and humour and admiration. I want to be remembered for beauty and talent and skill, for heart and mind, for ability to connect and care, to dance and play and cry, and more than anything, for being a good mother.
I want there to be a memorial where people come out of every corner to comfort my partners and lovers and dearest friends and children (and maybe, by then, even grandchildren!), and to laugh and dance and celebrate a life well lived. I want my rabbi to speak from her heart, and my children to tell stories that carry on the memory not only of me, but also of my parents and ancestors.
But as my own worst critic, I live in fear that what will be remembered most are all the things I most hate in myself. What if someone has to cherry pick to make up a respectful sounding eulogy? What if I leave people with negative feelings about me or our relationship?
I’ve been told in many ways by many people for many different reasons, that I am going to hell. I can’t really believe that, and yet...
What if I am remembered badly? What if I am spoken of in negatives and criticisms? Or even worse, what if I am not remembered at all? That, in fact, would be the worst kind of hell.
I could be wrong about all this. I might be made of pure light. I might one day find myself in heaven with everyone I have ever loved. Or maybe I will find myself in hell keeping company with every radical political queer I have ever admired. Who knows. But in the end, I don’t actually care. There is enough to focus on in the here and now without also worrying about eternity. If there is eternal life, it will still be there when I get there and look down on the vultures feeding off my earthly body.
Back in the days before the entire knowledge of humanity fit into my pocket, I used to go to brick and mortar libraries. And every time I went, even to the very small one in my neighbourhood where I took my babies to story time and cuddled up to read books with just a few words per page, I felt overwhelmed. At some point I would look around at the reams and reams of paper, the yards and yards of shelves, the stacks and stacks of books and think, “I will never ever be able to know even the tiniest fraction of all this.” It made me feel sad and small and incompetent and inconsequential. So many people had written so many important things that I will never be able to know or understand.
Maybe there is an afterlife in which all that knowledge and understanding will be downloaded directly into my spirit brain. Maybe then I’ll be able to know it all and I will laugh and laugh and laugh. But for now, I will choose one book off the shelf and read it as best I can before moving on to the next one. There are more than enough books for this lifetime. Maybe I should start with the How-To section and find out what to do next.
My therapist looks at me as deeply and intently as is possible over zoom. We are talking about my father, the first person whose love I completely felt. The first person whose love was wrenched away from me.
“I will always love you”, she says, intuitively knowing to speak to me in my father’s voice. I weep, understanding in my very cells, that I carry my father’s love in this body. That this is his afterlife. That god-ness is this feeling of being bonded with, cared for, nurtured, loved.
I feel this. My body knows this. I know this. And still I cover my eyes and whisper the words of the Shema, the simplest, and most holy of all Jewish prayers. God is this feeling. And this feeling is enough.