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Where Do We Go When We Die?

How death reminds us of how we should be living

A colleague of mine died a few weeks ago.
Strike that. A friend of mine died last week.
He was indeed a friend.

Sure, we worked together, and met because of work, but he was more than that — he was a friend. He was also an excellent engineer, a skilled woodworker, a great storyteller, and a walking encyclopedia of interesting tidbits about a wide range of topics. His name was Dick. And I miss him already.

Dick’s death prompted me to think about an age-old question that I usually pretend to not care about the answer to — until someone dies. That question is: where do we go when we die?

I have an answer — but it’s not the answer. It’s not the kind of answer we’re used to hearing when we talk about death. It doesn’t involve heaven, hell, or any other supernatural realm.

In short, I don’t think we really go anywhere when we die. But also, we essentially go everywhere.

Nowhere and Everywhere

In a sense, we go both nowhere and everywhere when we die. Think of all of the things you said and did during your lifetime. Think of all the times you shared a laugh, a smile, tears, or a profound and comfortable silence with others. Think of the things — even the little things — you helped others with, or the interesting viewpoint you shared that got someone thinking. Those things stick around in peoples’ memories. All those things were as much you as anything we might call a soul — and they live on in how those people you impacted live their lives.

Your impact may only be on a chosen few people in your life, but those people impact others, who impact others, and so on. The marks you leave help others make theirs, and so on ad infinitum into the future. Names and faces may be forgotten, but the traces of life live on beyond those otherwise incidental features of a person.

Even if you were to die tomorrow, think of how many lives you would have touched in your time. And by “touched” I don’t mean in some profound, make-a-movie-about-it way, there are so many small ways that we touch peoples’ lives that we don’t even realize.

It can be a single conversation where you made someone feel really heard for once. It can be a piece of advice that seemed so simple to you, but it changed a person’s whole day, week, and month. These things are difficult to calculate, but they are real and important. They’re the real stuff of this crazy, wonderful mess we call life.

After death, you continue to exist as the difference you have made in this world. The people whose lives you touched, whose paths you’ve helped guide, and whose minds you’ve changed, carry a bit of you with them.

Taking Comfort, Taking Action

Knowing that in a very real sense, we live on after death, we should be able to take comfort — but also take action. We can take comfort in the fact that whatever the verdict ends up being about the soul and the afterlife, we live on after death here, on Earth.

From this truth emerges a clear, actionable principle for living one’s daily life: Since you live on after death as the impact you made on others, strive to make the most of that impact.

What’s funny about life is that we so often misjudge the impact of the things we do. In terms of lasting impact, the huge project on which you spend so much time and effort trying to push to completion can often pale in comparison to a simple heartfelt conversation with someone over coffee . It helps to keep that in mind, and stay open to simply connecting with other people.

We all worry about our mortality, because we all know we’re going to die, and basically none of us wants to. We’ll probably always worry about whether or not there really is a heaven or hell — or a soul to go either place. But whatever your feelings on those metaphysical minefields, it sure helps to remember that your afterlife here on Earth is every bit worth working for. And every death that touches our lives should serve as a reminder to get to work.

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Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

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