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Our Unreasonable Fear of Death

Posted on 27 January 2018, 15:50

When Samantha was just shy of her fifth birthday—an age when her delight in every manner of living creature was well underway—she noticed a slug on the sidewalk.

This was the same slug she noticed just a few hours earlier, slowly crawling down the front steps of her home. Only now it was smashed on the sidewalk.

“What happened to it?” she asked.

“It looks like it got stepped on, Samantha,” said her mom.

“But why isn’t it moving.”

Her mom looked at her husband as if handing off the conversation. He said, “Samantha, it’s not moving because it died.”

She slowed her walk toward the house and looked puzzled.  Then she looked up at her dad and said, “Will you die, daddy?”

“Yes, Samantha, I will.”

“Will sister die?”

“One day, yes.”

“Will mommy die?”

“Yes.”

Tears began to fill her eyes. “Will I die?”

“Yes, Samantha. One day, a long, long time from now you will.”

Now inside the house, Samantha began to cry uncontrollably. When she calmed down just a bit, her dad continued, “Samantha, I know that makes you afraid. That’s okay. But why are you so upset? Are you afraid that if you die you’ll miss mommy?”

“No.”

“Are you afraid you’ll miss your sister?”

“No.”
“Are you afraid you’ll miss daddy?”

“No.”

She looked up at her dad, eyes swimming with tears, and said, “I’ll miss myself.”

When I first heard this strangely beautiful story from a friend of mine, it almost took my breath away.  Here was a little girl who grasped the human situation in all its sadness. 
She hadn’t been introduced to any of the strategies that adults contrive to drown out the terrifying thought of ceasing to be.  She saw the truth raw—what most of us feel if we’re honest with ourselves.

In this article we’ll consider the only answer that would have a chance of consoling Samantha—that, while death will certainly mean missing those she leaves behind, it won’t mean missing herself.

Science is king at public universities like the place where I teach.  Too often it steps beyond its boundaries and claims, or at least implies, that human beings are entirely material organisms, nothing more than physical stuff.  Too often students emerge from their classes thinking that belief in spiritual worlds and beings is for the weak of mind.

But what a forlorn worldview this is, as Samantha precociously saw.  Parents and children all annihilated, reduced to nothingness at death.  As the celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens said shortly before his death, “When I speak of annihilation I mean just that the screen goes blank.”

Does the screen really go blank?

Like Hitchens, I’m not capable of believing something just because it’s written in a scripture or promulgated by a religious leader.  I need evidence.  But this same empiricist bent leads me to conclusions very different from Hitchens’. My impression of him is that he didn’t make a serious study of the evidence.

The eminent English historian Arnold Toynbee was, like Hitchens, a non-believer in survival for almost all his life.  But he changed his mind shortly before his death in 1975 and credited research on the near-death experience (NDE) for the shift.  The last book he wrote and edited was titled Life After Death (1976).

Since his death the field of consciousness research has grown far beyond anything he could have imagined.  Not only do we get assurance that there is life after death; we even get hints of its nature—a spiritual world more plausible and attractive than most of us have been taught.

This evidence will probably not be enough to convince avowed physicalists that they survive death, for they are certain that the brain generates consciousness, so when the brain dies, so do we.  My colleagues and I find overwhelming support for a different view: that the brain mediates consciousness while embodied but that the brain is not necessary for consciousness to exist when free of the body.

One of the greatest goods of religion is the meaning it gives to our lives.  We are commanded to love and serve each other and are heartened by the promise that a good life in this world will lead to a happy life in the next.  This has been the teaching down through the ages of every religion.  Faith in this promise has brightened the days of countless generations and saved them from despair in the face of suffering and death.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.”  I am confident that Samantha’s tears will dry when she grasps the good news her dad didn’t get around to telling her.

Stafford Betty is a professor of world religions at California State University, Bakersfield. His primary research interest is the afterlife. He is concerned to show that belief in an afterlife is grounded on empirical evidence: the near-death experience, deathbed visions, mediumship, reincarnational memories of little children, spirit attachment and possession, and so forth. Four of his ten books explore the actual nature of the afterlife. He presently has three more under contract, including a novel THE WAR FOR ISLAM, due out in late 2018. His books, The Imprisoned Splendor, Heaven and Hell Unveiled: Updates from the World of Spirit, When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying? Afterlife: The Evidence and The Severed Breast are published by White Crow.


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Is your child’s “imaginary friend” imaginary or real? A case study

Posted on 22 January 2018, 13:30

On a trip home last week to visit family, I met Brenda, aged 67, at a neighborhood gathering. The strange story she told us lit up the dinner table. I had just mentioned I wrote a middle-grade novel about a clairvoyant child, and Brenda’s husband said that Brenda, who was back in the kitchen, had three “imaginary friends” she constantly played with when she was a little girl.
I had done a lot of reading about children’s so-called imaginary friends, and I knew what the “experts” with their Ph.D.s said about them: for a variety of reasons, often having to do with loneliness, children manage to hallucinate their playmates, project them out into space, and enjoy them.
I also knew that many of these children, once they grow into adulthood, insist that their little friends were real—the internet is full of such testimony. They claim their friends were spirits, with a life of their own, not at all imagined. I decided to get at the truth about Brenda’s friends. Two days later I interviewed her in depth.
Brenda turned out to be a past chapter president of an international woman’s organization, a past executive director of a child advocacy center, and a past executive director of a pro bono lawyer’s program. This highly intelligent and vital woman had impressive credentials. I knew she was someone I could trust, someone who wouldn’t make things up or even exaggerate. This is what she told me.
She grew up in a house with loving parents and a sister six years her senior. She had no playmates her own age and surmised that her loneliness drew her friends, three girls her own age, to her. Their names were Francie, Belikoma, and Gopi. She played with them everyday until she went to kindergarten. During the summer between kindergarten and first grade, they showed up again. They swam with her in the nearby bay. They wore their regular clothes, no bathing suits, but never seemed to get wet. One day the leader, Gopi, drowned.
I found this surprising claim intensely interesting and asked Brenda a series of questions. Did she, a child of six, witness the drowning? Was she upset, distraught? Were Francie and Belikoma distraught? What happened next? Her answer was not what you would expect. Brenda did not witness the drowning. Somehow she just knew that Gopi drowned. Brenda does not remember being distraught at all, even though she would never see any of the three again. Thinking back, she remembers feeling that her friends had become a little boring. It was as if their presence could not compete with her new school friends, and they knew it. The drowning was not literal; it was a symbol of their permanent departure.
But they played an important role for Brenda before kindergarten. They were always present, always accessible. And they constantly communicated, though not in words. Their mode of expression, as Brenda remembers it, was telepathic. Each of the playmates had a distinct personality, but Brenda doesn’t remember naming them. Their faces were mobile and fit the conversation. Brenda never doubted their love for her, and she returned their love.
How did her parents deal with the strange situation? They took her to a psychiatrist, who wisely counseled them not to worry. So they went along with their little girl’s demand that three extra chairs be set at the table. Brenda doesn’t remember their actually eating and is certain they didn’t “pass the bread.” Today she doesn’t recall a single episode of being embarrassed about her friends or disapproved of by anyone.
What does Brenda take away from her vivid early memories? Did the questions a professional like me bombarded her with loosen her belief in the reality of her friends? After all was said, might they have been imagined? “Not a chance,” she said. “I know what it means to imagine something. We all do. These were spirits with a life of their own. I believe they came to me because I was lonely, but I also believe they had something to gain by coming.”
What about all those dismissals by the professionals? Clinical psychiatrist Eileen Kennedy-Moore speaks for most of them. In Psychology Today she writes, “According to Marjorie Taylor and her colleagues at the University of Oregon, by age seven, about 37% of children take imaginative play a step farther and create an invisible friend.” She goes on to say, “On the other hand, if it’s not too much trouble, go ahead [and] play along. Set an extra place at the table for the imaginary friend, if your child asks you to do so…An imaginary friend is a unique and magical expression of your child’s imagination, so let your child be in charge of it.”
Rebecca Rosen comes to a different conclusion. In her blog she writes, “Children’s imaginary friends are often Spirits – usually guides or angels – who are making their presence known in a friendly, non-threatening way. I used to have them as a kid. My parents thought I was crazy at the time until I discovered my gift. Turns out I was talking with my spirit guides.”
Perhaps the most charming testimony for this other view comes from a girl whose mother posted her daughter’s eleven stick-figure drawings and running commentary on the net. Written in the child’s own hand, it reads, “This is Lisa. She is my friend. My mom and dad cant see her so they said she is an imaganery friend. Lisa is a nice friend.”
In my view there is a single overarching reason for the professional’s quick dismissal of Lisa’s realness: she doesn’t fit the materialist paradigm they learned in graduate school, and that paradigm says that spirits aren’t real. Brenda knows better, and she, and thousands of others like her, are, in my view, the true experts.

Stafford Betty is a professor of world religions at California State University, Bakersfield. His primary research interest is the afterlife. He is concerned to show that belief in an afterlife is grounded on empirical evidence: the near-death experience, deathbed visions, mediumship, reincarnational memories of little children, spirit attachment and possession, and so forth. Four of his ten books explore the actual nature of the afterlife. He presently has three more under contract, including a novel THE WAR FOR ISLAM, due out in late 2018.


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“Children and the Light” by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick – ALF Rose had this experience many years ago when he was ill with pneumonia as a young child of four or five. Suddenly I was out of my body and floating near the top of the window in my bedroom. I could see myself in bed and my mother kneeling at the side of the bed. She was crying and looked very distressed. I gazed at this scene for a little while and remember that I didn't feel any emotion at all and was completely indifferent to what I saw. Without any warning at all I was travelling very swiftly through a dense forest. Read here
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