Saturday, 25 September 2021

Life is full of right and wrong turns

THE Pope may have ruined your road descriptions. Until now, you may have described a bad day trying to cross Henley Bridge as “utter hell” — assuming it was a place of torment that seemed to last forever — whereas the Pope recently suggested that it might not be a physical place after all (and, instead, souls simply disappeared, rather than enjoying eternal bliss).

Rabbis have always been wary of saying what happens next as, to be blunt, no one has sent a postcard back and it is all speculation.

The stories they tell about hell are really about this world rather than the next. Such as the rabbi who dreams he is taken there and sees a room full of people sitting round an enormous bowl of wonderfully smelling soup. They are holding spoons, but starving.

The reason is that the spoons are too long to fit into their mouths and so they are wailing in pain. The rabbi wakes up with a start, goes back to sleep and this time dreams he is in heaven.

He finds exactly the same scenario — people round a bowl of soup with spoons too long — but this group are all happy and content. In their case, they are each using their spoon to feed each other, so no one is hungry.

It is, of course, a homily on how we should behave in the here and now, and how co-operation and thinking of others will actually be good for us too. But no Jew believes that is an accurate picture of hell, or is even sure it exists. Let me offer three alternatives that might be more likely: first, that heaven and hell are a state of mind in this world. We each create a life that is fulfilled, or bitter, through a mix of our own efforts and how we react to circumstances around us.

Alternatively, there is the way we influence children as they grow up: if they witness domestic violence or suffer from neglect, we poison their lives and stunt their creativity; or we can nurture them and develop their talents. We hand on a loving or warped legacy.

Another possibility is that heaven and hell occur as we reach the end of our life, look back, think of how we have used our years, and have a feeling of completeness or hollowness as a result.

What all guesses share in common is that heaven and hell are in our control, and we are in charge of our own destiny.

Yes, we can be affected by the actions of others but so much of life is what we make of it and how we react to other people and events.

It can be hell crossing Henley Bridge, but even worse is looking back on the last few years and feeling one has wasted them or taken wrong turns. The trick is to make sure we get right the next ones.

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