Seeing the World as a Spectator from the Afterdeath
“In the universal drama, you might say that I am still in the same theater of events, but I have moved from life’s stage to the balcony, where as an observer I am removed from the action in which life’s participators are involved. My status allows me a better view. I can look down, symbolically speaking, to see the actors coming in at one end of the stage, leaving at the other end, and I can also vaguely perceive other stages, both above and below. Besides this, it is apparent to me – though not to the actors – that on an adjacent level one stage leads to another; and that at death a new curtain rises.
While not presently involved in a physical drama, certain privileges are also allowed me in that I can shout out my comments and suggestions, urge certain actors on, applaud and boo as rambunctiously as I please. Not being personally involved, I follow the plots, characters, and themes, and because of my privileged viewpoint I can see where certain actions are leading, so that sometimes I call out in alarm, “Watch out,” or “Don’t you see what will happen if you don’t do something quickly?” Or, like a passionate theatergoer who impatiently stands up, stomping his feet, I might feel at least like shouting out my irritation at poorly read lines or inept performances.
Perhaps most of all, however, the intricate patterns made by the generations become increasingly clear. The importance of each minute decision by the most minor actor with the smallest bit part will influence all of the other actions both present, past, and future; for at one level all of the actors hear all of the other lines regardless of the time or place in which they are spoken, and all ad-lib in a simultaneous creativity so that the dramas change themselves constantly, all across the boards.
I understand those issues even though my box seat is so faraway from the stage that I only see the larger patterns of action, the greater motions that appear to me quite clearly, while I know from experience on the stage myself that these are unfocused and difficult to perceive. Still using out analogy, only special opera glasses would allow me to see the specifics sharply, and then these would be perceived through the lenses of my particular intent. That is, only a vital emotional yearning, a strong focus of desire, could bring given particulars into my inner range of vision.
I do not mean to carry the analogy too far, yet my role and that of others in the balcony is like that of the drama critic, except that unlike many of that breed who were dilettantes in my time, we at least began at the bottom – being stagehands, prop directors, then actors, writers, producers. Finally we move aside to study the overall productions, add out comments or criticisms and, backed up by considerable experience, to make what pertinent suggestions we feel will help.
In those terms, there are many others in the balconies. And few of them are bored, for all of us here have inserted our lines into the productions long before. We see them pop up time and time again, read differently, reiterated with a thousand various interpretations and used to further other causes, perhaps, than those we espoused. But to us is give the privilege of standing momentarily apart, watching how our life’s actions began before our births and continue beyond our deaths; but more, of perceiving the ever-spontaneous yet perfect order of the generations’ interactions; seeing, with considerable surprise how each birth and death is flawless in its timing, and how the most parochial of lives is universal in its effects.
Each barest whisper or muffled cry is heard everywhere, such are the amazing acoustics of this giant theater, which by its nature magnifies each sound and projects each though outward, where it appears also elsewhere, translated into a different medium. It is as if one actor’s spoken line were simultaneously transposed into a musical note in some vast ever-continuing composition; into one original line or color or shape that was part of some massive, spectacular painting always in process; into the physical components of nature – trees, rocks, animals – and into a million other transformations which even from my position would be impossible to follow.
Yet it is equally impossible not to attempt such a venture and like the other balcony-watchers I am aware that my balcony has only one box seat, while behind me is a door leading into perhaps even vaster theaters. When I have learned all I can from my present situation, the curtain behind me will open, of that I am certain, for even now to me from directions other than those immediately perceivable. For now, however, I sit with my back to that rather mysterious door.”
- William James (The Afterdeath Journal of An American Philosopher)