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I used to be Cleopatra after all

January 27, 2007

A couple of weeks back, I was walking down the street, basking in the afterglow of a day of celebrations raucous and quiet, attendant on my daughter in law’s baby shower. I kept breaking into retrospective grins over the sheer giggling quantity of infants and toddlers our kids’ friends and relations had brought to weave in amongst the proceedings.

What could be grander than mellowing out into another grandparenting gig? What, except the spectacle of the whole next generation stepping capably and for the most part happily into our old roles, with all that angst and joy and hubbub ahead of them? And I found myself wishing that, once I shuffle off this mortal coil, I could turn around, start right in again, and go through the whole cycle one more time. Not that I have any overwhelming objection to disappearing from the scene, but the game has been such a hoot, why not have another whack at it?

As Pope George Ringo used to say, “When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide, where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride…”

It was an oddly disinterested, depersonalized sort of wish. I felt no envy toward all these fine young folks who are still near the top of the helter skelter. The feeling was more one of, how delightful it is that this game is going on and is going to go on; and wouldn’t it be a kick if I were to get another turn.

I’ve never seen the payoff in reincarnation. What’s the point of returning, be it as pauper or prince, if the future me has no memory of the present me? But in the peculiar mindset I was in, this burst of detached lust for life, my usual objection lost its force.

And thereupon I realized something odd. If I stop caring about continuity of memory, then something indistinguishable from reincarnation just about certainly takes place. Billions of babies will be born in the few years after the angel of death kicks my bucket of life. Now, consider how very differently I – that is to say, someone with exactly my innate talents and predispositions – could have turned out if I had been born to a different station, a different continent, or a different gender. It is then obvious that thousands of those babies will be at least as much like “me” as I am like many of those alternate possible selves. Any one of them is therefore the moral equivalent of a reincarnation of “me”.

But it goes further. Because there are thousands of other babies with enough innate similarity to any one of those (say that Kabrala Singh who pops into the world the fourth week of 2078), to be the moral equivalent of a reincarnation of Kabrala. And, time being merely so much illusory Maya anyway, there’s nothing except our illogical human love for orderly sequential narrative to prevent any reincarnation from appearing earlier than its “previous” life rather than later.

And so, stone-hopping from one moral equivalent of reincarnation to the next, each in sufficient continuity to hang onto its me-ness, I can pretty well count on reincarnating sooner or later as everyone who ever has lived or will live. Literally? Maybe not. But I can derive all the (admittedly utterly intangible) benefits I would have derived if each reincarnation had been literal. So it comes to the same thing.

I would still prefer to retain the sense of personhood that’s bound up with memory. And even if it weren’t so, as a practicing Christian, I mean to hang on to the hope of resurrection and “saecula saeculorum”. But I can’t say I mind having in my back pocket this small and bemused consolation prize.

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