You can’t ignore it. Valentine’s Day is the 1000-pound gorilla in the drug store, the grocery store, the mall. It’s coming – and fast! I’ve personally gotten a headstart on the chocolates, seeing as I was at Godiva anyhow.
I’m also enjoying the most engaging little book of bon bons, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman. This is candy for the mind and heart, written by a neuroscientist for all of us who are trying to figure out how best to live and love in these short years we have on earth.
Here’s the premise: you die. You awaken in the afterlife. Forty different chapters – two or three pages each – offer forty different versions of what comes next. None of them resemble anything you’ve ever dreamed of, I can assure you. All of them are designed to tickle your imagination and make you think a little harder about how you’re living your life.
David Eagleman is a rock star neuroscientist, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine and also head of the Center for Science and Law there. Sum is an international bestseller, published in 2009 and translated into 28 languages (I’m a little late to the party on this… thank you, Ben Folds, for the recommendation). Sum has also inspired a chamber opera and an operatic collaboration with Brian Eno… nice!
Eagleman’s other works include Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, and The Brain: The Story of You, a companion piece to the international PBS series he hosts.
For the next few days, with the author’s permission, I’m going to tempt you with a chapter a day from Sum. I dare you not to fall in love with this brilliant little book.
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In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.
You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.
You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: starting out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days starting into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.
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