“All humans are aware of death, so we’re all a little bit sad, all the time. That’s just the deal.”
– Eleanor Shellstrop, The Good Place, ‘Chapter 18’
What if there really was an afterlife? And what if it could last an eternity, if you chose. That’s what the finale of The Good Place considers as our protagonists finally formulate an afterlife worth living for. And it’s a nice thought. An infinite amount of time to be the best possible version of yourself before walking out a door and leaving the universe when you finally feel full fulfilled. But in practical terms, does that change what it means to be human?
I’ve watched enough episodes of Star Trek to know that it’s our mortality that defines us – the fact that one day, we will no longer be here makes the things we choose to do really count. Do what you have to do in the time that you have because the clock is ticking. Of course, Captain Kirk considers this right before he pops his clogs in his final film appearance, all while trapped in a science-fiction version of heaven known as the Nexus.
‘I must have jumped that fifty times, scared the hell out of me each time. Except this time, because it isn’t real. Nothing here is. Nothing here matters.’
– James T Kirk, Star Trek Generations
It’s because of that abundance of time, that freedom from danger, that makes Kirk return to the real world after spending what seems like about 10 minutes in his own self-created paradise. Even if you can live your fantasies, it’s the jeopardy that makes them count.
But for most of us, it probably seems that there’s never enough time; we’d surely welcome an endless sprawl of forever. You work hard so you can live. You want to spend time with your friends, your family, your partner or just on your own. You want to pursue your creativity. You want to watch all the films and TV, maybe more than once. And you probably want to travel, see the world. You want to have experiences. But also, you want to sit on your arse and do nothing. But it never seems like there’s enough: not enough time, not enough energy and not enough freedom. And the older you get, the faster time goes and the more meaningless obligations you seem to have.
And then the people you love are no longer around. That first brush with death is never easy, whether we lose our pets, grandparents or people even closer. Your experiences become coloured by that loss. Because you’re doing things someone else didn’t or that they wanted to do, or just that you’d like to share your joys with them . You see people you love get sick and change and lose the essence of who they once were. And that changes you and you get used to things being different. It’s not that you’ve become numb, it’s more that you’ve come to accept that death is part of life when once when you were young and stupid, you thought it was something you could probably escape if you really made the effort. Ideas of uploading your brain into a computer or just refusing to get old never really pan out. But it never seems fair. The time you spent, the things you do, they’ll never be enough.
To get (briefly) back on topic, added life is exactly what The Good Place contemplated. What if we could work out all our kinks and neuroses to become better people and then spend eternity doing all the things that we want to do? We could travel anywhere, and have all the once in a lifetime experiences we’ve ever wanted, as many times as our hearts desired. But more importantly, we’d have the freedom to spend time with the people you care about without feeling guilty about neglecting someone else, or leaving because you have a meeting, or you want to watch TV or go out and get drunk or just lie in a bath listening to a podcast pretending the outside world doesn’t exist . You can just be, without ever feeling that pressure to do more because eternity is just there waiting for you.
A huge part of having that unlimited time (beyond being around those you love) is getting the ability to achieve your own selfish goals without guilt. That might mean reading all your books that are in that pile. It might mean actually writing one. Or it could mean properly learning that instrument and recording that album you meant to in our early 20s but never quite got around to. You could actually educate yourself properly instead of sleeping in the library and blagging tutorials and exams. We all have things that we’d like to achieve but distractions often gets in the way. Sometimes we get in the way of ourselves, but in this version of heaven, time has no meaning. Our dreams can come true, and ultimately, we can say all the things that we want to say, learn all things we wanted to learn.
But to take another diversion into pop culture, let’s consider Angel, the vampire with a soul, who was going through a bit of a dark time before coming to a realisation about life.
“If nothing we do matters then all that matters is what we do.”
– Angel, Angel ‘Epiphany’
I love that line. Maybe it has roots in some ancient proverb, but hey, I watched too much TV instead. If there is not greater plan, if there is no higher being, then we’re not working for reward so the now is all that matters, so make it count. It turns meaninglessness into pure meaning, and that gives me hope.
But even in that case, life is difficult. And achieving what you want to isn’t easy. If I can paraphrase/directly quote Dylan Moran: potential is like your bank balance, there’s always a lot less there than you think. And maybe he’s right but our potential is also circumstantial – there are only so many experiences we can have in one life and often we find ourselves in situations we cannot control. Wouldn’t the greatest thing be actually feel like you have the chance to explore your potential? Could I be a painter? I’ll probably never try. But I might if I had all the time. We could all do different things than we end up doing, if we were in a different place or a different time.
By some measures, our lives are still measured based on our achievements. A good obituary will say the places someone went, the lives the touched, all they achieved in their career, the children they had. But look at the more notable (for want of a better word) – the famous, the writers and the artists – they are often said to achieved immortality because of what they left behind. So we still have this sense that we should leave a legacy, something that is bigger than ourselves.
I take comfort from Quantum Leap’s final episode, as a mysterious bartender tell Sam what counts and it’s not accomplishments and how we affect things without even knowing.
“The lives you touched, touched others, and those, others. You’ve done a lot of good Sam Beckett, and you can do a lot more.”
– Al the bartender, ‘Mirror Image’
Most of us don’t leave a lot behind. Sometimes it’s just a room with a fridge and a TV. Too many funerals are unattended apart from some carers or a distant niece. There’s no such thing as a wasted life. Every one has meaning and touches others. But in The Good Place, it was just a practice run. That was the time when you worked out who you were before being offered the gift of immortality to work out who you could be and ultimately just to become comfortable with who you are. Are the best lessons learned in a life well lived or one that didn’t ever go as planned?
In that world, it doesn’t matter if you start a degree and lose a year or start the wrong career or embark on the wrong relationship. Because when time has no meaning, no time is really wasted. But would that make us lose our sense of empathy? Would all things, including people, become disposable? Is there truth that limitations really are what define us? We don’t necessarily need a belief system to have a moral code, but maybe we do need to understand the concept of consequences.
In The Good Place, everyone gets the chance to do more. There’s a gag in the finale that Shakespeare wrote 4000 more plays in the afterlife, but none of them really matched his work during his life on Earth. And it feels like there’s a truth in that. Maybe because of the way we live, we tend to say the important things early on. No band’s sixth album is their best or no writer’s twentieth book is their most succinct. But we get better at things, we gain experience but there’s always a tipping point when you run out of intellect and energy..
But there is an ending for everyone in The Good Place. There’s a door that every soul can walk through when they’ve done all they can, lived their thousand lives. And maybe immortality or achieving greatness isn’t really the point. It’s about leaving it all behind on our own terms having made peace with the universe. And that would be a beautiful gift.