InterviewWhat's New

Bike Stories: Death

Hi, I’m Brunella, a young international girl living in Groningen and curious to know the everyday nature of the inhabitants of this city. One thing connects all human beings, regardless of gender, color, class, or sexuality, and that is the need to question everything and seek comfortable answers–as irrational as it might be. So, that’s how this series called Bike Stories began: where I ride my bike, find strangers, and interview different people with a question essentially related to what makes them ordinary humans.

This week’s theme: Death. The topic that has tortured and inspired most – if not all – of human evolution. It is something that happens to all of us, and yet our entire existence has been based on rejecting it. Deflecting from the thought of it, denying ourselves the simplicity of accepting it. Part of me thinks that in order to live, one must resent death for taking this delicious existence away, while also idolizing it for giving an end to our beginning and pushing us to dream before the clock runs out. There are so many theories, belief systems, and opinions in place trying to make sense of death. But I wonder whether death can really be explained and whether this explanation can really fit all minds. 

As everyone at some point does, I have experienced near-death experiences in my short life. It is truly a weird sensation to live through these, as you don’t often realize how afraid you are about death until she is right there in front of you, slowly waving and inviting you to join her. Reminiscing on my relationship with death, or my lack thereof, this week I decided to approach two people who I thought would have the death thing figured out. I am not sure what inspired me to take upon this huge assumption, but I decided not to think too deeply about it as I did not precisely want to waste more time being afraid of confronting this subject face-front. So, I approached these people and I asked them the following question: What do you think happens to us after death? Here I present their answers:

Person 1:

– I believe I must start with a story to frame my answer. I am aware that there are many theories out there trying to answer this torturing question. Death is the biggest enigma of humankind, and I think that all of the different routes that have been defended as the ‘ultimate answer’ could potentially be true. I am not certain of what happens and I don’t pretend to be – I think that every answer is just as valid as any other. However, given that I could not compromise on one of the existing explanations, I decided to come up with my own story about death.

So, what’s your story?

– Death and the ‘afterward’ are subjective. Religions, spiritualism, and superstitions worldwide serve as ways to try to make sense of all of this. Finding meaning in the gigantic coincidence of our existence is like our perpetual safety blanket. But I wasn’t fully convinced by these theories. I thought that if something happens to us after we die, whatever that may be, it must be rooted in where we originally came from: the cosmos.

I believe that when we pass, our energy is recycled back into the cosmos and goes back into any other living beings. It is something like reincarnation, but it is not time–based. Our energies would experience every state simultaneously, it is not circular in that sense. You would not reincarnate into one thing, but somehow, you would be everywhere. I know it’s confusing, but in my head, it makes perfect sense. There is no greater being dictating which body you will reincarnate into, there is – in a weird way – no morality meddling in the topic of death. Also, he has no past, present, or future. There is no dimensional space. There is just matter-less energy where I hope we exist in some form after our bodies have passed. It is difficult to visualize practically because it transcends the perception of life, time, and space that one can conceptualize, but that’s what attracts me most to it.

Why do you think energy is what will remain of us?

– There is an interconnectedness to everything, and that is energy. I don’t know if I am yet bold enough to call it souls. But what I can prove is that energy is everywhere and can be transformed into anything. The fact that energy would go back into other living beings makes sense. When a plant dies it is absorbed back into the Earth, when animals die they become the nutrients for other beings to subsist. Us being absorbed back into the cosmos that created us would make perfect sense, the only thing lacking in this afterlife theory is a sense of purpose. 

You know, studying as an astronomer I have understood some complexities of our existence. For instance, if you define it in a particular way, one could argue that time was created. And, if this came and one day the universe collapsed in its own gravity, time would be destroyed. For us to conceptualize that time could, potentially, cease to exist is counterintuitive. The universe could be recreated after the crunch, and who is to say that the new time would be a different reiteration of the same universe? The building blocks are the same, but every time is a different story. Or, the universe could just collapse in on itself and remain dead, meaning that nothing like it will ever exist.

It makes no sense in the limited capacity of our minds and yet, it could be true. There is no need to have some big answers or purpose waiting for us at the edge of the expanding universe. This is often seen as discouraging, but for me, it just makes me quite curious. It would be amazing if after death I could find a kind of paradise, where I could discover all the secrets of the cosmos. But, since I can’t assure you this, I choose to try to discover a little bit every day in life.

How does knowing this cosmic irrelevance make you feel about your life?

– I was in one of his lectures where he talked about his voyage to the space station, and afterward, I bravely approached and asked, ‘After you have literally seen it all and seen how insignificant we are, that everything you know can be placed in one single frame, how did you feel?’ He looked at me and smiled at my question. He said that it made him realize how wonderful life can be. Seeing everything you’ve ever known and loved concentrated in one image, makes you reminiscent of it and curious to go back and live it all again, with a new pair of eyes. He told me that when he was in the station, he saw the Bahamas from space, and funnily enough, after coming back, the first thing he wanted to do was travel there. He told me that, ironically, the Bahamas were more beautiful up close than so far away, and that the beauty lived there.

We are lucky to be alive and experience life so fully, so wrapped up in our own beauty that, even if we tried, we could not convince ourselves of our insignificance. I am aware that my existence in this universe is not very important, I cannot scientifically deny this. However, I believe that the universe is a whole because of the sum of its parts. Everything within the universe is a manifestation of the universe itself, and – even if I am not an important part of it – because I exist now, the universe wouldn’t be whole without me in it. Not to say that I was meant to exist, but maybe.

Do you think everything happens for a reason?

– I think this question is a challenge between the mind and the heart. I want to believe that there is a reason for things, bigger than me and everyone surrounding me. But, I am not sure I can prove this logically. Yet, I have an interesting story about it.

Some months ago, my university team and I went to watch a supernova explosion in the university telescope one night. It was truly majestic, but what I realized from it was that the chain of events that led us to watch it at that point in time started 5 billion years ago. We were able to explode just because the speed of light took 5 billion years to travel to us and show us the image. So, in order for us to experience the explosion, this had to happen. For some reason, I felt at peace when knowing that there was a reason for this event and that, hence, there was somehow a reason for every event.

So, in a nutshell, what do you think happens to us after death?

– I know that we are all part of the cosmos and I know that we all will at one point die, so I think that when we die our energy returns to the cosmos. It is some form of manifestation that is not bound by our rules, I think we continue to be part of the cosmos. I cannot prove it, obviously, but I think there is some beauty in that. I think the mind is a beautiful thing – it tries to understand the universe while it can’t understand itself. I don’t want to limit my mind while I can live, I want to be curious and hungry for discovery. Weirdly, I think that’s the only way that I can make sense of my death – the only purpose my life can prove to have.

Person 2:

– I hope for our souls to go to heaven. I hope there is a form of bigger existence, maybe God or a force. I know that our bodies will remain on Earth, but I truly hope that my soul will live on after my death, perhaps in heaven. I hope we all go there. I don’t think that with a subject like death, one can know, I don’t think that one should know. I think all you can do is hope that something is out there waiting for you, waiting to receive your soul as it detaches from the physical remains. All I can do is hope.

Why do you believe in souls?

– We have a physical body and we have a soul. I am quite sure of it. I can feel that there is something inside of me other than my guts and bones. I can feel the energy, the vibrations, the inexplicable sensation that my body is just a house to my actual self. I can’t factually prove the existence of a soul, but I don’t need to prove it to believe it exists. I just feel it.

I think we are all born as a blank piece of paper. Of course, we will be limited sometimes by the luck that we received when we were brought to this world. But, to an extent, you are always free to determine what to do with your soul. It is the only thing intrinsically yours, and I think that it is very hard to contaminate a soul. You can corrupt a person’s attitude, poison their words, and darken their perception of life, but you cannot twist their soul. It is the deepest part of themselves. You can tame a soul, you can teach a soul to hide away. But you cannot erase a soul, and I think that’s why our souls go to heaven.

I think we begin as a soul and therefore, we must end like souls. I think souls are created in the womb, at conception. I don’t think, though, that souls equate to lives. If a woman decides not to have a child, I don’t think she is killing a life. I think she is just choosing not to bring a soul to life, which is fair. I don’t think every soul is prepared to live yet, and I think the woman carrying that soul inside of her would know that above anyone else. 

When we die though, our lived souls detach from the physical cage that embraced the theme for their entire lives, and they are liberated into a world of souls. That’s what heaven means to me, the liberation of this human game, the liberation of the soul.

What does heaven look like to you?

– In my head, heaven is just this peaceful place where your soul can rest for eternity. I think heaven is located right at the edge of space. It’s funny to think that the universe keeps expanding into something, but that heaven that it might be seeking will always be slightly out of their reach, the universe will continue to be out of ours. 

Heaven may be like a parallel dimension to ours, which would be an interesting way of viewing it. I don’t think we have physical bodies in this other dimension – we take another form, like a reincarnation but not physical. We don’t reincarnate into another body, we are reborn as just souls. I know it’s not something very concrete, I am not even sure how to explain it myself. I would like to believe that animals go to heaven, that I can re-meet everyone and everything I’ve ever loved up in that mysterious place of souls. I am not sure of this, hence I hope.

Do you believe in hell then?

– I think that there could be a hell. I think that people should be good in life. Why? Well, because there is hell for those who aren’t. I think of it a little bit like karma: if you do good, you will receive good, the opposite being also true. One should not put themselves in front of others, those who are selfish go to hell. I think that selfish people put others down to lift themselves up, and that causes harm to others with intent. 

Moreover, I think intent matters a lot. I know it is very difficult and subjective to measure intent. I don’t think you can get full objectivity – everything is interpreted and it can be so different. That’s why I also rely on the idea of a God. Maybe not a God as we often imagine him to be, but a higher power that created everything. All things need a place to begin from, nothing can just be without being created first. If we exist then we must come from somewhere or someone, and with that same line of reasoning, we must end up somewhere. If there is some logic behind the fact that we exist because of something bigger, there must be a basis where we go afterward. And I think that this thing, may it be God or not, can be objective in its judgment of good and evil. I try to live by my good intentions and I know that even if I make a mistake, if the intention to be cruel wasn’t there, I will not be cruel.

So, in a nutshell, what do you think happens to us after death?

– I hope we go to heaven. Where would we go if not? What would be our thoughts, feelings, and purpose? I cannot say I know I will go to heaven, but all I can do is hope I will. That’s my only way to make sense of things, of my life, of adversity, and of myself. All I can do is hope.

Death has been one of the toughest certainties of human existence. We all know it comes, and yet we cannot come to terms with it, so we fight amongst ourselves for the ultimate answer to the riddle of death, by which we gain nothing but a greater ego and a shorter life. What happens to us after death is something I hold no static opinion on. Sometimes I believe in things, sometimes I don’t. I refuse to compromise myself for a certain answer to death, something inside of me wants the truth to find me rather than spending the rest of my life trying to find it. So, I wait for the revelation to come. However, recently I’ve been doubting whether there is a revelation at all.