What Dreams May Come

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Last year, USA Today, took a survey on spirituality. They asked whether or not people believed in an afterlife. "Of those surveyed, 55 percent said yes, and 76 percent believe there is a heaven. Of those who believe in heaven, 68 percent think they will go there when they die." [1] That still leaves a lot who aren't so sure.

USA Today is certainly not the first to consider what might happen after death. "To die, to sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause." Shakespeare wrote those words in "Hamlet" over 400 years ago. That question of life and death still gives us pause. Recently, I read about two other ways people are considering the age-old question of death in decidedly new-age ways.

CNN reports that in Seoul, South Korea, the Hyowon Healing Center allows people to "experiment" with their own death. [2] The story, presented in a series of eight pictures, shows participants taking a death photo, writing out their final thoughts, dressing in funeral garb, lying down and being sealed up in wooden coffins (with air holes to breathe because this is, after all, not the real thing). Of those who went through this experience, including 10 minutes symbolically interred, "some cried from claustrophobia; others were asleep. Some seemed lighter and happier."

There were a number of things that struck me about this story but one of them was the age of the participants shown. All of them looked extremely young, further verified by this additional reaction, "Some took selfies." What would compel groups of young people to simulate death? Perhaps, in their own ways, they are seeking to find the "pause" Shakespeare wrote about in 1603.

It's one thing to contemplate your own death, but what about the death of someone you love? A few years ago, Ryan Green and his wife, Amy, found out their 1-year-old son, Joel, had a rare form of cancer, given just four months to live. In 2012, Joel miraculously approached his fourth birthday after years of treatment, setbacks and successes. Seeking a way to make sense out of, and share, this experience, Ryan Green started work on a video game called "This Dragon, Cancer," which invites players into the simulated trauma of trying, in vain, to provide relief for Joel through agonizing rounds of treatment.

In 2013, according to the story in Wired, this game was introduced at video game expos. [3] The emotional response was notable. "Green showed a demo of his game here in 2013, and you've heard the stories. Players breaking down in sobs and quickly exiting the booth. The emergency box of Kleenex, hastily procured and placed next to the monitors. The soothing reassurances to distraught gamers that Joel was, in fact, still alive." (That last statement, sadly, is no longer true. On March 13, 2014, Joel lost his battle.) The game is slated to be released this month and, this year, PBS will air a documentary about the game and its impact called, "Thank you for playing."

Most people won't go to Seoul and simulate death. Most people won't play "This Dragon, Cancer." Yet, in my experience, everyone thinks about their own mortality. Can contemplating your own death prove valuable? I think so but I also think that contemplating death isn't enough. Each of us is going to die but, for right now, each of us is also alive. Thoughts of mortality should lead us to thoughts of life. Perhaps spending ten minutes locked in a wooden coffin is enough to give living a whole new meaning. Perhaps so is spending 15 minutes playing "This Dragon, Cancer."

In one way, I think Hamlet got it wrong. The dreams we need to consider aren't those that might come after death but the dreams we can still have while alive.