Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Heaven" for Humanists

My seventh grade english teacher was one of the best mentors I think I have ever met. In the midst of the cauldron of insanity that is middle school, she actively worked to become the eye of the storm in the lives of her students. She also pushed us to analyze the literature we read as college students would. In the process, she instilled me with a deep appreciation for, among other things, the book "The Five People You Meet In Heaven".

Many years after reading this book for the first time, I noticed a copy of it on a shelf in the house of my deeply Christian aunt. I mentioned to her how much I liked the book and she was overjoyed. She proceeded to recommend several other books to me, all pertaining to a Christian view of death and heaven. This occurrence combined with the praise I've seen this book receive from Christians on the internet has made me realize how many people miss the point of this beautiful and emotional novel.

The fact that this novel is about death and the afterlife does not make it explicitly religious. Nor is it explicitly anti-religious. However, having read the book and having read that its author, Mitch Albom, is actually Jewish, I highly doubt that religion has anything to do with the story at all. Especially not the Christian religion.

When ever I pick up the novel again (as I do actually do on occasion), I scan the title and realize that the key word is not the word "Heaven" but "People". Upon reading the novel, you'll find that, though the story begins with death, most of the action takes place in Eddie's life, in his memories. When passing on, as they say, Eddie does not come into God or angels, but instead the spirits of human beings whom he had met throughout his life.

God is mentioned several times in the novel, but only in passing. When he meets his late wife in heaven, he asks her "if God knew he was there". She answers with a simple "of course". Nothing more.

Indeed, the entire premise of "The Five People You Meet In Heaven" is deeply humanist. Of the five lessons that Eddie learns in heaven, not one of them is about the importance of faith in any God, the sacrifice of Jesus or the love and redemption given to us by an all powerful deity. All of those concepts appear, but not in the context of gods. Rather, in the context of our fellow man. Eddie's wife teaches him about the power of love between people, the Captain teaches Eddie about the power of people's sacrifice for each other. The second person Eddie meets in heaven, Ruby, even states outright: "Religion, government? Are we not loyal to such things, sometimes to the death? [...] Better to be loyal to one another."

Throughout his romp through heaven, Eddie realizes and often regrets the fact that he had no idea how interconnected people are. In life, he was able to mentally justify actions such as killing in the war or begrudging his father. Once he is given the opportunity to view his life objectively, he realizes that every action he makes has consequences, for better or for worse, on the people around him.

Whenever I read the account of the last person Eddie meets in heaven, I burst into tears. No exaggeration. My feelings on this scene bring me back to a previous post I wrote on how ideology often insulates us from empathy. This is exactly what happened to Eddie during the war. So wrapped up was he in his own cause that he didn't realize how destructive his actions were to innocent people. The part that really hits me, however, is the part where the little girl he killed explains that she was the one who carried him to heaven "keeping him safe".

I think the key to the novel's message is in that last scene. Despite the awful fate the little girl befell at Eddie's hands, she still forgives him and allows him to redeem himself by washing away her burns. She is innocent, loving and completely forgiving. She also carries his final and most important lesson. It is through love, forgiveness and the hope for redemption that we may someday realize the interconnectedness and interdependence of mankind. We may someday be able to put aside our prejudices and learn to view people as... well... people.

Despite appearing on the surface to be a religious novel, "The Five People You Mean In Heaven" is one of the most important humanist novels I have ever read. And to the humanist end, I feel that this novel is far too often overlooked.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please be civil. :)