On his podcast, You Made It Weird,* Pete Holmes spends the latter part of each episode inviting his guests into a space where they consider the meaning of life (usually with the question, “what is this?”) and what happens when we die. Lights out? An eternal experience of nothing?** An eternity (or a moment)*** of cosmic awe and wonder?
The answers, of course, vary. A show pursuing an answer to the question is The Good Place. I’m only two episodes in, but I appreciate the premise, in particular the ways in which the show is setting itself up to examine philosophy and ethics. Since I haven’t seen enough of the series to comment on its ethical considerations, I’ll say something brief about its premise.
In the show’s world, “the good place” is effectively heaven, or at least the show is leading its viewers to believe as much. In the first two episodes, it feels like we’re being set up for some big reveal (that has likely already happened and I haven’t gotten to yet), that there is no such thing as a “good” place independent of the people who are there and how that place evolves alongside the choices that people there continue to make. In that sense, existentialism prevails in the after-life as well. There is no essential “goodness” to anyone or anywhere. Whatever someone or something is is a perpetual becoming. If I’m still going to be conscious in the afterlife – and in this particular consciousness – I think I’d prefer such control (but that’s primarily because I still fear things being out of my control).****
One idea the show seems to be approaching is the problematic hierarchy that still prevails in the afterlife, one that doesn’t seem to account for how profoundly influenced we are by outside forces and circumstances that often supersede our will. In other words, what exactly is being rewarded in an afterlife where your ultimate destination is determined by how you lived your life? How do you square that against people’s belief that “God’s will” is running the show anyway? Isn’t God then just rewarding himself for his own destiny setting?
If most world religions are grounded in salvation, compassion, and forgiveness, what sense does it make to have a tiered, fixed eternity?
Kristen Bell’s character in the show can easily be described as “the worst,” so it feels like we’re being set up to test the limits of our own compassion, as well as to push the boundaries of our often faulty self-conceptions regarding our own “goodness.” It’s an invitation to live more authentically and in service to others, but it’s also an invitation to suspend our judgment of others (lest we be judged).
I have to imagine that any truly “good” person would never accept living in a universe where they’re rewarded perpetually for one “good” life while most of their fellow beings are punished in eternal hellfire. How could you, if you’re in “the good place,” sleep at night (so to speak) knowing that your bliss comes at the cost of unfathomable suffering? It’s Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” on a cosmic scale. If I’m only accountable for being good in a lone, brief stretch of time known as a human life, what’s the real value of that goodness? Why should my goodness stop? Why frame it at all? Why give up on so many souls just because that’s the system in place?
It’s not surprising that we can only conceive a deeply problematic system in the afterlife when that’s the best we’ve done in this life. Still, we have the capacity – for all time – to do better. To be good without limits.
*A podcast which, strangely enough, is my primary source for prayer and meditation. Why? As I may have written about before on here, it feels like an authentic exploration of faith and identity, but it has enough wisdom about the quest to fill it with levity and jest. It’s rich with sacred bits.
**I know it sounds absurd to claim that I have experienced pure nothingness, but I don’t know how else to express what one part of my psilohuasca experience last year felt like. I’ll repeat this: if death is pure nothingness, then we’re headed for ultimate peace. There’s nothing to fear in nothing.
***I also experienced this, which, trust me, is not a brag. It’s equally awesome and awful. (Also, I’m borrowing this phrasing from an Adventure Time episode.)
****This despite having experienced the complete loss of control, as explained in the previous two notes.