THE IMMORTALITY PROJECT
On a hot August morning I sat on the steps of my house, paralyzed by the sudden
realization that I was going to die. Not that I was ill, or even especially old. Nor had I
believed, prior to that morning, that I was immortal. It's just that healthy, young folks live
with the unconscious conviction that death is something which happens to others, or to
them in a future so distant as not to be worth reckoning. Eventually we reach a certain age,
or encounter some harsh realities, and our perceptions are altered: we start to hear the
ticking of a clock.
And so I sat there on the steps, unable to move, to think ahead to my next meal, the next
day, the coming year, terrified and morose, anxious and apathetic.
Well thank God for friends, because I couldn't have rescued myself. Without my having to
stir, they must have sensed my situation, and one by one they began to gather about me,
some leaning on the banister of the stairs, others seated beside me.
Plotinus was there, smelling like a barn on a hot day, and Borges, nearly blind but neatly
dressed. Swedenborg stood before us all, very polite, with his shining, distant eyes, while
Ouspensky, short and muscular, nervous and fidgety, paced about. And Arthur M. Young,
the scientist and inventor, appeared wearing the same jacket he's pictured in on the back of
his book, The Reflexive Universe, the jacket with the outrageous lapels - and wearing that
same ambiguous smile.
Borges, who had the most flair for style, welcomed me as the newest member of what he
enigmatically called "The Immortality Project," whose membership, he noted, was fluid, and
whose task was perhaps unending "since," he added dryly, "we have forever."
"But that's exactly what I don't have!" I protested.
Arthur Young, crouching on the steps, said in a kind way, "In these little meetings we have,
all kinds of ideas are put forth. We find we make most progress when we leave ourselves
"Yes, yes," Ouspensky interjected. "In fact we have learned not to choose hastily between
one proposition and another, but to seek instead a larger Truth that is inclusive, perhaps
approximated in various forms."
"And so," said Swedenborg, and his voice was like a gentle stream, "our method is to put on
the table any number of interesting notions on our topic, including your own, and see how
we may help one another."
"The only rule," came the voice of Plotinus, shaky with age but firm with conviction, "is not to
make rules. No dogma, no creed. Let the ideas grow and they will live!"
"To tell you the truth," I spoke up, "I feel a little better already. Somehow just being here
with you, and being able to talk, allows me to breathe more deeply and calmly. Things don't
seem quite so grim."
"Excellent, " said Young. "Let's get started, then. One of my enduring interests is the
harmonization of science and religion, or, to put it another way, I've always been fascinated
with how the material world and its properties relates to consciousness and our search for
meaning. You are familiar, I assume, with the idea of the conservation of matter?"
"In a general way," I answered. "And, if I understand where you're heading, you are going to
suggest that, in dying, our bodies are converted to energy which in turn may become
"frozen" into material form again, and that this continuous exchange is objective proof of the
indestructibility of our basic substance."
"Indeed," Young responded after a moment's silence, but his mind was already somewhere
else. "Excuse me, I was just reminded of that physicist who died mountain climbing - Pagles
is his name. Have you read the concluding lines of his book, The Cosmic Code? It's eerie:
he speaks of frequent dreams of falling to his death, and how, gradually, his sense of fear is
replaced by a remarkable calm, as he comes to realize his being is knit into the fabric of the
"Fine stuff," Borges nodded approvingly at the speaker. "But wouldn't you agree, Professor,
that for those of us who are parents there exists another code, more personal than cosmic,
which affords us a continuing existence of a sort after death? I'm speaking of the genetic
"You mean our progeny, our children?" Swedenborg ventured, a little lost in the science of
a later age.
"Yes," I agreed, though the question had not been directed at me. "I know this both as a
son who sees his parents in himself and as a father who sees himself in his children. It's
fascinating to observe - but I'm afraid it won't afford much consolation when I come to face
that awful moment alone."
"Besides," Ouspensky chimed in, "more crucial than the inheritance of the flesh is the
inheritance of the spirit. The whole ancient caste system of India suffers from this
misunderstanding. A woman must find a man, not from the proper family or economic
background, but one with the subtle affinity of a soul-mate."
Plotinus, who had been sitting so still as to appear asleep, smiled toothlessly. "That is the
reason I have never divulged my place of birth or ancestry! I resist the popular inclination to
define me in such outward terms, terms, you will note, imposed by nature or by chance; I
insist on being understood in the more dignified terms of my chosen actions. And so too
with my offspring: rather than procreate and produce a whole brood of little Plotinuses I
perpetuate my ideas through teachings to my disciples."
"No doubt the habits of your personal hygiene are an aid in preserving your blessed
celibacy," Borges remarked wryly.
The whole gathering laughed, and I saw how much they loved one another, and how
effortlessly time seemed to pass in their company. In the midst of this mirth we became
aware of the approach of a visitor. He came slowly along the warm, empty street, riding
atop a huge tortoise (this favored mode of transport likely being responsible for his habitual
tardiness); all in turn welcomed Fu Hsi, the emperor of China, he to whom the gift of writing
was first imparted by an aquatic unicorn, he who composed the sixty four hexagrams
constituting the world's first book, the I Ching.
Dismounting, the monarch bowed. Then, from a satchel, he produced a number of stalks
which he tossed haphazardly into the air: they fell to the ground in the form known to the
wise as the Li hexagram. Next, from the same pouch the emperor removed a manuscript
wrapped in silk. Consulting its pages upon the tortoise's back, his fingers came to rest upon
the proper passage. Looking up from the manuscript at me he quoted, "As you grow older
you see that life is very fragile. This causes depression. Do not overreact to cure the
sadness. To do so is unnatural, not the real you. As you grow older you see that human
nature is vain. This causes cynicism. Re-examine and re-dedicate yourself to your motives
and values. Avoid extremes and excess."
I noticed that Ouspensky, normally so restless, had become still; I recalled his interest in
Tarot cards. I glanced down at the stalks from which the sixty four possible hexagrams
could be constructed, and I thought, If the matrix of possibilities is infinite, then all things
may happen in the course of eternity..
Inadvertently, I must have spoken aloud, for Ouspensky seemed to echo my sentiment.
"This present world," he observed, "is not the only reality we may know."
"Nor necessarily the best," Young offered. "Consider: how is it I was able to develop my
theory of process? The answer, in part, is that I browse, and in browsing, happened upon a
number of texts that shaped the direction of my life. You, in turn," he continued, directing
his remarks now to me in particular, "have come to know me, as well as the others gathered
here, through this same very fine habit of searching out books and ideas. Now we all tend
to consider such discoveries fortuitous, though over time we can hardly imagine our lives
without their influence. So it seems valid to imagine there are people and ideas that by
chance we never encounter in this life, but that might have created for us a very different,
perhaps more felicitous, and certainly every bit as inevitable-seeming, world."
Fu Hsi had now seated himself before us, with his back leaning against the tortoise who
crouched peacefully on the sidewalk, his limbs pulled within his shell, his leathery head half
- protruding. Neither the beast nor I understood the sense of everything we were hearing,
but we were experiencing something more important: time here seemed to slow down and
expand - its leisurely pace was no longer dictated by the cold indifference of hours and
minutes and seconds. Time ebbed and flowed with our feelings, and there was always
enough, and yet more, as if time itself were engendered by the beauty of ideas, and
sustained by their loving cultivation.
"Your Majesty," I addressed the emperor, "what is the significance of the art or writing you
"Discovered!" he hastened to correct me, "not invented, discovered. As memory is to the
individual, so books are to civilization. Just as a man's actions are influenced by his
remembrance of the past - his desire to avoid repeating a mistake, or perhaps his wish to
continue some important work - so a culture can come to learn from the errors of its past
and build upon its accomplishments. ..And..."
"And..." I prompted him.
"And there is an additional, esoteric sense in which writing and immortality are linked."
Borges shifted slightly in his place but remained silent. We all waited. Fu Hsi continued.
"All of us here," he said, gesturing to the assembled company but looking at me, "have
been summoned from the dead through this work of fiction you are making. And if your
research has been thorough, and if your understanding is deep, then in a sense we live
again, and move and think and speak. This miracle is accomplished through the gift of
writing: first we, the members of this Project, immortalized our ideas, which enables you to
know us; then you recreate us in your imagination - and here we are!"
"And who's to say," Borges interjected in characteristic fashion, "that this present fiction you
construct is not embedded within another story? Who's to say that you, dear author,
through whom I live again and speak in pleasing paradox, are not the fictitious recreation of
another mind that lived and suffered long after our earthly life, who found your book and
discovered in its words bright consolation, and who, wishing to immortalize his discovery in
the timelessness of artifice, constructed this present world in which you fret and yearn?"
All fell silent. The only movement was the occasional blinking of the tortoise's eyes that
produced a soft clicking sound. Swedenborg alone seemed displeased, or at least
detached. Sensing this, Plotinus called to him softly.
At the sound of his name the visionary roused himself; only gradually did a look of familiarity
return to his eyes.
"I was conversing with a great, fallen angel in a cold and rocky place," he answered, trying
to regain his composure. "His name is Shemjaza. His shattered wings will never heal, so
he drags them about as he wanders among the slate-blue stones. "
"Sir," I ventured, attempting not to sound incredulous, "you have visited both Heaven and
Hell, conversing there with angels and demons?"
"So much joy and tribulation has been granted me," he answered.
"And will the dead be gathered to everlasting judgement and eternal life in the company of
these celestial immortals?"
Swedenborg had regained his calm and spoke slowly, with a disarming air of matter-of-
factness, as if discussing events in a nearby town or city.
"Heaven," he began, "is exactly like earth, and there we will do the same things we here
engage in: we will walk along avenues and through parks, we will sleep in beds inside our
homes, we will even occupy ourselves with fruitful works. The only difference is that there
all things are spiritual essence rather than the material forms which are on earth their
"So you reject," Plotinus inquired, his interest piqued by what he sensed was an allusion to
the Platonic Ideas, "the popular Christian notion of Heaven and Hell as places of physical
bliss and torment, and along with this the idea that these states exist in a future and far-off
time and place, attainable after a final judgment?"
"Heaven is a state of mind," Swedenborg concurred, "which is why it is possible for me to
discover it while still in fleshly existence. As for judgement, understand this: the Lord, whom
I have come to know as the Divine-Human, wishes no harm to his creatures, but bestows
the gift of free will. It is our actions and habits that form a self-judgement."
"As you do, so you become," Young nodded.
"Yes. The damned in Hell are trapped there for eternity not as a sentence imposed from
without, but because, through a lifetime devoted to some sin, they have evolved into beings
incapable of any other actions."
"And the virtuous?" Plotinus asked. "Do they not, through a life dedicated to the Good, the
True, the Beautiful, discover that their habits have become, in the next life, permanent,
immutable aspects of their being, from which there can no longer be any turning?"
Here Fu Hsi re-entered the conversation.
"Is is said that the Chinese mind is a practical one, more comfortable with ethics than
metaphysics. But I feel constrained to point out, Emmanuel, that in my experience the lives
of most men are lukewarm - neither wholly given over to virtuous activity nor completely
surrendered to vice."
"I believe that is one of the reasons," I spoke up, "that the Catholic Church developed the
idea of Purgatory, a place of temporary punishment and cleansing in preparation for eternal
Ouspensky practically leaped at us in his eagerness.
"It is also the reason," he said earnestly, "that there exists the eastern and esoteric belief
that we need many lifetimes to undo our errors before we can ascend to a higher plane."
"The belief," Plotinus interrupted, with just a hint of impatience, " is neither eastern nor
esoteric. Plato spoke often of the transmigration of souls where the dignity of each new
form was determined by the deeds enacted in the previous lifetime. And before Plato there
was the cult of Pythagoras, which taught of a Fall from a pure, immaterial realm, and of the
soul's quest to reascend..."
"Pythagoras came from Egypt, or at least was indoctrinated there!" Ouspensky practically
"As was I, " Plotinus responded in a tone of exaggerated softness.
"Gentlemen," Young interjected, palms upward and trying not to laugh. "East, west, south,
north...the interesting question you raise here regards the notion of a Fall, which seems a
universal idea, and one that I have re-examined in the objective light of science."
"Please wait!" I cried out. "A two minute time out, everyone, please. I don't want to miss
Saying this, I jumped up and ran indoors to the kitchen, returning a few moments later
carrying a tray laden with a jug of iced lemonade and six glasses. All drank gratefully in the
summer heat, and our conversation resumed amid the soft clinking of glass with ice.
"The Fall," I reminded Young of our topic, "is familiar to me from stories I heard as a child,
and has been understood at a number of levels."
I was feeling comfortable now, with a pleasing sense that I had ceased being merely an
object of concern to my guests, as was evolving into a member of the Project.
"At the personal level," I continued, there is the Fall from grace we all know when we sin. At
the level of the human race there's the legend of Adan and Eve, their eating from the tree of
the Knowledge of good and evil, and their loss of innocence through which, it is said, Death
entered the world, and which an Easter poem describes as the "happy fault, the necessary
sin of Adam which brought to us so great a Redeemer." Finally, on the cosmic level,there is
the Fall of Lucifer and his angels, which some have interpreted as a pre-scientific intuition of
the process whereby the universe came into being - is this the meaning you had in mind?"
I looked at Professor Young: he was wearing that familiar, enigmatic smile. After a pause
he said,"These three levels of meaning are inter-related, according to my Theory of
Process, wherein a series of stages at one level of evolution is mirrored in microcosm by
substages at a smaller level. In any case I see the term, Fall, as unnecessarily negative.
Spirit, Infinite Potential, empties itself into the material world and in so doing renounces its
complete freedom in order to become some thing, not everything. But this self-indulged
limitation is also a defining principle: in the arena of time and space Spirit plays, learns to
master the deterministic laws of the cosmos, including those imposed by its particular form,
and achieves what I see as its goal: consciousness."
"So that the universe comes at last to recognize itself," Borges offered, "as the title of your
"But this is most curious," Borges persisted, now turning to Plotinus. "It seems that this
tradition of a pre-cosmic Fall, and of an eternal, ideal realm from which the transient world is
derived, which can be traced back at least as far as your master, Plato, can lead to
diametrically opposite conclusions. On the one hand we have the view of Gnosticism,
according to which the created world is false - a prison fashioned by an evil Demiurge, into
which the soul sinks and become enmeshed , and from which it must one day awaken and
ascend to a Kingdom of Light. On the other hand we have the professor here celebrating
this Fall from grace, or from simplicity, or from perfection, as a positive process he sees as
Plotinus stared back impassively, and said, "Our words, once uttered, like our children,
once born, will go their own way - as evidenced by our little clique. But I am in agreement
with Arthur on this point: Love, divine Love, needs to express itself by turning outward in
Fu Hsi tossed an ice cube in front of the tortoise, who darted his head out and snatched it
up. My neighbor's cat, meanwhile, with whom I have always been on barely civil terms,
happened to wander by at that moment, and become fascinated with the huge, shy monster,
whom she approached with characteristic circumspection. For a while we watched the
animals while about the irrepressible wood lilies swayed and yearned on their graceful
stalks. I felt my mind to be a magic screen, like those in Balinese shadow puppet theatre,
separating the visible from the invisible. Outside the screen was the world - the beasts and
flowers, the quiet street dappled with shade from the arching trees. Behind the screen was
thought, impression, understanding, and ego as well, with its hopes and fears. But at that
moment I was poised between these two: I was the magic screen of mind, a passive, open
doorway, observing and thinking.
"For a long, long time," said the cat in a soft and feminine voice, gesturing with a paw at the
flowers, "this is all there was - the mute, mindless world of vegetation."
This," the tortoise added in melodious baritone, "and the urge to become, to evolve beyond
the present condition."
A bustling, brown bee alighted on a lily.
"So that, over time, animals emerged form the plant world, and in more time, humans with
their distinctive mental powers grew beyond their animal origins," he said rapidly, matter-of-
"Leading who - knows - where," sang a robin invisibly, overhead.
"Leading whither you will," winked the cat, looking straight into my eyes.
Upon the magic screen, on the surface of my mind, at the horizon of reality and fantasy,
something was happening. The swarming forms that earlier seemed pointless now
appeared purposeful. Yeats' "sensual music" seemed suffused with spiritual overtones. His
"dying generations" appeared contiguous and interdependent.
Rousing myself, I turned toward my companions of a moment ago: only Plotinus remained.
"Where have all the others gone?" I asked.
"They left, one by one, as you no longer needed them," came his reply. "Now answer me
this," he said facing me squarely, and sounding suddenly serious, "What is immortality?"
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, then began:
"We die to be reborn at a higher level of existence, but only if we freely choose this path.
The key to fuller life is the idea of self-transcendence. If we love too deeply what we are
that is all we'll ever be - and that's a choice often made, judging by the evident persistence
of lower forms. But if we put our faith in a principle that is by its nature beyond our full
understanding, and dedicate our days to the transformation of self, and trough self, world,
we may find, at the hour of our death, that the fearful self has already been cast away, and
we're free to embrace that which only metamorphosis can bring."
"Hmm," Plotinus mused. "So, to paraphrase the Gospel, we know not whither we are going,
but we know the way?"
"Let me explain myself this way," I answered. "When I was a child I cherished a peculiar
image of the afterlife as a placed where I was eternally seven years old; there I played with
friend, all day, every day, racing little toy cars down a hill."
"That still doesn't sound too bad to me," the philosopher interrupted.
"I know, but the world only grows if individuals grow. So I ask myself now what a worthier
paradise would be like...and I imagine a building with many rooms , like a museum, but
instead of being filled with art these rooms are suffused with various shades of light. I look
about in vain for the adult equivalent of childhood's friends and toys..."
"Delicious food, perhaps, and beautiful women?"
"Exactly, I'm afraid. And I realize I'm so entangled in my animal existence that I practically
equate it with my truest self."
"A desperate grasper, plagued with unremitting fear he'll lose what he thinks he needs. It is
surprising how little is left of what you call ego when you subtract fear and desire."
"Yes. But you see, these heavenly rooms, being devoid of objects, invite another, more
innocent and curious me, less personal but more permanent, who wanders among these
mansions in search of what he might yet be..."
"Professor Young, in his book, compares us to the clam that can dimly sense, from the
ocean floor, a word of wonders beyond its present grasp, " Plotinus remarked.
"I believe it is that very sensing," I responded, " that wishing, that discontented dreaming,
that is the agent of change! It is clear to me now that, though thoughts must lead to actions,
the one essential ingredient in the evolution of Love..."
"The evolution of Love?"
"The one necessary thing, about which there can be no pretence, no sham, is the purity of
the mind. Consciousness is not a trap, but a door opening to divinity."
Plotinus smiled at my enthusiasm, and said, "Values are eternal, but depend for their
effectiveness on people who come and go. A heart consecrated to beautiful ideas is
destined to participate in some way in the shaping of a brighter tomorrow for humankind."
"How paltry a price seems the ego to me now," I smiled. "The dying of that part of me does
not feel tragic any longer."
Plotinus knit his brow.
"Talk is cheap,:" he warned. "Against the grain of your society you need to break from
many acquisitive habits. Especially as you get older you would be wise to see your life as
forming a trajectory aimed at your death. Simplify. Move toward that which has permanent
value. Become outwardly detached and indifferent, but inwardly zealous. Avoid the fate of
those who would be forever young, forever plaing with vain appearances, forever lost - my
God, I sound like Fu Hsi!"
"Or like as fortune cookie."
"Food again! You mentioned your children earlier. I assume the bravery you wish to
demonstrate in the face of the unknown would be a valuable lesson to impart to them?"
Suddenly I saw before me the ocean shore: I was standing at the edge of the cold, roaring
waves with my sons, as we stand every summer. I turned from the vision and addressed my
companion with a smile.
"I hope to behave at that hour of death as I do at the beach where, facing the wind and the
waves, I cast away inhibitions, and throw myself into the water."
"And do they follow you?"
The philosopher searched me with a gaze I could not interpret, then asked softly and with
tenderness, "How did you ever get into such a crisis as we found you in?"
As if in response to this query the great tortoise stirred and shifted his position. In turning
he revealed upon his shell strange markings resembling the hexagrams in Fu Hsi's Book of
"Can anyone interpret this pattern?" I asked.
The cat scampered onto my shoulder, from where he could view the tortoise's back. Then
she read,"Let your work identify you and let it be a labor of love. Success comes through
quiet efficiency, loving service and conscientious devotion to duty."
"I guess I had lost my way," I acknowledged. "I think the purity of my goals had become
compromised. I've had a tough summer, and I'm getting older as well, seeing things
I took the cat from my shoulder and placed her on the grass; she slipped away. The
tortoise rose in a sign of leave-taking, and I gathered the empty glasses onto the tray.
Plotinus also stood, as if preparing to depart, but paused on the steps and touched my arm.
"Is there something else?" he asked.
"Yes," I admitted.
"Not what, who? - Inge. Won't you come indoors with me?"
Ponderously, my remaining guest followed me into the living room; I motioned for him to be
seated on the sofa. Then I reached behind him and took from a table three dark brown
volumes. On top was his own Enneads, printed in double columns with a tiny lettering
incongruous with the expansive metaphysics it conveyed. Beneath this were two slim
volumes of commentary on the great treatise, composed in 1918 by William Ralph Inge, and
originally delivered at the Gifford Lectures at St, Andrews. These I handed to Plotinus for
"The longest chapter in this work," I informed my guest, "on the subject of The Immortality
of the Soul. Now believe me, you have no deeper admirer, no more perceptive
commentator, sir, than this gentleman."
"Never mind the sugar coating," the old man shrugged, "I'm interested in his criticism - only
through this can I continue to learn. Clearly you bring this writer to my attention in the
hopes of correcting what you perceive as some error of mine."
"Not an error but an imbalance," I admitted, "and one that he traces through the whole
history of your 'school' reaching back to Plato. I refer to your excessive idealism and your
insufficient appreciation for evil and sin, and for the pain and suffering that are their
"Hmm," he breathed, and then he sat there looking at me.
"I'm in the same position as you," I stammered, "and I've found this man's insights
illuminating. When we incorporate his views into your neo-Platonic system , the picture that
emerges, both for the individual and for humanity collectively, is of an even more difficult
path than I had imagined. But I'm sure you'll agree: facile delusions lead nowhere, whereas
a glimpse of truth, even difficult truth, affords hope."
"So you are now dissatisfied with the concept of Evil as the absence of Goodness? What
would you then - drag down the Perfect, the Changeless, the Transcendent One and smear
him with human foibles as did the barbarians? Goodness is only good in a world where Evil
is possible, and where Evil is possible it will sometimes be chosen."
"I know that - that is, I'm sure you're right...I mean to say that thought has occurred to me.
But I'm thinking of something else here, related to our theme of Immortality. See here: if
death were simply a means to metamorphosis, a gateway to higher life, then why wouldn't it
feel good? Why does the process of transformation involve suffering and pain? Now, Inge
says suffering is a symptom, not the disease itself, and you know very well that, with
physical disease, the pain we experience can actually be beneficial insofar as it alerts us to
a condition requiring attention."
Plotinus now asked, "So are you suggesting that a spiritual illness afflicts us, and that the
suffering and decay associated with dying are intended to instruct us?"
"They are, I believe, a reminder, even a judgement, that we have failed, that we might have
lived better, a harsh lesson imposed unilaterally by nature, for who, given a choice, would
willingly sacrifice his life in the interest of self-improvement?"
"So our suffering is a punishment levied on under-achieving humanity - nay, on the entire
"I would rather avoid the term, punishment, although we can learn, indeed, from misfortune.
Let me avoid a misunderstanding here: Inge does not posit a direct relationship between the
depth of suffering a person is called upon to endure and the nature of his actions in the
present or in some former life. Often the best suffer most, while the worst get off easy - at
least in the short term. He's thinking of the bigger picture: we all come to decay, pain and
death, and what I'm wondering is, can it be through this suffering that the world is saved?"
"In the sense,as you say, that such a demise drives us ever forward toward new efforts..,."
"Or at least opens up that opportunity..."
"Whereas the alternative, a world without the instruction, the admonition, of a punishing
death, might be a complacent world that never strove for that self-transcendence you have
equated with immortality?"
"Yes, and these thoughts lead me back in a wondrous circle to some notions I held dear in
the past, the wisdom of which I see anew."
"You are referring, I assume, to your Catholic upbringing, your old infatuation with sin and
repentance, your visions of purgatorial fire?"
"You're missing the key ingredient: Inge speaks of Christ's crucifixion as 'vicarious suffering'
and this is the central mystery of Christian theology, the senseless folly, as St. Paul puts it,
in the eyes of the world."
Plotinus said,"I admit it has always been a stumbling-block for me, how the gruesome death
of the god-man produces any ameliorative effects on a unrepentant humanity."
A thought from deep in my memory surfaced. I hesitated a moment, uncertain whether to
share it. But something miraculous was happening: I was on a roll, feeling inspired,
lecturing the master philosopher whom I had, as it were, pinned to the sofa by virtue of
artistic license. So I spoke.
"When I was a child I saw an episode of the science fiction series, Star Trek. It's set in the
future - my future , I mean. In this show, heroic explorers travel to distant worlds..."
"Yes, yes, Kirk, Spock- we watch it all the time," Plotinus smiled. "Go on."
"Well," I continued, "in this particular episode, they encounter, on some planet or other, a
mute woman dressed in diaphanous folds, who is mysteriously described as an 'empath.'
Her sensitivity to the pain of others is so acute that, through touching them she is gradually
able to absorb their pain, relieving their distress, taking it voluntarily upon herself, before
somehow exorcising it to oblivion. The ideas of intense identification, deep compassion,
and especially vicarious suffering impressed me deeply. I have often wondered since then,
in a world of apparently endless grief, if all of us are made to bear the same or only our
alloted portion, or whether, instead, some might feel called, at a certain time, and in a state
of enlightenment, to suffer the pain of others..."
"The Buddha," Plotinus said softly, "though he found suffering to be the consequence of
grasping after illusion and learned to escape it, valued compassion above all other qualities,
and, according to some, continually declines the blessed temptation of nirvana in order to
re-enter the world and be of continuing assistance as Boddhisatva."
I nodded and said, "As I get older I feel the pain of the world more acutely. I see fallen birds,
even insects in agony, and I experience something like outrage. Professor Young was right:
this is not the best of all possible worlds. Remember how he spoke of Divinity emptying
itself into creation? Back in catechism we were taught that God, in his goodness, wanted to
share his joy and so he made the world, but..."
"But the Evil One," Plotinus anticipated, and all the war and enmity that seem to emanate
from him and perennially plague the planet, are in essence no more than an externalizing, a
manifestation, of an inner sickness..."
"Which we may define as a deep self-hatred we all carry within us, a loathing at our failure,
a disgust with our weakness, and sometime a fatalistic indifference."
"The picture gets gloomier and more bleak," the philosopher remarked.
So we sat there with our chins cupped in our palms, amid the detritus of empty glasses, as
the sun began to set, I felt unsettled again: our conversation had taken an unexpected turn,
and even Plotinus seemed confused and tired. We were startled by the ringing of the
doorbell. As I rose, Inge strode into the house.
"One of your annoying characteristics," he said, smiling at me, "is that you dabble - you fail
to finish the books you begin."
"Well," I began.
"You've probably read even less of his stuff," he interrupted, indicating Plotinus, 'than of
Plotinus stared at me. Inge continued.
"The climax of my discussion on the Immortality of the Soul in the Enneads is the moment
when I invoke the spirit of his great contemporary, the only man of his age to equal our
friend here in erudition as well as in holiness - I refer, of course, to the great Christian neo -
Platonist, Origen, known to his incredulous admirers as Adamantinus for his tireless labors."
Plotinus seemed stirred to renewed enthusiasm. Rousing himself he said, "My silence, in
the Enneads, on the subject of Christianity, as well as other religions, stems neither from
ignorance nor from disdain. A true philosophy, deriving form eternal and universal
principles, is not contingent on any specific historical character or event. But of course I
knew Origen, by his reputation and by some of his writings."
"What made him daring to the point of dubious orthodoxy is also what made him interesting
and valuable," Inge put in.
I ventured to join the conversation, timidly at first, in light of my recent chastisement.
"Origen spoke of cycles of worlds, made and unmade, and while the periodic nature of this
vision would seem static..."
"It is combined, in his ingenious, unique solution, with the dynamic teleology that typifies
Christian eschatology," Inge interrupted me again.
"So that the purification and learning from suffering occur not, as it were, outside the cosmic
scheme, in Purgatory, but through the workings of the world itself, in progressively higher
states, " Plotinus finished the thought. "It is a wonderful synthesis, and I bow alike to the
depth of his mind and to the warmth of Origen's heart."
I stood up, unable to remain still in the face of the vision that was unfolding . I strode to the
door and flung it open; the evening sky was streaked orange and mauve.
"Apocatastasis!" Inge said softly behind me, with great feeling.
"A pocket of what?" I asked, turning around.
Plotinus answered for him. "Apocatastasis - the Final Restoration - Origen's doctrine,
officially condemned by the Church, teaching that God, omnipotent and omniscient,
inconceivable as the author of any lasting evil, would never rest until all beings were
restored to their primal innocence, until Satan himself and his swarthy hosts were purified,
repentant, restored to Paradise."
"Then," Inge concluded,"will God be 'all in all.'"
I could contain myself no longer.
"Then we may hope, friends, one bright day, be it eons from now, for an end to striving and
failing, an end to vicariously suffering gods and mortals, an end to transmogrifying pain and
sacrificial deaths, a glorious day when the unburnt books of Adamantinus will be sung with
I paused, and in the silence my laconic friends offered, felt a bit abashed at my display. So I
sat back down between them and continued in a more sober tone.
"There is much work to be done. What shall my part be, and where shall I begin?"
"Right here," Inge answered.
"And right now," Plotinus added.
"What I mean," I persisted, is exactly what should I do first?"
"Why don't you begin by finishing this book?" the philosopher winked. "Come on,Ralph," he
continued, addressing his companion,"Let's go."
"But must you leave so soon?" I asked, suddenly anxious. "Can't you stay a while longer?"
Inge looked at his wristwatch, then shook his head and replied, "We've got another meeting."
Plotinus rose, and as they exited he turned his head toward me, rolling his eyes humorously.
"Maybe one of these days," he said, "we'll let you come along with us."
For a moment a fresh wave of panic, like the one that had arrested me earlier that day,
appeared in the distance, threatening. I realized then that friends and ideas can only take a
man so far: there comes a time to stand alone and be strong. I took a deep breath. Then I
strode over to my desk, and, sitting down, took pen in hand and put it to paper.
All this took place many years ago; never again was I to see any of these friends. There
were times, understandably, I think, when I doubted whether the Immortality Project
continued to exist, times I even wondered about the reality of my experience.
Then one day, a day almost too late and without warning, a beautiful woman fell into my life,
like an angel from the sky, making of my past a shambles, of my future a mockery, and
transfixing me in the present with the lightning of her deathless glance. Life's deepest
lessons cannot be reasoned into us: only experience can impart them. In love I learned that
a clam on the sea floor or a human being, is a beautiful thing, though most beautiful when
unaware and striving toward the light (which is after all the condition of the lover). In love I
learned that being mortal means more than having an end, it means having a beginning as
well. In love I discovered that, if the suffering inextricable from death is useful, then the joy
of procreation has its message as well, and it is no less that the song of the universe, an
affirmation of being: desire, deeper than death, older than thought. Why, cosmologists,
ask, is there something, instead of nothing at all? The answer is in that song, and the
answer is that song.
Friends, let us open our hearts and there will be nothing to fear: All that which will endures
in us existed before our birth. I have found immortality at last, in love.