Considering the Fate of the Dewdrop...
Tenerife: Los Cristianos
In 627 A.D., King Edwin of Northumbria considered converting to Christianity but first he consulted his advisers. One spoke up approximately as follows: “The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me like to the flight of a sparrow through the house where you sit at supper with your ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes and the hall is warmed. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out another, is safe from the weather for a short space, but then it vanishes from our sight. That is how our lives appear, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing certain at all” (adapted from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, chapter XIII).
For many people “nothing certain at all” remains more or less the verdict, though there have been attempts to remedy that.
In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was set up to collect and scrutinise the numerous accounts that suggested some sort of afterlife. The accounts kept coming, mostly published independently of the SPR. For instance, in 1940 Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, the victor of the Battle of Britain, was sacked for saving world civilization so decided to fly even higher by investigating the Beyond. Casting about for the best sources of information, he chose the likes of Life Beyond the Veil (Rev. G. Vale Owen), The Living Dead Man (Elsa Barker) and Gone West (J.S.M. Ward), publishing extracts from these in his resulting book, Many Mansions (1943). More recently, celebrated mediums such as Betty Shine, Gordon Smith and Doris Stokes have published well-received volumes of their experiences.
Not everyone is impressed by this. A frequent verdict is the revelations are either too saccharine or too mundane. To put it flippantly, post-mortem existence reduces – in some accounts at least – to a matter of mixing with nice people in nice places and finding nice things to do – unless, of course, you’ve been nasty, in which case you find nasty people, nasty places, and not much nice to do.
Some descriptions, however, are more inspiring, carrying a sense of extra dimensions. Like actually seeing the sap in a tree. Like actually perceiving the life force in each creature. Like actually seeing the soul inside a person (so there can be no fibbing in “Summerland”; you’re an open book.) And the colours are more glorious. And everyone looks closer to their ideal self. And everything shimmers at the edges.
Of course, the sceptic can retort, “Nah, it’s just a load of wish-fulfilment” but such a verdict, though pleasingly emphatic, is hard to prove. It’s a bit like claiming the town of Los Cristianos in Tenerife cannot exist because, for some people, it fulfils their wishes as a holiday destination.
Talking of holidays, let’s stay with Tenerife because the island provides a handy angle on travel writing, which is what we’re talking about here – for both the saccharine accounts and the inspiring ones are travellers tales of a sort, albeit to destinations where return travel is notoriously difficult to arrange (though not impossible if we’re talking about those deathbed resuscitations known acronymically as NDEs – or Near Death Experiences).
Consider it like this. First-time visitors to Los Cristianos might be delighted to find Irish pubs aplenty and no lack of cafes serving full English breakfasts. Their postcards home might therefore describe the pleasures of quasi-familiar treats, along with a certain amount of adapting to local practice. In effect: “mixing with nice people in nice places and finding nice things to do.”
Other travellers, though, may head out of town and send back very different reports, enthusing about the volcano and its quasi-lunar surroundings, or heading away from tourist spots entirely to seek the lesser known spots in the island.
So far so familiar, but let us now despatch our correspondents further into the metaphorical Beyond. Some will explore so far they send back tales of scarcely describable scenery, scarcely describable experiences, scarcely describable relationships.
After a while, they go so far out that words can’t do the job any more.
And eventually “the dew-drop slips into the shining sea” (as Sir Edwin Arnold put it: The Light of Asia, 1879).
So let us not despair if a few accounts are thuddingly mundane. Descriptions will be as variable as the people who send them.
If this analogy doesn’t do a complete job, let’s try another. I’ve always quite favoured the great water-cycle view of human existence. The idea is we fall from clouds in the form of raindrops, then arrive on earth where we have various adventures – soaking into the soil perhaps, getting drawn into grass, eaten by a cow, leaving the cow by a milking machine, arriving in someone’s kitchen, being poured onto Weetabix, getting scraped down the sink with the portions that weren’t eaten, flowing through various pipes, becoming cleaned in a sewage farm, and so on. The analogy is somewhat rambunctious, but the key point is all the adventures happen in or on solid ground, and can therefore represent earthly existence. So far.
Eventually, though, the myriad drops arrive at a river and move away from solid ground. They have now arrived metaphorically at the first part of the Beyond, staying approximately within sight of terra firma and therefore maintaining semi-earthlike outlooks and concerns. Finally, however, the river widens, the banks recede, and they flow into the sea, leaving the land behind and becoming absorbed in the magnificent rolling immensity.
(Ah yes, how I loved to play on the beach at Whitby – age eight or nine – stopping every now and then to stare at the great blue yonder. Just that, stopping to stare.)
By the way, if you favour reincarnation, the droplet can always evaporate again – maybe from the sea, maybe the river – and return to the clouds, ready for another episode of earthly ups and downs.
Here comes a big question, though: would it be the same droplet? Let’s remember that line from Sir Edwin Arnold: “The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.” Does the drop lose its surface tension and thereby merge entirely with its neighbours, thus ceasing to be itself?
Annihilation or expansion?
There’s actually quite an appeal to the great merging, the great absorption – even the great cosmic loss-of-self. (Come on, it can be a drag, can’t it, staying relentlessly tethered to yourself?)
But there’s also a substantial appeal to not getting annihilated. After all, it would be a mighty waste if, at the end of a life – or perhaps numerous lives – well spent, with lessons learned, virtues stacked and merits accumulated, we promptly cease to exist.
So what’s the solution?
Well, let me tell you about a dream.
To be honest, it wasn’t a dream but a session of hypnosis. I’d decided, somewhat untypically, to indulge my curiosity and try some past-life regression. The hypnosis itself was a delight: you’re both awake and not awake (a state worthy of much pondering), but the results were mixed. I found the alleged past lives tedious – can scarcely remember them now – but the in-between portions were thrilling, especially as follows.
A tedious ex-life had just finished, and I was most likely travelling towards another, but in the meantime I was afloat inside a jewelled sea. Diamonds, rubies, amethysts, sapphires, emeralds, citrines, aquamarines, every colour imaginable – and you can add a few that aren’t. They floated over and about me, welcoming and rounded. Maybe the resulting environment should have been sharp-edged and jostling, but my clear recollection is the jewels were soft as bubbles, amiable as balloons.
Nonetheless, they still had their facets, myriad and glittering.
Now, those facets seemed – and this is a key impression – to be hard-won personality traits. I felt I was surrounded by actual beings, human or otherwise, each jewel shining with hard-won virtues, its rough edges smoothed, honourable scars perfected, and facets dizzyingly multiplied.
But how did they shine? Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and the rest are dull unless light passes through and around them. They need an environment of light. Otherwise they are scarcely worth calling jewels. Blank. Empty.
At this point I must go beyond the dream – extrapolate from it rather than just remember – because it seems to me that the light can provide a response to the great mystical question: are we ultimately annihilated? Or not?
The latter, I would suggest.
What happens, arguably, is the light renders each jewel greater than it ever was. That light – here’s the mystical paradox – gives each being access to the entire universe. The furthest jewel is joined to all others by light, as if via a vast cosmic internet. The most obscure details and wonders become shared because of the light that shines through all. It is omnipresence. It is the fibre-optic cable without need of fibre. It is the whole universe. It is home.
Well, anyway, that’s how it appears to me when I contemplate the dream from afar. And yes, it was a dream under hypnosis, which may or may not affect its validity. But – getting back to earth – does it have any resonance? I mean, we’re all built on standard mammalian lines: head, thorax, abdomen, four limbs, five senses. We are regrettably delicate creatures, with easily lacerated skin and cringingly vulnerable innards. So, here’s the thing, can we really contemplate ourselves as jewels?
Not physically, no. Not literally either. But how about imaginatively? Could I envisage you, the next person, the creature in the mirror, as a jewel – unlimited by size or situation, lit from within and without, facets shimmering till they swallow the entire person in dazzle?
Well, we all have our aspects, our hard-won struggles, we are all multi-talented authors of our own lives, amalgams of scarce imagined capacities, midwife helpers of others, co-creators of the planet around us. Connected. Shining. Being.
So let’s not rule it out.
No, let’s not do that.
And the raindrop that fell to earth may have had a Dickensian life of tough luck and lowly transformations, poor thing, but every now and then it could nonetheless catch the light and sparkle with riotous glee.
And the travellers to Tenerife may have rolled drunkenly from pub to breakfast caff with only a few snores in between, but they could still exult in the glorious sun and smile its reflection to each other.
And the sparrow that flew across King Edwin’s feasting hall was not so much a refugee from harsh weather as an ambassador from regions of infinite rolling colours – swarming with light, nay dazzling with light, indeed jewelled with light unending.