Is This All There Is?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 27, 2002
The singer Peggy Lee (or, Miss Peggy Lee, as she always liked to be called) died recently, as most of you, no doubt, already know. Now, I will admit to not being a really big Peggy Lee fan (nothing against her, or her music; she just didn’t make it onto my “top 10” list of performers; it must be a generational thing). I will even admit to being somewhat surprised to read in the paper of her death, because, you see, I thought that she had already died, years ago. Guess I was wrong…
But there was one Peggy Lee song that did make its indelible mark on me. (You know, those kinds of incidents that just keep coming back to you; something you’ve read or something you’ve heard that will just “pop up” in your mind, out of nowhere, from time to time, who knows from where…) One of Peggy Lee’s songs did that for me, and it was called “Is That All There Is?”. Some of you may remember it. It starts with Peggy sort of speaking the words. I won’t do it justice, I know, but here goes:
Then Miss Lee would sing the chorus:
Peggy then describes a circus—and falling in love—in the same blasé, somewhat disappointed terms: “Is that all there is?” she asks, over and over again. Like: we somehow thought there’d be something more to it than that…
That’s the kind of “final disappointment” we might feel toward life, if we have no sense of “something more”, no sense of there being something beyond this earthly realm. As one of our co-religionists described it:
It somehow doesn’t seem fair, does it?
According to Mr. Gallup, most Americans would answer our question this morning—“Is this life all there is?”—with a resounding “No!”.
No, they’d say, there is something more: According to a study conducted some years ago, 71% of Americans thought that there was some form of life after death. Most of these believed that when they died, they would be in the presence of God or Jesus, but less than half assumed they would see their spouses, parents, or other loved ones. About a third thought they would grow spiritually in heaven, but only about 18% of those polled thought they would grow intellectually (most had had enough schooling in this life, I guess). Only 5% thought that eternity would be boring, in spite of the fact that only about one-fifth (about 19% actually) thought they would have any kind of responsibilities up in heaven after they died (all play and no work, I guess; heaven as a sort of “celestial Disneyland”). (The same poll tells us that 53% of Americans believe in the existence of a Hell; although, as I’ve said before, only about 8% think that they’re going there.) Interestingly, too, 23% of Americans polled said they believe in reincarnation, and 24% say that it’s possible to have continuing contact with the dead.
Now, we in this church probably cover a pretty wide waterfront when it comes to our own personal perspectives on life after death. But my guess is that most of us would fall into two more-or-less distinct, but ever-fluctuating and interrelated camps: “Who knows?” (on one hand) and “Who cares?”(on the other).
The focus of our faith, frankly, is not on what happens to our individual selves after we die. Our focus is not on life after death or immortality or the resurrection or past or future lives, or any variations on this theme that so occupy the time of other religious groups. Our focus is on this life, (more or less) period. The rest is commentary; or, more accurately, the rest is simply speculation, we say. John Lennon’s song “Imagine”—
Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.
No hell below us, above us only sky—
could very well be a hymn in our hymnbook (and it might have been, except, perhaps, the cost of royalties was too high).
In our religious outlook, we concentrate on this life, which makes us rather unusual as far as religions are concerned, and means that, sometimes, people of other religious groups don’t know quite what to make of us. I was reading recently a sermon by a Presbyterian minister in Texas about this topic of life after death. He was speaking about the reaction his mother had to a funeral of a friend of hers, which had taken place at a local Unitarian church. The pastor asked his mother, “So, Mom, what kind of hope did they hold out [at the Unitarian church]?” And she replied, “All they could say was that [Martha] continues to live on in the trees and flowers and in our memories. Why, there was no hope at all!”
It’s always interesting and informative to see ourselves as others see us. On the one hand, one wants to say that these people just don’t get it, do they? To live on in the trees and flowers and memories of those we love—what greater hope is there than that?
But, if we’re honest, it can be kind of humbling, too. Because, at times, such an answer to our question— Is this all there is?— just is not enough. We’re like Peggy Lee, back at the fire, or the circus, there. We were kind of hoping there might be something more to all of this than Macbeth’s lament:
There is, deep inside of us, a “tooth that nibbles at the soul”, as Emily Dickinson put it. There’s a deep hunger, a deep longing that:
Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
Maybe everything that dies some day comes back
Even as we affirm this life, we yearn for that sense of something more. Thomas Wolfe wrote:
My colleague Judy Meyer tells about being asked to visit a dying man, whom she didn’t know. He wasn’t a member of her church; he wasn’t even a Unitarian Universalist; but some of his friends remembered that he had visited on occasion a Unitarian church when he had lived in New York City, so she seemed the right person to call at a time like this. She writes:
Then Judy Meyer asks:
It has been said that “Life is the valley between the sunlit peaks of two eternities.” And the poet Mary Oliver wrote:
And letting go is the hardest.
“We’re always saying farewell in this world of ours,” said Adlai Stevenson on the death of Eleanor Roosevelt. “We are always standing at the edge of a loss attempting to retrieve some memory, some human meaning, from the silence-- something that was precious and is now gone.”
It’s always harder to be the one left behind on the platform, waving good-bye, then to be the one going off on a journey, an adventure.
So, as though to protect ourselves and give us succor and comfort, we have, from time immemorial, woven the most lovely myths and legends and explanations to describe what’s there on the other side of sleep’s dark and silent gate—the other side of the veil:
To the Plains people, at death, people rise up into the sky and become clouds. As their last gift of love, they send down the life-sustaining rain. What a beautiful myth. What a beautiful metaphor… to see one’s lost loved one in the rain…
“All life is one, even as the river and the sea are one,” wrote Kahlil Gibran.
“Immortality is a word which love has whispered to us throughout the ages,” wrote Robert Ingersoll.
And Suzelle Lynch has written:
What a precious gift that dream was! The picture he received of the wife he loved so much, waiting for him. The picture he gave his daughters of the both of them united in peace and beauty for all time… Such a gift of grace, a gift of God…
Does it matter, then, whether there really are-- or aren’t-- crystal blue lakes in heaven? That the dead do not, physically, laugh and wave and smile and talk the way we do, here on earth?
That we have known such blessed souls along the way of our sojourns in this life is miracle enough. It is the greatest miracle, the greatest gift, of all.
As Forest Church writes:
I can believe there is a heaven;
I have seen it here; sung its tune;
felt it in my bones, and in my love.
Even here, amidst the toil and the tears,
the missed opportunities and disappointed hopes,
I have known the kiss of angels
and the strains of celestial harmony.
So, if this is all that there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing—dancing together in that great, mad, loving, confused, glorious, tragic, joyful swirl of life. Let’s keep dancing, and keep drinking deeply the cup of life, the cup of hope, the cup of love.