The Important Thing Is Elsewhere

The Family Tree

Before all this, I went to my grandfather’s house in Spain. I’d never really liked it. It wasn’t the house he’d lived in as I grew up, which was just down the road from the new place. That had been the house of memories, the place where my grandmother had died before I was born.

He bought the new place when it was time to find a smaller, more manageable property, as he entered his eighties and I my twenties. I worked with him on both houses, helping him to do up the old one and improve the new. I painted walls white and coated tiles with red rubber sealant; mixed cement and ferried endless wheelbarrows of it to wherever he was working that day. He chided me for my cement mixing technique, for the way I handled a paintbrush or a pickaxe, the way I clambered up and down ladders and scaffolding, fetching tools and materials. It was the happiest time.

He died, digging over the garden of the new property with a rotorvator, when I was 23. He’d have been glad to go that way; he’d always talked of “falling off his perch” rather than a dreaded slow decline, and even when we were working together on the new place, he’d still pull stunts like climbing into the tree he was pruning, clinging to the branch above him while standing on the one below, which he was sawing off, jumping up and down to speed the process.

After he died and the family had come out for the funeral, I stayed on for a while to give the place a fresh lick of paint. I watched the terrible movies in his DVD collection, which had mostly accumulated from those left by holidaymaking guests and relatives over the years. I still didn’t really much care for the house, and I didn’t miss it for a long time. I visited on occasion, but life was busy and that cold, quiet place in a resort-and-retirement town with nothing much going on simply didn’t appeal.

A couple of years back, I found myself spending more time in the northern hemisphere after a long season in Aotearoa New Zealand and my beloved Australia. I went back to the house, told myself I’d do another repaint as I had after the funeral, but merely touched up a few of the white walls over a couple of afternoons. I hiked some mountain trails, swam in the sea and picked up a jellyfish sting for my troubles. I read late into the night, walked down to the market on Friday mornings for my weekly shop, made Spanish comfort foods. And the cold place had become warm.

There was a presence there – the presence, perhaps, only of memory – but a warmth and connection I had never felt in the intervening years, something that had awoken there after a long dormancy.

The Bald Scenario

The poet, professor, and scenario planner Betty Sue Flowers wrote an essay on the afterlife calling death “the bald scenario”.

In the essay, she argues that “Death occupies a special position in our fictions about the future. We may fantasise about being married or not, being children, visiting Florence, or growing old; or we may invent any of a number of other futures – but the stark fact of our death appears to be the only ‘real’ future scenario, even though we may embellish this bald story with many fictional details about how or when we might die. The basic story, though, goes like this: The end of life is death – and nothing more.”

She notes that this is not the only possible death story. There are afterlives, visions of heaven or hell, possibilities of reincarnation and karmic justice, ideas of “life as school with graduate school to follow.”

The essay is an opportunity for Flowers to ask what is lost when we (in the West, in public) abandon the notion of an afterlife, taking pride in the baldness of the way we envision death. Once, stories of the afterlife served to shape our moral imagination.

In Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th-century play The Great Theatre of the World, for example, God is represented as the author of the play which is the world. He casts souls in roles including a king, a rich man, a poor man, a farmer, and an unborn child. Without rehearsal, each character is given their props and sent to act out their roles, and although those who are placed in lowly positions complain to the author, he tells them that as long as they play those roles well, he will be pleased with them.

The action of the play covers the tribulations of each character’s existence, including the moment they pass into the afterlife. Their props and costumes, the trappings of their earthly roles, are taken from them and they are once again equals. The king’s power comes to nothing in the face of death, as do the physical charms of a figure personifying Beauty; however, a character representing Discretion is allowed to take her good works with her as she departs the world’s stage. The King and Beauty are consigned to a spell in purgatory; the poor man and Discretion proceed directly to Heaven, and are joined by the farmer, who is aided by prayers and payments made as indulgences for his sins by loved ones back on Earth. The unborn child, having committed no good or evil needs and had no chance to exercise choice, is consigned to Limbo – and the rich man is sent to hell.

Such stories may enjoin us to accept oppression and injustice during our time on Earth – the poor man and farmer are advised against railing at their situation in life – but Flowers asks whether the afterlife remains a useful vantage point for us to make sense of our lives and their meaning.

“We humans create our sense of the world through two fictions,” Flowers writes. These are: “the story of the past that has shaped us and the story of the future into which we are living. These stories differ in their ‘rules’ of construction, in much the same way that news stories differ from novels.”

Whatever plot line we follow when we tell stories of our past, whatever light we cast ourselves and others in, we still base tales from times gone by on facts and events which we agree to have happened.

Stories of the future are not bound in this way, although they may be constrained by plausibility. Such stories, Flowers argues, are likely to be more internal, unconstrained as they are by the circumstances of the external world.

Works like Calderón de la Barca’s may represent a religious myth which once underpinned our sense of how the universe works. Since then, Flowers writes, we have experienced the rise of a “democratic myth”, in which truth was no longer God-given and derived from religious authority; instead it was tied to facts and evidence, and “truth could arise from any investigator.” The tools of this myth include journalism, science, the novel, and, of course, the institutions of democracy itself.

This new worldview helped to move us away from certain myths – such as the divine right of kings – when they did not stand up to logical scrutiny, but it also “undercut any story at all about the future that was not simply an extrapolation from the past.”

As a result, “an entire category of stories, one that had shaped human beings from cave-dwelling days, began to disappear — stories of the afterlife.”

These stories are especially powerful, Flowers argues, because “unlike almost every other story about the future, stories about the afterlife are typically held as beliefs rather than fictions.”

Unlike the stories of the scientific method – communal, regulated, explicitly provisional and not to be “defended to the death” but revised in the face of reasoned argument and evidence – afterlife stories, depending as they do on a mode of existence for which there is no proof, cannot be reconciled with the “democratic myth.”

This isn’t the story of that myth’s triumph, however, for Flowers suggests that this myth has, in turn, been superseded. Today, she considers, we accept an “economic myth”, the first to be truly global, its dominance entwined with the rise of worldwide telecommunications. It still hews close to the logic of science and the related search for truth and actionable knowledge, but these features now serve the idea of growth: “bigger – or more – is better”.

“The economic myth may be true, or it may not be,” Flowers writes. “What makes it powerful is that we accept it as the matrix of meaning, as the way we explain what reality is and what is valuable. We live in an economic myth in the way that the fish swim in the sea[.]”

The economic myth has not been without its benefits – unlike the rigid hierarchies of Calderón de la Barca’s cosmology, for example, Flowers sees it as much more horizontal – “My dollar is as good as your dollar”, at least in theory. But power, in a world informed by the economic myth, derives from what is countable; and stories of the afterlife do not yield valuable numbers.

Have the ages of democratic and economic thinking rendered the question of the afterlife irrelevant?

Have we left that space beyond death open for debate, when science has nothing to say on the subject?

Flowers suggests that the profound silence around what happens to us after we die looks, in fact, “suspiciously like a belief – or, at the very least, acts like a belief: the belief that there is no afterlife […] the bald scenario, a story of nothing.”

This means that the “space after death which has always been filled with belief” is still available to us, “theoretically open for re-creation”. Though we vacated it and surrendered the stories which once filled it as we embraced successive waves of scientific and economic thought, she argues, “this space […] can never really be empty because we can never stop thinking about death as if from the other side — as if we were survivors — even though we don’t believe in an afterlife.”

The opportunity Flowers sees in returning to a notion of the afterlife is in the freedom it offers “not to pursue truth, but to create realities.” Imagined afterlives offer vantage points from which to explore our own existence, its meaning, and the world in which it is embedded. It needn’t mean a return to orthodoxies such as those found in 17th-century Spain; rather, Flowers compares thinking about life after death to the make-believe we enjoy as children.

When we play-act in our childhood, we know that we aren’t really a cowboy or a fairy or a space adventurer. We understand the difference between our lived realities and those stories we playfully choose to inhabit for a while, to enjoy and make sense of the world from a fresh perspective – what Iona and Peter Opie called children’s “perpetual stage”, on which they test “whatever has latest caught their fancy”.

In the same way as make-believe empowers children to change their understanding of the world they are coming to inhabit, Flowers argues, “an afterlife story […] would have profound effects on the way we live now.” She compares such stories to future scenarios of the kind she constructed for organisations as part of her career in strategic foresight:

“Like theories, future scenarios must be plausible and coherent and must arise from a base of present fact. But they should not simply be an extrapolation of the past because the one thing we know about the future is that it will be different — in unpredictable ways — from the past. Unlike theories, scenarios must be judged not primarily on how well they predict but on what kind of present they create when we live into them.”

As an example, Flowers refers to the experiences of those who have come close to death and returned to their lives with a new sense of perspective and purpose. It is immaterial, she argues, whether such experiences are symptoms of the body’s response to extreme stress, or a result of prior religious beliefs; “it is the effect of the story that is important.”

What happens when we bring back stories from the brink of existence to the daily life of a world dominated by the economic myth? How do brushes with death encourage us to change our priorities and our sense of what matters? Do we need to suffer the ultimate threat to our existence before we can bring ourselves to step back, reflect, and choose whether to change our ways?

Flowers argues that an imagined afterlife, much like the fictional scenarios created by strategists, can do this work for us. Scenario planners devise imagined future contexts to challenge our thinking without requiring us to endure a real crisis. If the afterlife is the ultimate scenario, Flowers suggests, we can “use the fictional space of the afterlife, protected in principle as it is from both the democratic and the economic myth, to explore stories of meaning. Then, re-entering our global economic mono-myth, we can live in the as if stories of meaning we have created and test their results in our own lives and in the lives of our communities.”

Hallowe’en (The Important Thing Is Elsewhere)

As I write this, we are sitting in the lounge in London, waiting for a severely delayed press conference at which the English Prime Minister is expected to declare a belated national lockdown as a countermeasure against the novel coronavirus COVID-19, a disease which has, as Jerry Ravetz has put it, “firmly reminded [us] that there are predators for whom we are prey.”

We have been holed up in a fairly happy and secure hermitage for months, erring on the side of caution, being grateful for our good fortune. Work has moved online, exercise has been limited to the nearby park, and we’ve read more books than ever before.

This week I remotely attended a conference in Norway, and was lucky enough to present two papers with friends and colleagues, Marie Mahon and David Robertson. David and I spoke about creating events, on and offline, that were radically open-ended and offered high levels of agency to participants; games like Library Island, where the intent is that participants can surprise the facilitators and designers of the experience, and the old hierarchies of the instructional paradigm are shattered.

In games like these, there is space to explore trust, collaboration, chaos, deceit, rule-breaking and frame-breaking; players take the material of the game and shift it to suit the stories they want to tell – whether that is a government official on Library Island defrauding the exchequer to buy himself a plane, or an Indigenous group building community support for a takeover of colonial institutions.

Such settings are not the plausible and rigorously imagined future contexts of strategic scenarios, but they are stories of elsewhere in which we invite participants to freely play, to step into the story and shape the tales that they wish to tell. The process is one of learning, and participants often derive insights not just from the finished story they tell, but the sense of being able to shift and redefine the narrative through choices they make collaboratively, in the moment.

Is something like this the beginning of the kind of play that Flowers imagines we could benefit from if we once again re-engaged with the notion of an afterlife? Writing this on Hallowe’en night, with its childish traditions of fancy dress and its stories of spirits, and its lingering ancient link to the celebration of All Souls’ Day, I hope so.

Scrolling social media earlier today, I saw a post by a Twitter friend, the Mexican psychiatrist and psychotherapist Emmeline Lagunes. She wrote of Mexico’s tradition of the calavera literaria, the satirical poem which honours friends and family by presenting a mock tale of their encounter with Death. These poems, by burlesquing the characters of the people we know, highlights what we value about them and what they bring to our lives, filling the silent space of the afterlife described by Flowers with wisdom and knowing laughter.

There are other ways to fill that silence too. We have a tradition of watching a Hallowe’en movie every year; you won’t be surprised to know that it’s often, but not always, a horror film.

Last year it was the pulpy yet sincere Grand Guignol of Mandy. This year, we might turn to the powerful expression of grief in The Babadook, the astonishing, unsentimental portrayal of family loss in Love After Love, or even the offbeat superheroics of Doom Patrol, whose characters – powerful, unusual, queer, disabled, mentally ill, spared from death, haunted by their own pasts – also inhabit an elsewhere which provides a vantage point on the present.

There’s one other choice on the shelf, though: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 movie After Life. It presents a world in which, every Monday, a group of the recently deceased are gathered for a few days to choose a single memory which will accompany them into the next stage of their existence.

Staff from an institution help the arrivals to realise this memory in the form of a short re-enactment which is filmed. Counsellors work with the newcomers to identify their happiest memory through lengthy interviews, before a production crew bring it to life.

As the newly dead souls wrestle with this burden, it is gradually revealed that the staff of the institution are, themselves, dead people who were unable or unwilling to choose a single memory. They work to help the newcomers and, as the memories are screened in the institution’s cinema, one by one, those who have seen their completed film vanish.

I used to think of After Life as my favourite film, but I haven’t returned to it often in recent years. Going back could be like revisiting an old family home; maybe the lesson of the visit to my grandfather’s house is that Kore-eda’s movie will provide greater and richer comforts than I expect.

I won’t spoil the movie in its entirety, but the most moving moment comes when Takashi, one of the staff members who appears deceptively young, but has been working in the institution since he died during World War II, finally selects and films his happiest memory.

It comes not from his life on earth, but the time he has spent in the institution. He recreates the process of filming memories itself, with the crew assembled around the camera – the work of determining and performing the stories that will shape and define our existence. He chooses to celebrate the elsewhere.

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