David Bouchier: Second Time Around

Jan 19, 2020

Marooned in a doctor’s waiting room, I started reading a sensational magazine article about reincarnation. The article speculated on the past lives of some enormously famous celebrities I’ve never heard of. The author appeared to believe that every media celebrity must be the reincarnation of some past media celebrity, a theory that runs into difficulties as soon as you get back a few generations to the time before media celebrities were invented.

The idea of reincarnation is one of the most appealing and at the same time one of the silliest of all human fancies. But if we set aside the logical and metaphysical problems, there’s no denying that it has an awful fascination. The belief in reincarnation may have emerged back in the mists of antiquity, and it may be one of the oldest human beliefs. Life was pretty rough a million years ago, and it was only natural for our ancestors to imagine another and better life. They probably got the idea by looking at their cats, sleeping by the fire at the back of the cave. Reincarnation was absorbed into various Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism and, in our addled age, it has reappeared as a significant part of all kinds of quasi-religions and so-called “New Age” therapies such as past life regression.

According to a Gallup Poll, 25% of all Americans believe in reincarnation. It’s easy to understand why. We don’t want to just vanish when we die, and we don’t want to do the same things all over again. It’s reassuring to imagine that we might come back as something or somebody completely different and better. The catch, of course, is that there’s no knowing what or who we might be in a future life. We might come back as anything at all: a bear, a broccoli plant, or a bedbug. I quite like the idea of being a bear, because I wouldn’t have to make too many changes in my lifestyle.

Some people find the uncertainty about their future incarnation disturbing, so they prefer to focus on their past lives. Oddly enough these past incarnations were all rather splendid. Everybody was famous and powerful or famous and beautiful. Napoleon and Cleopatra seem to be popular choices. Nobody was ever a scullery maid or a dirt farmer in a previous life.

The sting in the tail of traditional reincarnation doctrine is that it has a moral dimension. We come back not as the thing we want to be but as the thing we deserve to be, whatever that is. Bad behavior in a previous life might lead to reincarnation for example, as a politician, and you can see how things might go downhill from there. On the other hand, if we have lived well through many lives we achieve nirvana. We escape the endless wheel of rebirth and enter a kind of disembodied state of eternal bliss, much like retirement in Florida.

Who makes these decisions anyway? Is it some kind of algorithm? I don’t believe there’s any justice in this life, or the last, or the next. If you believe in reincarnation you can bet that, as with any other big gamble, the odds are not on your side.

Copyright: David Bouchier