Heaven and Earth

by Brooks Riley

CapybarasGo on, admit it. You’ve always wanted to come back as a capybara.

Why not? There are worst entities for a come-back kid when its mortal coil is taken up again. As a capybara you would live in a small community of peaceful vegans, free to join the party or to wander off on your own without being ostracized. You’d enjoy communal living with all the advantages, including a swimming hole in the vicinity. Your leader would be the biggest male, not a testosterone-driven despot intent on hoarding all the females for himself, but a gentle giant who shares. He might get first choice, but there’s plenty enough to go around. If the kids got on your nerves, allomothers would take over for a while.

The real question is, why would you want to come back at all?

Hope is like a birthmark no one can see: Everyone has one, and it doesn’t go away. It all starts with hoping to inhale your first breath, and progresses to hoping your mother will pick you up when you cry. It ends with hoping there’s something to look forward to when you die—call it heaven, call it oblivion. As the hopes in this life diminish, they get transferred to the other side, even if there’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California.

The problem is that our notions of heaven are so pathetically limited. Why would I want to sit on a cloud playing a harp? If I wanted to play a harp, I’d have tried it in this life. And what if I see my loved ones in that light at the end of the tunnel? What then? Do I embrace them over and over again? For men who dream of an endless supply of virgins, is heaven just a coitus repetitus? Let’s face it, nothing we can possibly imagine or wish about heaven can allay the inevitable tedium that would arise from a satisfaction repeated many times over. Our visions of heaven quickly expose themselves as visions of hell, adulterated by endless repetitions and endless time. Even Pope Benedict suggested as much.

Everything we might hope for in a next life is based on what we love in this one. But pleasures are ephemeral, whether it be a good book, a tasty meal, a glorious day, or a full life—they all end. We experience tiny deaths at every turn—the end of a movie, the last spoonful of ice cream, the sun sinking below the horizon, the last chord of a symphony. Without its inherent finiteness, a pleasure is indistinguishable from a heartbeat.

Reincarnation comes with its own set of problems. Why would I want to come back as a different person? Whatever my fate in this life, as a human being I’ve been there, done that. But given that existence on this earth is the only thing I know, I can well imagine returning to it in some other form. As a capybara, for instance.

Or a cat: I’m convinced my own cat was once someone else when she gives me that ‘I-know-where-you’re-coming-from’ look. But statistically speaking I’d probably end up as a feral cat instead of a house cat. As a feral cat I might find life jolly in the Forum Romanum, or on Larry Ellison’s Hawaiian island, but otherwise, life would be hard.

If I were into extreme sports, I can imagine coming back as a capuchin monkey, bungee-jumping from tree to tree with great esprit. But then again, it might be better to return as one of the hundreds of endangered primates, just to help swell the ranks. De Brazza’s monkey, or the Golden Lion Tamarin.

People into skydiving might choose a falcon or an eagle: Imagine being free of the paraphernalia and the fear!

If you like to travel, consider storks. They go places in winter. At home they’ve got the best view in town.

Coming back as an ant? Too much work.

A dolphin, maybe? Yes and no. Leaping from the watery depths into the air looks like fun, but terra firma is my environment of choice.

Life is hard no matter who you are. Some creatures live only 24 hours, of all work no play. Other creatures wait decades to come alive, like those crustaceans (triops) in Monument Valley, whose birth depends on the rare, serendipitous rainfall.

I’d like to be all of them for a few days or a few weeks. I want to sing like the merle in springtime. I want to run up the tree like the squirrel. I want to dive into the depths like the sea lion. I want to swing from tree to tree like a monkey, I want to have night vision like an owl, I want to soar over the earth like an eagle. But not for long. Their problems are physical, mine are metaphysical and existentialist. A few weeks in their shoes wouldn’t change that.

Still, if life is the jackpot handed out to us all, I’ve won big. Why wish for more in the hereafter?