By Youssef Maklad
Death is one of the most vivid fears a human can experience. It’s a fear so strong among humans that even those who have convinced themselves that life is not worth living can tremble at the moment of action. It is not even too hypocritical for a mourning nonbeliever to look up and wonder for a passing second if their loved one truly is in a better place. It is understandable why so many people flock to religion.
I was no different, being raised in a religious household. My only pull toward religion was that ever-so-attractive promise of an afterlife. I did not want to accept that those I loved would disappear forever, and, more than anything else, I did not want to accept my march toward an eternal slumber. As a child, I could easily accept the idea of an afterlife, but as my prepubescence cascaded into adolescence, I could no longer be as confident in my faith. It’s almost funny how I let death suck all the joy and meaning out of life. I cursed my curiosity for not letting me delude myself. But now that I reflect back, it was only through my retreat from a heaven and a hell that my scared and confused adolescence flourished into confident adulthood. My fear of death led me to question the meaning of it all. Was life worth it, and if so, what are the dynamics of living well? For that purpose, I pursued philosophy both in my academics and in my free time. It was from that discipline that I found my answer. It is only in having the courage to let go of the tradition associated with an afterlife that one can focus on individual flourishing and leading a meaningful life in the here and now. My answer has two parts, a critique of Hell and Heaven.
Religion is first and foremost an institution. It is concerned with governing the lives of individuals. It does this by instilling a fear of this thing called Hell. It threatens to send you into
an eternal and fiery punishment for going against its tenets. In practice, religion breeds uniformity and restricts individual flourishment. Yet, living life according to your own will is a must when it comes to living with meaning. Not only is the belief in a hell problematic toward living a good life, but so is the belief in a heaven.
A hope for a heaven can halt one from living in the here and now. A pull toward heaven is a pull away from life. Life is dynamic, including all of its ups and downs. You need tragedy and suffering to appreciate comedy and joy. More than anything else, you have to live in the here and now. The concept of a heaven repels people from doing that. It has them live life in the service of a stagnant, unknowable afterlife. Heaven has no ups or downs, it is perfect and thus immutable. You can’t play games in heaven because there can’t be a loser; you can’t have art in heaven because there is nothing more to create.
To lead meaningful lives, to really begin living, you have to accept life at its worst as well as its best, to live in and for the moment, and to pursue what makes you individually blossom. Those are the dynamics of living well. Which brings me to those lyrics by John Lennon: “No hell below us, above us only sky.” To give up on a hell below is to be uncaged. To look up at the sky above us is to fly. For what imagery better instills a sense of freedom other than a blue sky? And, oh, what a vivid sky it is! Imagine it. It’s easy if you try.
Youssef, 20, is from Orange, Conn., and attends Southern Connecticut State University, where he is studying economics and philosophy. He plans to pursue a master’s degree after graduation.