It’s 6:15pm, Tuesday December 10th, 2013. I’m sitting in my studio apartment, on the east side of manhattan, alone with a glass of scotch. It’s a 15 year Glenlivet that, even though it’s unbelievably rich and smooth, possesses just a small bite. You know that subtle kick that reminds you that you’re not drinking a cocktail. It reminds you that you’re alive. It’s a good feeling to feel, sitting in my apartment at this moment. The faint light from the dimmed edison bulb over my dining table, is bright enough to light the entire apartment, all the way down to the far end of the apartment where the back of my apartment door, normally a vibrant fire engine red, looks more like the type of deep blood red that you’d see in a horror movie. However dimmed the lights are, every inch of the apartment is exposed and the only other living thing in eyesight is my modest collection of scotch and wine. There’s no hiding the fact that you’re alone while in a 550 square-foot manhattan studio. Most of the time I enjoy the solitary nature of my apartment, but today is slightly different. Today we buried my Uncle Pete, who died of a debilitating multiple sclerosis-like disease.
Before you go apologizing or feeling sorry for me, please understand a few things. Firstly, I’ve dealt with death and loss a fair amount in my life and have grown rather used to it. No matter how much loss I’ve experienced, I know how many people have had it worse than me. I understood this at a young age, and just learned how to move on. The second reason you shouldn’t feel bad, is that up until today, my Uncle Pete was one of the people I counted as “lost”.
Sometime around the age of 12 he chose to remove himself from the family, and remove himself from my life by default. He had his reasons, and while I never fully understood them and definitely didn’t agree with the little I did understand, I just ignored the fact that he had ever existed. It’s really quite easy to do, to pretend like someone never existed. When he was “part of the family”, he was never there. When my father committed suicide, when my step father was abusive, when my house burned down… he was never there. This made it very easy to pretend he didn’t exist during the, not always easy, 20 years that followed his self-imposed exile. Besides, much harder than it was on me, it was harder on my grandparents (two of the most amazing people I’ve ever known) who through no fault of their own, lost their son and grand children 20 years ago. My Uncle Pete wasn’t a bad man, he just held onto certain beliefs or reasons that made him able to pretend that we didn’t exist. No matter my understanding of it all, it was his choice, and so I coped with it how I did. To me he was dead 20 years ago. That is ironically until today, the day that he died, he was all of a sudden seemingly alive again. At least momentarily.
I’ve never been a religious person and, to the slight disappointment of my family, I probably never will be. The idea that I’m living life in order to make right by a higher power and have eternal happiness in heaven or damnation in hell just never clicked. Until today, to be completely honest, I just didn’t believe in Heaven or Hell at all. I only felt that you should live a good life because organically and ecologically we are all connected. It’s hard to deny that what we do in life has a real impact on the things and people around us. I just never wanted that impact on the people and things around me to be negative. However, today I started thinking deeper about death, life, Heaven and Hell. I started asking myself the cliche existential questions like, “What life is life about?”, and “What if there really is a Heaven and Hell?” I then thought forward a step and wondered what the worst fate I could imagine for myself would be. What would hell be for me?
The answer is simple, to be alone. Not in the physical nature, but from an emotional standpoint. My hell would be to die, at any age, and feel as though I hadn’t made a positive impact on the people around me; to feel as though people ultimately wouldn’t care if I was here or gone. I think that feeling, that true and deep feeling of loneliness is what leads people to self-destructive behavior – even if it was their own prior actions that caused people to withdraw from their lives in the first place – feeling alone and unloved is a helpless feeling. Nothing can fill the void of feeling alone, except the feeling of love (as corny as that sounds). It is for this reason that the feeling of a real breakup, the feeling of being rejected by or losing a person you truly love (no matter what the reason), is often the deepest most seemingly un-healable pain. That is, until you begin to feel love again.
If we continue this line of thinking, that Hell is the feeling of being emotionally alone at death, then Heaven would be the feeling of being full of love at the time of death. To be full of love, to me, is to know that the people you cared for, care for you. It means that the people you’ve lost touch with or connection with, in someway, miss you. It means that you’ve had some form of positive impact on them. Heaven, would be to die knowing that people I cared for (and maybe people I wasn’t even aware of) were going to miss me, and that harm I had done to others could somehow be forgiven.
We are all imperfect, and we have all done wrong, but to truly feel loved means that the people you’ve had an impact on has been more positive than negative. To a certain extent, isn’t this is a large part of the criteria on which we decide whether to accept apologies? Is the person ultimately more good than bad? Was their mistake or action more out of character than in character? So, the decision on “Heaven” or “Hell” is left in the hands of the people around us. Do the people who we’ve had a major impact on (good and bad) love us, miss us, and/or forgive us. Forgiveness is a huge part of this equation, because ultimately I’d be surprised to hear of any serious relationship in a person’s life whereby that person hasn’t done wrong. Ultimately though, if we continue our relationships, then we tend to forgive that person. This is, however, a big difference from being absolved from your sins by a 3rd party (priest or god), this is about being forgiven for them by the people you committed them against. Not everyone will forgive you, and not everything is forgivable. To me, this is unfortunately the difference between Heaven and Hell. Some actions (or collection of actions) in life are truly unforgivable, and some people deserve to die alone, and to me that is hell. The worst feeling I could feel in life, at any point, is the feeling of having no one around who cared. This would mean that my sins outweighed the good I did. Hell, to me, would be to die with that feeling, deep in the pit of my stomach, that I was alone.
My scotch is almost gone, and my apartment is still empty, and the idea that my Uncle is dead, and the obvious realization that he was actually alive, is beginning to settle. Like I said before, from what I know of my Uncle, he was not a bad person, he just had certain beliefs and principles, now matter how much I don’t understand them, that he held true. 4-5 years ago, just around the time my Uncle got sick, through the help of my cousins and his amazing wife, my Uncle Pete began to reconcile with my grandparents and my mother. My uncle let go of whatever issues he had, and my grandparents and my mother forgave him. I, on the other hand, never really felt a reason to forgive him. I really wasn’t mad, I had just moved on from him as a person. However today got me thinking a little bit deeper.
If the difference between heaven and hell is my forgiveness, then I would say that I must forgive him too. Hearing the fondness with which my grandfather describes my uncle’s childhood, his love of technology and photography, makes me believe that he did have, while not a perfect existence, a positive impact on the people around him. I’ve done a lot of wrong in my life, and while I consider myself a good and caring person, I am deathly afraid of ever feeling that feeling of helpless loneliness of having done irreparable harm to someone. Could I live with myself if I were the person to leave him with this feeling of Hell? The answer is no. There are people who I could deny this feeling of forgiveness to, like my step-father, but ultimately if my grandparents and mother could get past this with my uncle, who am I not to be able to?
So basically that’s what life, relationships, and “Heaven” and “Hell” all boils down to… at least to me. Heaven is being loved and exonerated by those who you’ve impacted. Hell is being alone, and unforgiven. It sounds a bit overzealous, but if forgiveness is the difference between heaven and hell for someone, can you live with the decision to hold a grudge? I’m not judging you’re decision, but for me I’m going to take that decision a lot more seriously from now on. I’ll say it again, feeling alone is a debilitating feeling. It truly eats you from the inside out like a cancer. My biggest fear in life, is that I let down the people who love me to the point where they can’t be around me, to the point where they can’t forgive me. That is hell to me, and hopefully I can live up to the standard I’ve set. Today I forgave my uncle, hopefully he is at peace.