Question: I'd like to suggest that ever since Socrates in the West and the various religions of the East, wise and contemplative men have agreed that the soul is immortal though the body is ephemeral. However, they also have suggested that to achieve the kind of virtue one would expect to be the ultimate goal of life would require more than one lifetime.
Apparently, in our desire for instant gratification, we Westerners imagine that the perfect state is attainable after only one lifetime. Looking at the world today, I can't help but see enormous numbers of people who are still incompletely "virtuous" (myself included), going through various stages of life in their search for perfection. What are your views on reincarnation? — J., Jr., Gainesville, Fla., via email@example.com
Answer: There is something both frustrating and exhilarating about speculating on mysteries we can never unravel. Hinduism is the strongest advocate of reincarnation — the belief that our souls are reborn to life in new forms after death until we attain release (moksha) from the cycle of death and rebirth. Jewish mysticism has dabbled with this idea, as well.
To my mind, the best arguments for reincarnation include your view that virtue is too difficult a goal for any of us to attain in one lifetime, and a loving God would most certainly give us another (and another) chance to get things right, or at least to get things better.
Dr. Brian Weiss in his book, "Many Lives, Many Masters," makes an even stronger claim. He believes that under hypnosis some of his patients have actually been able to describe past lives. He believes that their present phobias are the direct result of traumas they experienced in previous lives.
I'm not so sure. My fear of snakes could be just a fear of snakes and not a remembrance of being bitten by a snake when I was a pharaoh in ancient Egypt (in most of my fantasies about possible past lives I'm always a king or potentate, or at least a commissioner of baseball).
Another problem with reincarnation is that we have more people now than in the past.
Where did all those extra souls come from? Also, if you can't remember your past life, how can you learn from it?
Believing that you can set things right in the next go-around may also lead to a moral surrender in this life and keep you from setting things right now. I'm happy to have this life and am trying to do the best I can, as I'm sure you are. Beyond that, I follow the words of T.S. Eliot, "Trying is all that matters. Everything else is just not our business."
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