The Afterlife: A Breeze and a Good Rollin’ Sea

“Now Fiddler's Green is a place I've heard tell
 Where the fishermen go if they don't go to hell
 Where the weather is fair and the dolphins do play
 And the cold coast of Greenland is far, far away”
 --from the song “Fiddler’s Green” (1966) by John Conolly

It didn’t take much reflection to realize it was nothing at all like the future I wanted.

Sitting in a coffee shop, working on the outline for an upcoming talk to be given near the end of the month I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation among the three people at a nearby table. A financial planner was working with a young couple: setting goals, making plans for the future; you know how it goes.

I worked away as diligently as possible, but the always-easily-distracted mind couldn’t help but overhear the odd bit here and there. It was enough to get the gist: apparently they needed to be financially independent by age 55 so that they could pursue a life of leisure.

I bit my tongue. Really. I’m about that age, you see, and retired. A life of leisure is something that is within my grasp.

Only I just plain don’t want it.

Now please don’t misunderstand. You are not reading the scrawls of some hard driving workaholic. No, these are the writings of a person who has many personal interests and can do leisure as well as anyone. It’s just that there was a realization a long time ago: The traditional view of heaven would be, for me, a personal hell. If it doesn’t include some conflict and strife; something to overcome, I don’t want any part of it

Have you ever heard “Fiddler’s Green?” Written in 1966 by John Conolly, it describes a utopian view of what’s commonly referred to as “the afterlife” for a fisher. Here’s a videp of the song performed by its author:

Not exactly my cup of tea. Bottles of rum on the trees translate to hangovers under the same branches. Besides, I don’t need the captain to make my tea—that’s just plain lazy— and would much prefer it if she would mind the GPS or the charts…or whatever it is she spent the past 30 years learning how to do well.

Nonetheless, I find myself thinking about the afterlife a lot.

No, not THAT afterlife! There’s too much to be done, too many interesting things to do in this life to try and speculate about stuff that’s beyond understanding. The afterlife I’m referring to is the one that remains right here after I’m gone…long gone.

Think about it for a minute. What about the best work you do? Is it to provide benefit right now or for some time in the future? Easy, unless you are pathologically self-centered it’s for the future. You want to keep those you love healthy, safe and prepared for a good life. Now think about the best work we all do; the things we do when we pull together; things like: aiding the less fortunate, drafting better policy and laws, building bridges–all kinds of bridges, healing wounds—all kinds of wounds. Yup—future too.

So we work, for the future; and therefore, to a large degree, for the afterlife. We work for those who come after us, hoping that, through our labours, things may be just a bit better for them.

But let’s play for just a minute. Suppose we were capable of imagining what that other kind of afterlife might be. Lots of people have done that and, limited by their own horizons they have provided visions of what they see an ideal perpetual future to be for them if they could have anything they wished for. There’s a single common theme: bliss. People have done it various ways: endless time spent with people who are special to them, and doing the leisure things they love best; things like playing golf, relaxing on a tropical beach, experiencing music. On and on.

I’d give it two weeks, no more. Look, there’s only so many times you can whack a golf ball, eat cake, hear that musical piece, climb that mountain or lie in the sun before it becomes a total crashing bore. Fine for a few days, but eternity? Come on!

Here’s a twist for you: My own (and equally flawed & limited) view of that afterlife still includes pain and struggle. That’s not nuts. Why? Go back to the previous comment about the real afterlife; the one that occurs right here. If our best work and our strongest motivator is toward the betterment of those in the future then why would it not be a part of that imagined afterlife too? Betterment means conflict to resolve, obstacles to overcome and pain to endure.

Why, then, do the banks and the finance people pitch a life of leisure as the ideal?

Would you like my answer? No need, right? You’ve already figured it out for yourself so it can be left unsaid.

So is this to suggest that a life of ongoing, dreary hard work is supposed to be the ideal that we all should aspire to? Of course not! And, yes, the past question was a deliberate “framing” mislead, deliberately posed to evoke a desired response. It is really all about point of view, isn’t it?

I wish I knew the source, but for now, “some cop show I saw about 25 years ago” will have to do. Two detectives were sitting in a car on a stakeout and talking to pass the time. The younger of the two was finding the job quite a downer and said something like this, “This sucks! Day after day we go out there to catch the bad guys only to find that for every one we lock up there’s another one ready to take his place. I’ve had it!” The older, wiser cop’s reply, “You take out the garbage every day too and each and every new day there’s another load of trash. You might feel like giving up there too but then you realize just what it would be like if we stopped taking out the trash. It can be a lot worse and that’s why we’re here.”

It can, indeed get a whole lot worse. Consider poor, ravaged Haiti. It was once the jewel in the French crown. In the 1700’s the production of sugar from that (at the time) French colony was so valuable that, almost by itself, it supported the French empire. But what a price! Generations of slaves, poorly fed, beaten constantly, and worked to death produced that great wealth. Their efforts went unrewarded and the wealth went elsewhere. The land itself suffered a similar fate. Centuries of ecological rape reduced the soil to nothing more than barren dust. And today Haiti bears the scars; a broken land, its soul immolated.

It can happen anywhere. It is happening now. Look around at the wanton destruction that still occurs; the work of human hands. Societies, economies and environments; all under siege. From us.

And what’s to stop this? What’s to repair the damage? Us, too, of course.

So, is that all there is to life: taking out the metaphorical garbage; striving to, as the old saying goes, “stay one step ahead of the devil?”

Well, as a matter of fact, yes. But let’s realize that the previous paragraph also had that pesky framing problem. Let’s try it again, this time using framing in the opposite direction. “So, is that what life is about, living life with a sense of grace, knowing that there are challenges ahead that we may not completely overcome, but also knowing that, overall, the struggle is worthwhile?”

Yes, it is.

Have you ever heard of “flow?” Surgeons, musicians, pro athletes and artists know it well. It’s the feeling that comes from doing something you find personally meaningful; something that, through years of practice has become almost second nature; performing tasks that hardly anyone else can do as well as you; something you take pride in. It’s a great feeling. For the “expert” it’s what defines them.

But it can partially define the rest of us too.

And it’s why I’m never buying what the financial planner was selling. Thirty-five years of being an educator is not something I want to turn off. Probably couldn’t even if I tried. And I won’t.

John Conolly’s Fiddler’s Green is not completely wrong–he did get a lot of it right in his song. The last part particularly nails it, especially for those us lucky enough to always experience breezes and good rolling seas, with the odd gale to keep us sharp, of course.

“Now I don't want a harp nor a halo, not me
 Just give me a breeze and a good rolling sea
 I'll play me old squeeze-box as we sail along
 With the wind in the riggin to sing me a song”
--ibid

Epilog: Have you ever heard of project Broken Earth? There’s hope for Haiti; hope for all. Check out those who have so freely given of their skills, money and expertise. Their version of the afterlife also includes pain but lessening it for others is a big part of what defines them. They would add it’s probably the best part.

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About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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33 Responses to The Afterlife: A Breeze and a Good Rollin’ Sea

  1. elkement says:

    One of my favorite ‘business thinkers’, Randy Komisar, has called this “aiming at being financially independent by age 55 so that they could pursue a life of leisure” the deferred life plan. This idea is quite popular in some industry sectors or jobs where people consider their salaries compensation for pain and suffering.
    But I think we all know stories of people who worked diligently and “did what have they do” in order to “do want they want to do” someday and then died unexpectedly in their first days of retirement (Two people I know come to mind immediately).

    From a practical perspective it does not work out anyway (anymore) in this economy. I have just read about IWF’s ideas about cutting savings’ on bank accounts of all people in Europe by 10%. I don’t think there is any sophisticated financial plan, investing in gold or real estate or stock or whatever that can cover for the world’s economy crashing.

    Your arguments are also among the reasons I distrust the singularity hype – what would we do as immortal, disembodied, hyper-intelligent beings?

    • I like the way you put it. Yes, too many just put their lives on hold in hope of better days. Sad when you think about it.

      Pensions are getting worse. Mine was fairly expensive. My last job was one I had for 30 years and each year 13.35% of my gross earnings went into the pension fund…which is probably not as solid as anyone would like it to be.

      On my side of the ocean there seems to be a move away from “defined benefits” plans because it’s starting to sink in that nobody can predict the future and it’s almost impossible to design a payment scheme that will result in known benefits.

      And as for me, I don’t care. I enjoy work and honesty never see a day when I completely let it go.

  2. Mary says:

    Well I wouldn’t mind a ‘harp or a halo’ at all at all – (A. could play the harp 🙂 but think I know what you mean about purpose and meaning in this life- One of my favourite books is Viktor Frankl’s “Mans Search for Meaning” – have reread it at various points in my life and found that while some things that give meaning to my own life change over time- others such as family and meaningful work remain constant,

  3. Many of your words and ideas strike the proverbial chord Maurice, as usual. I agree that the life of leisure we all pursue wouldn’t be very enjoyable after a short while. At present I find my greatest enjoyments in working hard and stepping back, at the end of the day, and taking pleasure in what I have wrought. Now there’s satisfaction. Whether it be farming, teaching, or even blogging … to undertake something nontrivial and work at it, work at it hard until you’re truly satisfied is satisfaction. Perhaps you and I belong to a generation which prides itself in such accomplishment? Perhaps the pursuit of the sort of satisfaction I describe is what the younger generation would call ‘following your bliss.’ What is most debilitating to the soul is to be kept from that pursuit. So, I think you got it right … to be able to pursue your bliss is what we should all hope for in the ‘afterlife.’ As far as making the world a better place … that charge is, I think, beyond me. I do what I can. D

    • In 1988, the year Josephine and I married, I had my house in Southern Harbour renovated extensively: new roof, new windows, kitchen, upgraded electrical from 125 A to 200 A, redid the heating and more besides. After the job was finished, about a month later, the carpenter who had dine most of it and coordinated the rest dropped by for a visit–his only one ever. We chatted over a beer and he left. Only much later I realized the purpose of the visit: Pat Whiffen always took great pride in his work and he just wanted to drop by and take another look. In that visit I learned a valuable lesson: the greatest pleasure we get from work is the knowledge that it is not only the product of our own hands but a reflection of the best we have to offer.

  4. I had conversations with my son about this while he was making his college plans. He doesn’t understand why so many people who actually attain their dream job would commit to it for thirty or forty years, then succumb to societal conditioning and want to come to an arbitrary full stop. For those who figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives, he figures, why not do so literally and keep doing it for as long as they can?

    For those who find their lot in life and have that option at their disposal, I salute you and profess to a little envy. 🙂

    • Clearly you have done an excellent job in raising your son. The thing, then is to determine just what it is that we want to be spending the rest of our lives doing. Or, perhaps to commit to re-establishing ourselves on a regular basis. Nothing wrong with trying on a new pair of shoes every now and then 🙂

  5. jennypellett says:

    I recently had a letter from the state pensions department telling me that I won’t be able to draw my state pension until I’m sixty-six. That still seems a long way off and at present, I can’t envisage retiring – I have the best of both worlds anyway, as I work part time. However, with unemployment for young people here at an all time high, one wonders if the government have the balance quite right.
    For me, as someone who gets bored on holiday – I need to be ‘doing’ all the time – leisure is anathema – not that I don’t enjoy sitting in the garden with a good book – but with an endless horizon of possibility – I’d have to have a plan; something to work towards, strive for – to, as you so succinctly put it – overcome.
    Perhaps it is the way our post war generation have been brought up – there doesn’t seem to be the same intensity of purpose in our off-spring even though many of them are hard-working in short bursts.

    • Agreed, but on the bright side I have no doubt that when the time comes–that is when real responsibility (a family, a demanding job, etc.) appears they’ll grow in to it. I think that life’s lessons–the often difficult ones–are what tend to bring out the best in us; to make us become the people we need to become. And, agreed again–leisure will not do that.

  6. It’s funny how the bits and pieces of a discussion you overheard made you reflect on some deep issues. I think that those who want “leisure” when they retire, preferably early, might be people who have not found their “identity”, they work on something they do not appreciate and want it to end asap. I’ve seen many people die soon after retirement when they are supposed to enjoy that “leisure”. In some cases, I know, it was because they felt they became “nobody” overnight. The little identity they had was bound to their job and they didn’t find ways to continue building on it, or did not succeed in finding other meaningful/challenging/useful ways to contribute to the state of the “afterlife”. That’s quite sad when there is so much to do, as you say.

    • I find myself in total agreement with you! Yes, it is about having parts of you that weren’t defined by the previous job.
      One observation I’ve made since retirement is that not being the centre of a lot of attention took some getting used to. In my previous job, the emails, phone calls, knocks on the door and calls via Lync or Polycom never ended. In order to get stuff done I would just have to put a lot of people ‘on hold’ as it were else nothing at all would get done. Now, I find that a whole day can go by without a single urgent contact. It took a bit of getting used to but in all seriousness: I do not miss that part o work, not at all.

      • I had the exactly same experience when I retired from my long time career job three years ago. First weeks were kind of strange. Now I am consulting as much (or little) as I want to and I know when to expect urgency and when not. It’s a good place to be at 🙂

  7. seeker says:

    When are you retiring? Have you reached the magic number? How many years of service do you have? As much as I want to reach retirement age, just like you, I enjoy working in the school system not as a teacher but to watch and see the growth of the children. Pension, HA! It will be useless by the time I retire. As for the afterlife, it’s enough for me that I made a difference to one person. No such thing as freedom 55 for me.

    Never ever stop educating us, Maurice. Pax out.

    • My last day was August 30 🙂 Now, I do not intend to stop. Not at all. I did enjoy some down time to make some much-needed repairs around the house but now, with that done I’m moving on. I get to keynote an eLearning conference next week and am currently working on an eLearning project for a private firm so the show goes on 🙂

  8. My husband is in his 70’s, and while technically “retired” he certainly isn’t. He’s always got projects, many of them short-term consulting-type employment. Neither can I imagine a life of “leisure,” which would be, to me, a meaningless, useless existence.

    For me, meaning in life comes from being competently, authentically useful, in other words, helpful to others–not just superficially, but actually working to meet someone’s or a group of someone’s basic human needs for food, clothing, shelter, consolation and companionship. And that work demands something of a person; it interrupts one’s own leisure.

    I’m definitely in favor of some judicious resting (daily, weekly, seasonally, and even occasionally a whole year off from the usual “work”), but retirement? Bah! What a dreadful idea.

    • Aye! Yes, there is a danger in letting your work life define you completely and chasing the almighty dollar is, to me, anathema. That said, if no work, none of the good stress, no mission, no challenges, then what is there? 🙂

  9. johnlmalone says:

    I love that metaphor of the garbage and I love your ruminations. I’ve been retired for over a decade now but I do volunteer work, am in a new realtionship, writing short stories and doing gym regularly as well as maintaining social relationships. I keep busy and like you say I thrive on challenges — as long as they are not too big 🙂

  10. Another brilliant, thought-provoking post (you really are an expert educator aren’t you?!) I very much agree with your sentiment here. Too much leisure can quickly become a crashing bore. I find if I’m not being productive I teeter on the brink of depression until I pull back and find something useful to do and get on with it.

  11. Gede Prama says:

    Thank you for writing which is quite good and best wishes always, and greetings

  12. t says:

    Life is for living, squeezing every last drop of excitement and learning and amazement from every single second. Retirement and a life of leisure sounds hellish by comparison, except the absence of Lync, email and Polycom. That I could happily live with too 🙂

  13. artsmonkey says:

    Maurice if you ever write a book, I am officially here in line for a pre-order!! Really enjoyed this post!

  14. I was going to ask what you surmise about the people who created the stereotypical heaven of harps and leisure that doesn’t appeal to you (or me). Then it occurred to me that life for most people in ancient times was difficult and probably required putting in long hours of manual labor every day. For those people the chance to sit around and do nothing much must indeed have seemed heavenly.

    • An excellent observation. The life I get to lead when compared to that of even my grandfather… So different. I consider myself as lucky; privileged and try to live a life that respects that. Thanks for dropping by 🙂

  15. I’m going to buck the trend here – always nice to do that – and say I love my life of leisure.

    It’s 12 years since I chucked work in my early 40s to clear off to Spain and I don’t miss it one bit. The only reason for trying to get work (not that I succeed) is financial.

    I adore my time being my own to do as little or as much as I want. I adore not having to get up to go to work – although I do have to go up to take the puppy out and make food for Partner to take to work, but it’s a damn site better than me going.

    My first few years in Spain were sheer bliss. The past three months in Spain similarly so. I did nothing. Apart from playing puppy games, walking puppy around the countryside and down to the beach, cooking, cleaning, shopping, gardening, listening to music, and reading. Time flew.

    Having said that, my Gib life is very different. I do have things to do, not paid, but things to do nevertheless. Run the block, the meetings for it, and do the paperwork for my Partner’s business. Probably why the three months in Spain were so blissful.

    If I had enough money, I would have no interest in either of us working, and neither would he. We might do some travelling, or we might just chill at the finca. I’m never bored with my own company, maybe comes of being an only child.

    I couldn’t bear the idea of working until 55 and waiting for that dream life – only to drop dead before it arrived, or whatever. So hence it all got chucked as soon as feasibly possible. And I love every single minute of it.

    • One of the reasons I enjoy your writing is that you lean toward honesty rather than just trying to find some way to go with the trend. It’s good for me because it causes me to re-evaluate my current position(s). Since you offered hoinesty, I have to reply in-kind. Here goes: If I was to say that I did not enjoy the time off that I took (from Sept. 01 until Nov. 27) then I would be dishonest. I loved it! During that time I fixed up the house and shed, practiced my guitar and read–a lot. Fact is I could do it forever and enjoy it. In my case, though, some work opportunities have presented themselves and I am finding them quite fulfilling. Let’s see how it goes.

      • Honesty isn’t always the best policy. It’s rather like your previous post on apathy. When to say something, whether to say something at all, and if so, how much to say. So easy to offend – and be offended. And with half a story, it’s easy to jump to conclusions which leads to misunderstandings. That’s my excuse for writing long blog posts anyway!

        If I got some freelance work opportunities – like yours – I would probably take them. I also suspect our work environments were very different. Everyone has to play politics and persuasion etc to some degree but sometimes you can really have enough of it. I certainly had.

        i wish you luck with your new style of work life.

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