SUM

Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman, 2009

Immerse into the profundity of alternative lives stories.

7 May 2021

The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.

And God consoles Himself with the thought that all creation necessarily ends in this: Creators, powerless, fleeing from the things they have wrought.

Since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.

Everything that creates itself upon the backs of smaller scales will by those same scales be consumed.

On the Earth, we care only about our immediate surroundings. We watch comedy movies. We drink alcohol and enjoy music. We form relationships, fight, break up, and start again. When we're in a human body, we don't care about universal collapse—instead, we care only about a meeting of the eyes, a glimpse of bare flesh, the caressing tones of a loved voice, joy, love, light, the orientation of a house plant, the shade of a paint stroke, the arrangement of hair. Those are good vacations that we take on Earth, replete with our little dramas and fusses. The mental relaxation is unspeakably precious to us. And when we're forced to leave by the wearing out of those delicate little bodies, it is not uncommon to see us lying prostrate in the breeze of the solar winds, tools in hand, looking out into the cosmos, wet-eyed, searching for meaninglessness.

It is not the brave who can handle the big face, it is the brave who can handle its absence.

And since you always lived inside your own head, you were much better at seeing the truth about others than you ever were at seeing yourself. So you navigated your life with the help of others who held up mirrors for you. People praised your good qualities and criticized your bad habits, and these perspectives—often surprising to you—helped you to guide your life. So poorly did you know yourself that you were always surprised at how you looked in photographs or how you sounded on voice mail.

People come to discover that the end of death is the death of motivation. Too much life, it turns out, is the opiate of the masses. There is a noticeable decline in accomplishment. People take more naps. There's no great rush.

But eventually it comes to be appreciated that not just the finitude of life but also the surprise timing of death is critical to motivation. So people begin to set ranges for their death dates. In this new framework, their friends throw surprise parties for them—like birthday parties—except they jump out from behind the couch and kill them. Since you never know when your friends are going to schedule your party, it reinstills the carpe diem attitude of former years.

Memories now live on their own; no one forgets them or grows tired of telling them. We are quite satisfied with this arrangement, because reminiscing about our glory days of existence is perhaps all that would have happened in an afterlife anyway.

The planet's memories survive in zeros and ones. This situation allows us indefinitely to revisit shared jokes, remedy lost opportunities for a kind word, and recall stories about delightful Earthly experiences that can no longer be felt. Memories now live on their own; no one forgets them or grows tired of telling them. We are quite satisfied with this arrangement, because reminiscing about our glory days of existence is perhaps all that would have happened in an afterlife anyway.

A consequence of this cosmic scheme may surprise you: when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed. They hung together for years, whether in sheets of skin or communities of spleen. With your death they do not die. Instead, they part ways, moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together, haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves, something that had its own life, something they can hardly put a finger on.

“How would you like to be in a closed room, one-on-one with your lover?” And then you are here. You are simultaneously engaged in her conversation and thinking about something else; she both gives herself to you and does not give herself to you; you find her objectionable and you deeply love her; she worships you and wonders what she might have missed with someone else. “Thank you,” you tell the angel. “This I'm used to.”

Despite their planetary coverage and long life spans, the mobile cameras collect very little that is useful for cartography. Instead, the devices turn their ingeniously created compact lenses directly into the gazes of other compact lenses—an ironic way to trivialize the technology. On their sophisticated sensory skin, they simply want to be stroked. The brilliant air-compression sensors are turned toward the whispers of lovers rather than critical planetary data. Despite their robust outdoor design, they have spent their energies building shelters into which they cluster with one another. Despite good spreading on large scales, they clump at small scales. They build communication networks to view pictures of one another remotely when they are apart.

Studying our details from His heavenly outpost, He began to understand that His subjects are entirely capable of empathizing with His position. Everywhere He looks He sees positions of strange credit: parents who seed a child's life but have limited control over it; politicians who briefly steer the ship of state into the dimly lit future; enthusiastic lovers who marry without knowing where the commitment will lead. He studies the accidental co-locations that initiate friendships, inventions, pregnancies, business deals, and car accidents. He realizes that everyone is knocking over dominoes willy-nilly: no one knows where it leads.

The newly arrived Loyals have an imperturbable capacity to hold the beliefs with which they arrived, a deep reluctance to consider evidence that separates them from their lifelong context. So She finds Herself unappreciated and lonely, wandering in solitude among the infinite cloudscapes of the nonbelieving believers.

The next time you are pursuing a new lover in the afterlife, perhaps sharing a bottle of wine after what appeared to be a chance encounter, don't be surprised if both a Rewarder and a Punisher sneak up behind you. The Rewarder whispers into one of your ears, Isn't it wonderful to understand the code? The Punisher hisses into your other ear, Does understanding the mechanics of attraction suck all the life out of it?

The secret codes of life—whether presented as a gift or a burden—go totally unappreciated. And once again the Rewarder and the Punisher skulk off, struggling to understand why knowing the code behind the wine does not diminish its pleasure on your tongue, why knowing the inescapability of heartache does not reduce its sting, why glimpsing the mechanics of love does not alter its intoxicating appeal.

You try to mingle with the lesser yous, but it doesn't assuage the sting. In truth, you have little sympathy for these less significant yous and more than a little haughtiness about their indolence. “If you had quit watching TV and gotten off the couch you wouldn't be in this situation,” you tell them, when you bother to interact with them at all.

But the better yous are always in your face in the afterlife. In the bookstore you'll see one of them arm in arm with the affectionate woman whom you let slip away. Another you is browsing the shelves, running his fingers over the book he actually finished writing. And look at this one jogging past outside: he's got a much better body than yours, thanks to a consistency at the gym that you never kept up.

And thus your punishment is cleverly and automatically regulated in the afterlife: the more you fall short of your potential, the more of these annoying selves you are forced to deal with.