“By aiming for paradise, we lose sight of earth. Hope of a beyond and aspiration to an afterlife engender a sense of futility in the present. If the prospect of getting taken up to paradise generates joy, it is the mindless joy of a baby picked up from his crib” – Michel Onfray
I know you think it’s all about you. This is incorrect. It’s all about me. Individually, our notion of the ideal society is one in which I am not prevented from doing whatever my cold, misanthropic heart desires, whereas all those things you do that annoy me are prohibited under pain of death. The “common good” is largely a justification for demanding everybody mow their lawns and pay their taxes. Obviously, this is not fair, but we have no evidence that life itself is structurally predisposed towards fairness. Consequently, we have no reason to assume that the afterlife is fair. Set aside the clearly disproportionate response of condemning someone to eternal basting in the Lake of Fire for coveting thy neighbor’s wife. That’s just overkill. Similarly, let’s ignore the eternity of bliss awarded to those who opted to sing the proper, celestially-mandated hosannas. It’s hard to brook such irrational exuberance as we slog through our daily indignities. Most of us stumble from misfortune to misfortune, rationalizing it as “anything that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”, when in fact anything that doesn’t kill you probably just weakens you for the immaculate coup de gras.
This perspective does not make for happy and productive campers. It generally promotes thievery and serial killing, of which in most instances I’m not an advocate (I do leave room for people who incessantly laud the merits of regularly flossing or refuse to use turn signals). It does of course explain a lot about the fundamental necessity of a coherent narrative when it comes to ghostly visitations. We like to think that our heavenly bliss or everlasting torment wouldn’t be interrupted for trivialities. Hauntings need to be about bringing evildoers to justice, righting wrongs, protecting the innocent, and ensuring the financial solvency of widows and orphans. Don’t you care about widows and orphans? No? Some folks are just irredeemable, but most of us can appreciate a morally motivated phantasm that returns from the grave to oversee the dispensation of their last will and testament, torment their murderer into confession, or generally set things straight in the mortal world. The main problem is that it is a logistical nightmare.
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), of Robinson Crusoe fame, pointed out our inherent narcissism when it comes to back-story for ghosts. I mean, there’s a lot of injustice and oppression in the world, after all. This begs the question of why some ghosts are allowed to return and right egregious wrongs, while others are not. What makes one orphan or murder victim more deserving than another? With all the inequities and contested wills, one would think we would be seeing a lot more ghosts. Sadly, we do not see a one-to-one correspondence of hauntings with injustices, and in fact, it would seem that gross abrogations of mortal responsibility are rated as less important than individual problems.
I will suppose that no apparitions were allowed to show themselves on earth, but on occasions of some unusual consequence, and that then they might always be expected; and there are many afﬁrm it to be so, though I openly say I do not; but suppose it, I say; and that Whenever these things have appeared, it was in especial cases, such as of manifestly injured right, oppression of widows and orphans, wrong done to persons unable to do themselves justice, depressed poverty, and many such cases which souls are said to be anxious about, even after death; I say, if it were so, the world is at this time (and, perhaps, has always been) so full of violence, injustice, fraud and oppression, that the souls of our departed friends would hardly ever be at rest. How many weeping widows, starving orphans and oppressed families have in our age suffered by the loss of the money which their fathers and other ancestors left for their subsistence and establishment in a certain city chamber, or put into a certain exchequer upon the public faith! According to this notion, neither the visible nor invisible world would have been at peace: the habited visible world would have been continually haunted with ghosts, and we should never have been quiet for the disturbance of spirits and apparitions: the invisible world would have been in a continued hurry and uneasiness; spirits and unembodied souls asking leave to go back again to see their wills rightly performed, and to harass their executors for injuring their orphans; and all the ages of time would have been taken up in giving satisfaction to them in suchand such cases (Defoe, p98-99).
Defoe saw this as clear evidence that ghosts don’t exist, but it might be more reasonable to assume that it speaks to the inherent absurdity of the universe that considers violations of estate law somewhat more pernicious than genocide, war, famine, and horror enacted on a global scale. Not that I’m criticizing. That’s just the sort of thing they haunt you for. It just seems like the afterlife needs a little bureaucratic reform. Or maybe we just need to get over ourselves. Someday they might let us in on the cosmic joke, but until then, the best we can hope for is that someone is trying to be funny, or as comedian Rory Bremer said, “I think if there is a God, it’s very important that he has a sense of humor, otherwise, you are in for a very miserable afterlife”.
Defoe, Daniel, 1661-1731. The History And Reality of Apparitions. New York: AMS Press, 1973.