Second place — Sarah Almstrom: A better place

By Sarah Almstrom

Sarah Almstrom

My grandmother, a deeply religious woman, always comforted me when I felt stressed.

Angels, she would explain, watch me constantly, and God has plans for me that I do not understand. Perhaps others find solace in these beliefs, but I did not. I felt uneasy at the thought of this omniscient, absolute figure, who, without informing me, had decided the entirety of my life.

The most unappealing of these ideas to me, however, is the afterlife as a desired destination. As a child, I heard countless times that the deceased live in a “better” place, an odd description, I would think, for a wooden box in the ground. I disliked the euphemistic, light manner in which the phrase hides a much darker truth: that people die when they shouldn’t and we are left alone to grieve. I disliked it especially when used on my own family, in particular when a therapist told my sister that she would see a loved one again, that she only need wait until she died. Beyond the irresponsible nature of telling this to a young girl with depression, the presumption of her statement angered me most.

How anyone could understand the details of death and its permanence escapes me, and for anyone to pretend they do feels hubristic. Almost all civilizations have created their own ideal afterlife, each characterized by the deliverance of greater justice, eternal rapture, and, of course, auspicious invention. But, simply because an individual chooses one belief over another does not make that belief correct.

Troubling inconsistencies exist in every ideology. If God creates grief, as many argue, only so we understand joy, then what interest should I have in a place with no misery, only happiness? The idea is contradictory at best, insulting at worst. Any attempt to understand the endless paradoxes of mythology is inane; the intentions of a fictional god are still fictional intentions and have no real bearing on a debate of the afterlife.

Consoling the hungry with promises of food in heaven, sending prayers to families instead of aid, and more imaginary charity prevents us from moving forward, from taking actual steps to solve real, human problems. Perhaps the best example of this was the Indian caste system, where reincarnation depended on an individual accepting his or her fate. The poor starved and suffered in silence, wasting their real lives to gain a fictitious one. They, and many others, fail to realize that the afterlife is not the betterment of life, it is the ending. We exist in the only “better place” now, and creating a just, kind and benevolent world is our own responsibility.

Conformity to religious laws and beliefs doesn’t guarantee an improved life later — it simply worsens the only one we have.

Sarah, 18, attended Wachusett Regional High School in Holden, Mass., and will be attending the University of Massachusetts, where she hopes to obtain a degree in international relations and politics. She is a member of the National Honors Society, as well as the Spanish and Music Honors societies. For two years she was the captain of the mock trial team and the editor of her school newspaper.