“Imagine” – John Lennon, 1971.
I doubt there is a soul reading this entry who’s followed my work and finds this choice surprising. You could even argue that it’s the safe choice, the obvious choice. Lennon again. A few more fawning paragraphs about his immortal brilliance, as if I haven’t said enough about him already. I do find myself growing a bit self-conscious whenever I drop in a Lennon reference, no matter how oblique, but the fact of the matter is that he and his music linger each day at the edge of perception, seeping into actions, words and deeds like an ethos that informs every moral choice. I can’t point to a single event in my life that “Imagine” evokes because it’s always been there, like a continuous score for a movie whose running time is 38 years and counting. Like the lyric says, I’m not the only one who thinks so. President Jimmy Carter once said that in the many countries he’s visited, he has heard it being used equally with national anthems – imagine there’s no countries indeed. (Given that a majority of the world’s national anthems are about war, it seems only right to have a dovish counterargument.) So I suspect there’s meager appetite for a critical dissection of the chord structure, the history of the composition and the words; more scholarly scribes have covered this territory with far more accomplished diction. We’ll go another way.
Isn’t it a bit ironic, the question might be asked, for a person who has lost so many of the important people in his life – some at a very early age, no less – to embrace a song whose first line is “imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try”? The simple answer is yeah, people are walking contradictions. The deeper answer goes more to the essence of faith and belief and whether or not one’s ability to grieve demands a contrived Judeo-Christian image of departed relatives lounging on clouds and strumming harps. Baptized Anglican, my gradual disillusionment with religion was like the disintegration of a finely woven tapestry, its threads pulled away one at a time by doubt and dissatisfaction with pat answers to lingering spiritual questions. I didn’t care for bromides like “your dad’s in a better place now.” No he bloody well isn’t, the better place is here with his wife and his children. When my frail grandmother died almost a decade later, the weak sauce offered at the funeral was “your grandmother has been made young and strong in the embrace of the Lord.” Like a salesman telling his mark exactly what they wanted to hear, to close the deal. And I wasn’t in the mood to buy. With age I understand now why those lines are delivered in those moments, but back then they did nothing but stoke anger and resentment at the whole enterprise. I rejected attempts at comfort or counselling because I quite honestly thought the whole world was full of shit. It was quite easy to imagine there was no heaven. I didn’t even have to try. Lennon got it, though. He dared us to imagine living for today because there weren’t nothin’ waiting round the next bend.
When Pat Tillman died, a bunch of famous politicians showed up at his funeral and spouted the usual script about Tillman being taken to the Lord’s side. Tillman’s brother took the dais and called them out on it, asking them to keep their religion to themselves and reminding them that Pat had been an atheist and that as far as Pat’s beliefs were concerned, “he’s f—in’ dead.” There is this tendency for human beings to handle loss by pretending that it isn’t really a loss after all. That the deceased have merely changed lodging arrangements. They’re just living one universe over, but there’s no reliable wi-fi between there and here. We don’t really seem capable of being able to process the concept that something can be present in one minute and utterly vanished from existence in the next. Instead we imagine an otherworldy waystation, and that some day we’ll catch up to those who’ve gone ahead. The better we behave while we’re here, the better our chances of a good seat in the great beyond.
John Lennon says no, this is all there is. While one might initially be inclined to think of that in a negative connotation, I choose to see it as quite hopeful. Here, in this life, we have everything we’ll need. Because it contains everything that ever was and ever will be. The cosmos is the greatest recycler – new worlds are born from the deaths of the old. Every atom in your body and in the chair you’re sitting in and the air you’re breathing and even the words you’re reading right now came from a supernovaed star and will still be here long after they have ceased to exist in their present state. People die and are transformed. Physicality becomes memory, and the impact of action becomes imprinted in history. The music remains embedded in the record even after the needle has been removed. Footprints on the soft, malleable continuum of time are immune to the wash of the tide.
So can you imagine there’s no heaven and still consider yourself a spiritual person? Maybe that’s one contradiction too many for some, but it’s what I’ve considered myself to be. There is a magnificence to the universe that moves me. Throughout the chaos, patterns emerge, and their perfection is, for lack of a less obvious term, musical. My mind grows restless at the idea of settling on an answer provided for me by thousands of years of dogma; I would rather search out my own, and spend life imagining possibilities and connecting with those who fancy the notion of life as this ongoing quest, with all the supplies we require laid out before us in a limitless bounty. Living for today, and in peace.
I hope someday you’ll join me.