A trip to hell and back

Dear Hannah,

Last night I dreamed I ate a poisonous flower with a hundred soft white petals.  Everyone was doing it, so it seemed reasonable to go along with them.  And our reasoning for eating it was simple: we were all going to die anyway -- everyone dies, you know -- and this was the easiest way to get it over with.  And so I did it.

At first I'd messed the whole process up; I'd eaten too many of the petals at once, and so I had a hard time chewing them.  But I was walking with everyone alongside an extremely large warehouse, and by the time we got inside, I was making some good progress and starting to feel the effects.  As I started climbing the stairs which wrapped inside the walls, I began to feel myself getting lighter and lighter; and my escorts, who were originally holding each of my hands, felt less and less necessary the further up I got.  By the end it felt like I was floating, and so they just climbed alongside me until we'd gotten to the top.

But I began to worry as I reached the end, because things weren't melting away as I'd originally thought they would.  There was no pain; I felt comfortable enough as though I'd taken a few oxys.  But I began suspecting that nothing was going as planned.  There was no fade to black; and the further I climbed, the more crowded the broad staircase got.  There were now too many people around me to count, and as I began asking questions, my guides were beginning to give less answers.  I found that they really had no idea where I was going, right before they left me entirely, and I found myself at the entrance of a board room into which I had to proceed alone.

The room was simply decorated: about like any other room set up for business meetings -- a drawing board, fake plants and beige walls and a window.  There were a few men seated at a long table, who weren't answering any of my questions.  Everyone was too busy shuffling papers to speak to me; and I began to worry that this might be some kind of deposition.  So I began thinking a lot about what I'd spent all my time doing; a lot of time thinking about whether I'd made some very bad decisions.  There wasn't supposed to be a tribunal, I thought: a sedated panic began to course through my body.  This is when He entered the room -- a tall, handsome man with a nice suit.  I shot a nervous glance in His direction, too worried He might meet my gaze, but at the same time too terrified to look away.  He refused to even look me in the eye.

He hadn't introduced Himself, but I knew who He was.  He was the one this whole process revolved around.  Everyone went silent as I asked Him whether everything was okay, and whether I was going to heaven or to hell.  His answer was simple: He said that I'd already made my choice a long time ago, and that I hadn't wanted anything to do with Him.  I don't remember too much of this conversation, but the gist of it was that I was worried I'd end up in flames, and He said I was only going to get what I always wanted.  It was at this point that I was directed out of the room, onto a tram car filled with lots of other strangers.

None of them looked too upset, however worried I was by this point.  There was a lady behind me with a bunch of kids, all of them misbehaving; and since she seemed so comfortable heading off to hell on a tram car through a jungle, I began to ask her questions.  It turned out we were being shipped off to a place where we could just continue making our own decisions; a place where, I realized, I would be forced to live with our own personal failures forever.  Her horrible children would be a permanent fixture, along with her horrible attitude; and I?  -- I was going to be left dreaming about heaven, and always chasing a fugitive happiness.

It was then I realized that hell would be much worse for me than for her.  From what I could tell, she had never really dreamed about heaven on earth: she'd never spent years wondering when she was going to be perfect, or chasing God Himself.  So she was essentially going to continue being the same obnoxious dolt somewhere else.  I, on the other hand, knew saints very well -- and it turned out that I was going to be given a home right on the border of hell, so I could watch heaven's citizens having fun and doing everything right, while I was stuck just like I was on earth: always wanting, never having.  And I remembered the words of Jesus, that people who left Him were going to get the worst of it.  I always thought they were going to get the worst of it because God was going to be especially cruel.  It turns out that they were going to get the worst of it because things always feel worst when you know how they could have gone -- especially if you could have done something about them going right.

As the tram car emptied next to a steep incline, we all exited the doors and began to climb a mountain.  The mountain was dark and filthy; it was difficult to get your feet a good grip on the soft earth, earth that looked as though it had been recently tilled, with broken roots poking out from beneath it.  So I began offering my help to the people around me, a few of them thankfully accepting.  I began to make walking sticks for them, and making friendships.  And as I was speaking to the men around me, I realized we were all going to have our particular roles in our new community, like we have roles as free men on earth.  Despite everyone's negative thinking about hell, I was going to be a kind of hellish saint; a failed utopian.  We would all be led by our own natural inclinations into whatever niche we fit into best, for better or for worse.

It was at this point that one of the men, a wild-eyed bastard with a goatee, when offered a stick, laughed in my face -- and took it from me with his gigantic arms.  He let me know that if I had anything to offer, he was going to take it by force; that if I was going to build, he was going to have.  He meant to be our first tyrant; it was going to be proved, in the oncoming struggle, whether we were to be free men or slaves in hell, and whether things were going to continue on as they'd always gone on earth -- only this time forever, without even the comforting expectation of death.  And if his vices were covetousness and domination, I began to wonder about mine, if I'd be stuck with them without any hope of overcoming.  Would I be the hero? The savior?  The philosopher king?  Or would I be overrun by my vices, like I had been when I was young -- a playboy; an addict; a kind-faced wild man without any rules.  If he was going to be the celestial bully, and steal my stuff, was I going to be the celestial adulterer, and steal his wife?  I had felt different since entering; my ideals were still intact.  My dreams all in place.  But my body? It seemed hell was going to be much less a place where God ruins your day, and more a place where everyone else is already doing the job for Him.  Earth, it had turned out, was a hell with some restraints.  Hell would be an earth without training wheels. 

As he took the stick from my hands and laughed, I looked out on the sunny plains below to see the saints: masters not only of the earth, but of themselves.  All working in unison, without jealousy, without struggling -- without failure.  All of them with working romances, blooming fields, free men without anyone to conquer them -- all as I'd dreamed of myself so many times before.  And this was hell.  Not that it was so much like earth, but that I could see the people who'd overcome earth forever, and that I'd missed my chance to be one of them.  But I suppose this is what we deserve when we read C.S. Lewis and our wives play country music before bedtime.

Now that I'm awake and writing this essay, I realize I have more religious sentiments than I've admitted.  It might not be wise to hide them.  In truth, although my mind is more atheistic, my soul is more superstitious.  I can't reason my way to God; I have no way to prove He exists.  But I have no way to explain why I'm dreaming about hell -- or why I'm writing to anyone at all, when there isn't even a good explanation for my existence.  I can't write a treatise about the power of prayer, because I don't (on an intellectual level) believe that prayer affects anything beyond our psychology; but I still find myself praying frequently, most usually in thanks and for forgiveness.  I can't get over the idea, even when I'm alone, or almost alone, that someone other than me knows what I'm doing when I'm doing something wrong.  I know that our reason, our memory, and our emotions can be tampered with by eating chemicals; but I for some reason feel -- and very strongly -- that my soul is different from my body, and that my dreams are expressions of a spiritual reality.  And if some days I wonder, when I'm being torn about by my own passions, whether it's better to live than to die, a small but powerful voice inside me says it's better not to exit this world on such unfavorable terms, without knowing exactly what's on the other side. 

In short, I possess every sentiment a religious fanatic does about everything there is to be religious about.  I don't know what this makes me -- but I refuse to ignore the sentiments themselves as ridiculous.  There's so much about us that has yet to be understood, but plays a generous role in our very survival and happiness.  Perhaps religious sentiments are some of them we've written off, like so many people are quick to throw away obvious truths about gender and romance -- that we call them chemical reactions, and pretend this somehow makes them false.  I'll go with the feelings, if going with them makes me tribal; I'll have a head of the enlightenment, and a heart of the bronze age, if such a thing is possible. But how to be a religious person, when God hasn't seen fit to speak to you Himself?  This is the difficulty.  We have to pursue our religiosity without being liars; we have to run with the hunches our souls have given us, without forgetting to be skeptical.  To be healthy is to be religious: to have a purpose, to be eternal, to live in hope and die in the light.  The question is whether our health and our reason can coexist peacefully.

Your father,


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