Religions offer up a damn good deal on death: have faith, do what you're told, and you won't die.
If this was really true, I'd sign up in a heartbeat, since then I wouldn't have to worry about what will happen after my last one. Which appears likely to be nothing... death being the absence of living.
But there are worse things than dying and not existing any more. I'd rank the possibilities in this order of preference:
(1) Die and live on pleasantly in another form ("heaven").
(2) Die and cease to exist.
(3) Die and live on horribly in another form ("hell").
Most of us have experienced pain, physical or psychological, that was so extreme, at some point we'd choose death over life if the suffering persisted. Knowing this, religions shrewdly use a good cop/bad cop strategy in marketing their belief wares to potential converts.
The joys of heaven await the faithful. The terrors of hell await the skeptics.
So it isn't surprising that most people in the world accept a promise of salvation from one religion or another. That's the easy way to go.
However, only if you don't think about the promise (better termed a scam) very deeply. Because obviously there's no way to know whether you've cheated death until after the game of life has stopped being played.
Thus no one --repeat, no one -- has ever confirmed for himself or herself a religion's claim that death is the gateway to more life. This claim has to be taken on faith: believe now and get the evidence later.
Well, to hell with that.
Driving around this afternoon, I heard part of an interview with Barbara Enrenreich, who has written a book decrying the relentless promotion of positive thinking in America.
She said that she's in favor of neither positive nor negative thinking, but rather realistic thinking. Excellent advice.
Religions want us to have warm and fuzzy notions of a fantasized afterlife (positive thinking), while fearing the hellish consequences if we don't have faith in the fantasy (negative thinking).
There's another option: accepting that death is real, but not dwelling on death either positively or negatively.
In this way, death can be cheated honestly -- by not playing the heaven game, the hell game, or the "holy fuck I'm going to die and never exist again!" game. Don't play any game with death. Ignore it.
Easy to say, you may be thinking. But hard to do if you've got a life-threatening illness, or if a loved one has passed away.
Admitted. Sort of.
Yes, it may be hard to break a longstanding habit of pondering death either positively or negatively by envisioning what might happen after someone takes their last breath. However, it isn't difficult to focus on living while we're alive.
All we have to do is do it. Live. Here and now. Not there and then.
Some years back a woman told me a story about her husband's fatal brain cancer. She said that it attacked a part of his brain which controlled his fear of death. So he knew he was dying. And it didn't bother him a bit.
"Sounds like a great way to go," I told her.
Another great way to go is to live life fully, passionately, and whole-heartedly. Then, die. On-off. No mixing up of life and death. No premature dying by envisioning either a pleasant or unpleasant afterlife.
What happens after death (or doesn't happen) will happen. Or, not.
We cheat death by walking away from the heaven/hell playing table. Eternal non-existence doesn't bother us either, because for now we exist -- thereby giving the finger to non-existence.
If death has the last laugh, that's fine. We won't be around to be the butt of the joke.