Julie informs me that I'm to write something cheery for this week's column. She says I shouldn't bum people's trips on the eve of a major religious holiday.
I agree that this is a week when people should be happy, not sad. Generous, not greedy. Empathetic, not intolerant. Kind, not vicious. Forgiving, not angry. Adventurous, not afraid.
In fact, I think the values of the 1960s should be followed all year around. If people were to grow their hair long, wear striped bell-bottoms, stop freaking out over gender issues, establish communal gardens and reject a toxic culture-wide war-dependent money-worshipping materialism, it would be a far better world. A lot of the depressing things I worry about would go away, except for striped bell-bottoms.
Normally I wouldn't be optimistic about any of this. But last week folks in Sawtooth Valley met for a reading and potluck. Forty or so of us crowded into Beckwith's Lodge in Lower Stanley, and people took turns reading from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol—an abridged version, or we would have been there all night. But the shape and spirit of the story remained.
The ghost-guided journey of Ebenezer Scrooge through past, present and future was familiar to me—I'd been in A Christmas Carol as a first-grader at Ketchum Elementary School, bitterly disappointed to be cast as a street urchin rather than Tiny Tim. I also knew that Scrooge had saved himself by changing his stingy, misery-producing ways. As I listened to his story with an adult consciousness, I started thinking about how rare such transformations are.
If we were confronted with a contemporary Scrooge—if one of our Idaho billionaires, say, was to suddenly give up all his money to send poor kids to college—it would be huge news. But there would be people who would think there was a catch: a few hundred million in rainy-day petty cash had been subtracted from the deal, or the scholarship kids were required to give their firstborn children to a corporate sponsor, or a bunch of Idaho public lands had somehow become private property.
Plenty of people would call our billionaire crazy, not the least of them the billionaire's heirs, who might suddenly find that the deepest and most cherished parts of their selves stemmed from being born into a rich family. The billionaire himself might find that self and money are so intertwined that personhood doesn't really exist without cash and a lawyer on retainer.
Still, these radical changes of character do happen. Often, they're the result of near-death experiences (NDEs), and I suppose you could call Scrooge's time with the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future a literary NDE. People back from NDEs report that they've left their bodies, hovered over them, then felt a great and warm presence—often that of a loving and grieved-for family member—who escorted them to a tunnel of light. A sense of imminent homecoming overwhelmed them, but their journey was interrupted. Revived on operating tables or rescued from drowning, they felt a tremendous loss at having to return to this fallen world.
Most people who undergo NDEs—billionaires or not—make major changes in their lives. It's as if a curtain has been pulled aside for them, and they've seen a bigger, better picture than they saw before. They become more generous, loving and tolerant. They're easier on the people around them. Many of them quit unsatisfying jobs and spend their lives doing the things they love.
Neuroscientists have neurochemical explanations for all of this, but there are reports of other NDEs that involve leaving your body, being seized by hissing, scaly-skinned demons and devils, and dragged toward a tunnel of darkness, all the time being yelled at by family members that you've injured or disappointed. A surprising amount of publicly devout and upright Christians report this sort of NDE, which suggests that when it comes to the afterlife, the contents of your heart are more important than tithing or service to company or country. Scrooge's story smacks of psychological and ethical truth.
Even if you're a neuroscientist and for you the afterlife is only the last flaming of dying brain cells, it's still a valid human experience, something that people have returned from and incorporated into their lives. It's real. The curtain does get pulled aside. What you see behind it seems to depend on who you are.
Which brings up Christ, who is the nominal reason for this season of commercial frenzy. Christ espoused a set of principles that would get you into the Kingdom of Heaven, which wasn't a place you went to when you died if you were good. It was, rather, a condition within you where the warring parts of yourself could be reconciled, where you could forgive and be forgiven, where you welcomed lost selves—some of them better than the person you'd spent your life being—that you'd exiled from your consciousness. Entering the Kingdom was homecoming in the deepest sense of the word.
"Behold the Man," Pontius Pilate said of the scourged Christ, bloody, dispossessed, condemned, broken, on his way to torture and death, and—according to all the accounts we have—radiant with an internal light.