A dear friend of mine died last year. As she aged she reflected that while it used to be that waiting for Christmas seemed like years — and the wait was 25% of her life, it now seemed like it came once a week (or about 1.25% of her life). The conversation was interesting because we have both written in Fantasy & SF (her focus was more feminist SF, mine FRPGs) and one thing that comes up is very long lived races and cultures.
For someone who is only four, Christmas is an incredibly long wait. For someone who is ten thousand years old? Much less. 1/4 of your life vs. 1/10,000? The difference is a factor of 40,000 times shorter for the older person. As another friend remarked, washing the sheets every week seems like you are changing them once an hour, even if you aren’t.
And times that seem long — a lifetime long — start seeming shorter. For someone who is 40, a hundred years is 2 1/2 times as long as they have lived. For someone who is 10,000 years old, it is 1% of their life.
There are other perspective shifts that start to arise with the long view.
When I visited Versailles as a part of celebrating my twentieth wedding anniversary, I realized that in just a couple hundred years or so, things had changed to where I had better air conditioning, better heat, a better bed, better food and a much cleaner place to live than the person considered the wealthiest and the most successful person on earth at the time.
I recently saw mirrors given Thomas Jefferson by the French at Monticello. In their day they were extremely expensive and a sign of great largess. By today’s standards they are the sort of thing just about anyone would throw out, and not discretely.
Technology has changed so much in such a relatively short period of time. A friend quipped that if heaven was only two hundred years more ahead of us, heaven was beyond our understanding as to just how good it would probably be. If it was a thousand years ahead, he thought it would probably be worth dying immediately to get to now rather than waiting.
For comparison I remember an anthropologist who was talking on NPR. He had been coated with mud and eating grubs with his guide when he realized it was Thanksgiving Day. The guide looked over at him and said “I know how it feels, the mud is better and the grubs tastier in my village too.”
You say, “I am rich. I have become wealthy. I don’t need anything.” Yet you don’t realize that you are miserable, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.
There were some very wealthy people at the time of Christ. If you measure their wealth in gold or other things they were incredibly wealthy even by today’s standard. Yet if you measured their wealth by the quality of their teeth, their ability to eat a balanced diet of fresh food, to sleep without bedbugs, to dress without fleas, to take a hot shower when they wanted or to be able to travel quickly, they were poor. They did not have cataract surgery or even a good pair of glasses available to them. They didn’t even have Motrin or aspirin.
Much like the people addressed in Revelation 3:17 (quoted above) they thought they were rich. But by the time of life that they were rich, by our standards they had nothing to help with their arthritis, they were miserable, pitiful, poor blind and naked (they even didn’t have pants back then).
It is easy to look at eating grubs, wearing mud to protect oneself from the biting insects, and to see that. With understanding we can see it when we look at Rome at the time of Christ. But odds are that whatever the technological level of heaven it is as far ahead of us as we are of the most primitive of men when humanity still did not have agriculture and couldn’t pressure flake flint for better tools.
If those in heaven are only a hundred thousand years old, our lives pass in the relative time it takes us to blink an eye. If they are only ten or twenty thousand years ahead of us in technology, our lives are so miserable, that short as they are, they are only worth living so that we can die and move on. And, just as to us, the Sun King and a Roman Oligarch were flea bitten and ill fed, with lives that really weren’t that pleasant, our lives probably do not look significantly better or more pleasant.
Not only that, even for things that seem unbearably long, like being separated from a child who has died, no suffering we have seems to last very long from that perspective.
Even more, the only thing that really has value in a life such as ours is human connection — friends, kindness and gaining an attitude that fits into a life where the only real currency is love.
That is just the beginning of what eternity means. Which is probably why we tend to ignore anyone who tells us that we are miserable, pitiful, poor blind and naked or that our suffering is but a short moment — and why we rarely get told about it.
What do you think?
- Over estimate how severe our sufferings are?
- How long they last?
- How wealthy we are?
- Underestimate how important human connections are vs. wealth?
- Make other mistakes based on too short of a time frame for our focus?
What should we do?
Or why it simplifies to this:
” 28 And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.”
Even human connections suffer from perspective. The family you grew up with can become less and less a portion of your life where once they were the entirety. Deep friends ships fade to casual acquaintances to virtual strangers in almost no time at all. Going eternally, we have at least a lifetime of experience we don’t remember that may dwarf whatever we manage in this mortality.
What must it be like to be our Heavenly Parents, to somehow know each one of their children intimately, with no loss in time or distance?
The bolded statement is a scripture quote and love MSJs to http://biblehub.com/revelation/3-17.htm
That appears not to be clear enough. I’m addressing it here since I’m remote.
My simplification quote comes from:
Connection and love are the core.
A great post Stephen. It’s true that meditations on eternity lead us to proclaim with Solomon, “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Your definition of eternity is outward, the infinite expanse which dwarfs us on all sides. But there is another dimension of eternity, what the poet called “the universe in a grain of sand,” the eternity of presence, of the moment. Scientists tell us that the past is not really lost, but is concrete and unchangeable, existing forever in the landscape of eternity. The past is currently closed to us, but it exists nevertheless, and each moment of the past exists in unimaginable richness. Our lives, as brief, meagre, and wretched as they may be, are nevertheless miraculous, deep, and infinite in their inward expanses. So I don’t think we overestimate how severe our sufferings are, nor how richly we are blessed. Our lives are a veritable constellation of blessings, miracles, and sufferings. Comparisons are ultimately meaningless in the context of eternity.
I think that we generally do overestimate how severe our sufferings really are. Several months ago, I crashed while skiing and broke my collar bone. While recovering, I had quite a bit of time to think, and one of the things I thought about was how lucky I am to live in this day and age. If I had broken a bone a few hundred years ago, my experience would have been much different than it was. I am not exceptionally wealthy, but even I received medication to dull the pain. If someone immensely powerful such as Louis XIV had broken a bone, his treatment would not have been that different than the treatment that a peasant received. I think that sometimes we forget the sufferings of those that lived in the not to far distant past
All but physical suffering is a mental construct that largely consists of regrets from the past and fears about the future. Both melt away by becoming present in the present and the present is literally eternity.
The only thing that really has value in life is connection. Indeed, in fact there is nothing else except suffering.
When you look at a toddler with separation anxiety screaming because their parent just left them alone in nursery, it’s easy to intellectually see their fears as misplaced. At an emotional level, though, you recognize the terror and panic. In their eyes, the world is coming to an end. Same when you look at a teenager experiencing the angst, frustration, embarrassment, and host of other difficulties that come with adolescence. From our perspective as adults, we can intellectually see that their trials are temporary and very normal. When you remember what it was like as a teenager, though, you can understand why they feel like their world is coming to an end.
The advantage with our belief in the Atonement is that an all-powerful deity is tuned in to the particulars of our experiences – our joys and our sorrows. Even when our sorrows might be small in the scheme of eternity, God sends comfort based on how we perceive the sorrow in that moment.
I agree that we don’t always appreciate the advantages and blessings we enjoy (we aren’t even aware of them most the time), but I think we must be careful in passing judgment on the severity of trials. Committing to mourn and comfort others means that we have to consider their trials on some level worth mourning over.
I think our trials are as real as we are, if that makes sense. In our present, we feel our pain as deeply as we exist. Yet, at the same time, our suffering is of a small moment.
Mortality causes us to have a perspective change that makes it possible for our trials and pains — especially those caused by the loss of connections (such as the death of a child) — to affect us so deeply.
Perspective and presentism have gifts for us as well as loss.
So, I am not trying to diminish anyone’s pain (or why, after the death of my second daughter when friends who had just had their dog die wanted comfort from me, I did my best for them), yet at the same time I am arguing that from our own perspective outside of the veil this earth life is more like a choice of a ride in a theme park.
It is both momentous and an ephemeral thing.
Today has been a great day to explore the expansiveness of Mormon theology over here.
I’ve been thinking about eternity and immortality a bit as my dog has aged. He’s 14 now, a ripe old age for any dog, but to him I’ve hardly changed at all. I’m like one of Tolkien’s elves, ageless and immortal, as he ages in front of my eyes. I hope that’s comforting to him, that I’ve been his constant companion and comfort all through his life. Just like he’s been for me while he’s been with me.
So yeah, it is all a matter of perspective. I’m in my mid-thirties and it’s amazing to me to think that I probably have more than half of my life yet to lead. And I’ve already changed so much in what seems like the blink of an eye (or, at the most, a short hike with a couple REALLY big hills along the way).
This life might be the blink of an eye, but it’s a very concentrated blink. Whenever I try to think of an analogy for life, I think of the first time I took the Bar exam. It’s a stressful, grueling endeavor that culminated in two days of torture. And I’m still feeling the repercussions of those two days, they echo in my life today. But it wasn’t the end of my life, or even its beginning, it was just a part of it.
A part of me can’t wait to find out what happens next. And another part of me is happy to push through in the now, to wait and change and become. Humanity has already come so far and done so much. It’s inspiring to think that there’s still so much to come.
It depends on the individual of course, but in general I think there is cultural pressure to downplay suffering. This certainly has some benefits but it can also be quite costly. I think the focus on an afterlife/eternity, while extremely comforting, does a disservice when it makes this life seem relatively unimportant (except for being a “test” of choosing right or wrong).
I’m thinking of the LGBT teenager who is contemplating suicide, or the well-intentioned members who tell the 35-year-old single to look forward to the next life, the list goes on and on.
Ironically, losing belief in an afterlife/eternity made this life matter for me in a way that it never had before. Problems I had avoided became important to deal with because I no longer took eternity for granted. And living well and doing right was important not because of potential post-death rewards but because this might be my one shot at life and I better do what I can to make the most of it here and now.
It was a shocking and unexpected transformation and not unwelcome. I don’t believe life can exist without some suffering but I do think it’s valuable to consider what social constructs/beliefs/cultural expectations create unnecessary suffering.
Stephen, “So, I am not trying to diminish anyone’s pain (or why, after the death of my second daughter when friends who had just had their dog die wanted comfort from me, I did my best for them), yet at the same time I am arguing that from our own perspective outside of the veil this earth life is more like a choice of a ride in a theme park.”
I know you would never diminish anyone’s pain. I think we in our church can too easily use the eternal perspective argument to diminish pain in general (including our own). Think of Alma experiencing the pains of a damned soul. Even though the duration in earth time had to be less than a couple days max, he described it as eternal torment. Mortality gives us pain, but the physical body has defense mechanisms in place to make sure we don’t remember how bad the pain was once we are out of it (PTSD is when the system breaks down and we constantly relive the trauma). Even though I remember thinking I was going to die when I was in labor with my first child, I can’t recall that level of pain unless I’m in a similar situation with physical agony.
Perfected exalted beings have an eternal perspective, right? That means they have a perfect recollection of both joy *and* sorrow. In fact, remembering the negatives helps us better enjoy the positives, according to the Garden of Eden narrative. Sometimes we try to use the eternal perspective to argue that since our pain is limited to mortality, we shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it.
Mary Ann — I think it is a serious problem that instead of mourning with those who mourn that we skip that — and skip comforting those in need of comfort (which are two dramatically different things) and skip straight to just minimizing them.
In discussing theocidy and eternity and related issues, I find that I struggle to discuss my perspective in a way that does not minimize that the pain we suffer, we usually suffer to our capacity to experience pain or beyond.
I have family members with PTSD (including my deceased father), and have dealt with many people in intense and enduring pain.
It is part of why I come around, in the end, to believing that the core of what we should learn and do in our existence is to make connections and be kind.
But it (that, to quote the D&C, our pain and that of others is both of a short moment — yet is also so very real) is a real issue and one that I really do not have a good handle on how to bridge.
Everyone is experiencing loss that should be reacted to by being willing to mourn with them (rather than rush to other steps) and at the same time able to have all things swallowed up and healed by the love of God which is in Christ, who takes us home.