LET INGA TELL YOU:
My perversely curious mind has often pondered why there are loads of books by people who have had near-death (or actual-death) experiences and were sure that they had glimpsed heaven, but none by anyone who has come back from hell. I mean, that would truly be a best-seller, never mind a compelling cautionary tale.
All the heaven books I've read seem to have a reassuring commonality: the patient describes a white light, being transported through a tunnel, and a feeling of pure peace. So, is the tunnel to hell one-way only? Or is it because that tunnel is actually the 405 freeway in L.A. and the decedent decided that staying in hell was far less of a hassle than trying to get back?
Since no one has ever made the round-trip journey, we don't truly know what hell is like, other than Biblical references like "the lake of fire" in Revelations 20:13-15 or the Matthew 5:22: description of "hell fire."
This after-life issue all came up recently after my 8-year-old granddaughter, who is a voracious reader, was reading a book about what the possibilities are after you die, including reincarnation. I am guessing she did not get it out of the library at the Catholic school she attends. Her partial Catholic heritage qualified her for admission to this school although a number of her classmates, refugees of dubious public schools, are not Catholic at all. One advantage of growing up in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious family like she does is that we're happy to have her learn about all religions, and she is thriving at this school. But reincarnation might not have been on the First Holy Communion curriculum.
So, she wanted to know after reading this book, can she choose reincarnation instead of heaven vs. hell if she wants? She liked the idea of coming back over and over as different people — or even animals — as her soul evolved. Can we choose what we want to believe, she wanted to know? If different religions say different things about the afterlife, how do we know who is right? Is anyone right? Heavy duty stuff for age eight.
Telling this story at a subsequent dinner party inspired dialogue as to what our own concepts of heaven and hell were. Hell for me immediately conjured up a snow storm at O'Hare, a neighbor kid who plays drums, and the non-appointments line at the DMV. Root canals, leaf blowers, and a job in data processing could be added to that. Being trapped in any of those situations in perpetuity would be pretty grim.
A childhood friend from the East Coast, when posed this question, replied: "I'd say that hell is the forced endurance, repetition, tolerance of painful or unpleasant situations. Could be in life, could be otherwise (if there is any otherwise). For example, the 12 years I spent at Germantown Friends School: Hell. My seventh semester at Cornell: Hell. Summers at Camp Blue Bell and Kamp Kewanee: Hell. Summer courses at Southern Regional High School in New Jersey: Hell. (There is a special area of Hell that pertains to New Jersey. You gotta problem wit' dat?) And so forth."
He continued: "Outliving the sanctimonious ****s that took delight in torturing, hectoring and bullying me: Heaven. Seeing those same people plump up, declare personal bankruptcy, get divorced and impoverished, get indicted and/or convicted, Heaven. Doing well myself: Heaven. Having a few good ears of corn on the cob: Heaven. Waking up after quadruple bypass surgery and realizing that my surgeon was right . . . my odds of survival were 99+ percent: Absolutely Pure 100 percent Unmitigated Heaven."
Having had a Protestant mother, Catholic father, and Jewish first husband, I've logged a lot of time in houses of worship and had both lovely and miserable experiences with religion. Probably low on the list were those big scary ruler-wielding nuns who looked like human Shamus as they bore down on their hapless terrified charges ready to inflict knuckular damage on those not knowing their Catechism. I confess when I first learned that my granddaughter would be going to Catholic school, I developed a facial tic.
But Catholic school appears to be a whole new ballgame. Classes at her school are taught by non-ruler-wielding lay people who encourage positivity. It just seems like a genuinely happy place and her experience there has been a corrective emotional experience for me. Olof and I are convinced that her constant prayers for him after his heart attack genuinely helped his recovery. Ultimately, she'll have to decide for herself what she believes about religion and afterlife, just like the rest of us.
But I'll tell you: I'd definitely buy the book from the moribund miscreant who briefly had a glimpse of hell but got to come back and tell us all about it. I'd be especially interested in the parking.
— Inga's lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org