Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Afterlife of "Lost"

Rarely, if ever, has a television show dealt with religious and spiritual themes as extensively and maturely as ABC's "Lost" which ended its six year run on Pentecost Sunday with an episode that was profoundly transcendent. On the surface, the series dealt with a group of plane crash survivors who landed on a mysterious, mystical island with a mythology that grew more complex each season. But at its heart, "Lost" told character-driven stories that explored themes like the possibility that human beings can find redemption from past sins.

The series finale addressed that theme again, but in a slightly different way – specifically, from the perspective of death and the afterlife. Apparently, this ending has left a number of people confused and, in some cases, dissatisfied. It was revealed that the Flash-sideways story device employed this season actually took place in a Purgatory-type realm in which the souls of the characters needed to work out their redemption by remembering and ultimately letting go of their past.

After experiencing their awakenings, the characters (or their souls, actually) all gather in a church in order to take the final step into eternal life together. Jack Shephard, the doctor who becomes the primary hero of the story by sacrificing his life to keep hell from being unleashed, is the last character to discover the truth in the Sideways world. The soul of his father explains to him that the realm they're in exists outside of space and time - "Everyone dies some time, kiddo. Some of them before you, some of them long after you...There is no now here."

Some viewers are misreading the full group being there together as meaning they all died at the same time, that the entire series took place in Purgatory because they were dead the entire time. Christian's words clearly dispel that theory. There's also the fact that Hurley and Ben in the Sideways world reminisce about the period where they protected the island. That experience was a part of their real lives that they remembered in their awakenings so that again points to the reality that the island timeline was real and that others escaped the island alive (Sawyer, Kate, Clare, Miles, Lapidus, Richard and Desmond).

So what exactly does this ending in which everyone is dead really mean? When the castaways arrived on the island, they were, as Jacob described them, "alone." They were emotionally-crippled, lost souls without any genuine human connections. But through the love and responsibility they exhibited toward each other, they were able to grow as human beings and fulfill their real natures - to move past the tragedies, mistakes and obsessions that haunted them and eventually arrive in a state of grace. In fact, there was a promo for "Lost" before this final season began that was edited to Willie Nelson singing "Amazing Grace." For me, the lyrics in that song "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see" explains the process of what happened in the Sideways/Purgatory world and over the course of the series. Grace builds on nature. As such, the castaways became a means of each others salvation.

The communal aspect of the final scene in the church also resolves one of the story's earliest conflicts. In the first season after everyone is trying to adjust to surviving the island soonafter the crash, there are personality clashes and arguments about how best to run things. It gets to the point where Jack addresses the large group of castaways saying, "Every man for himself is not going to work...If we can't live together, we're gonna die alone." That's exactly what this group of loners learned to do over six seasons - live, love, sacrifice, and sometimes die together. And it makes all the difference. Because as their souls are ready to step into the final stage of the afterlife, they do it as a community. Learning to live together in their earthly lives resulted in their stepping into eternal life together too. As Christian Shephard explains, “The most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people. That's why you're all here. Nobody does it alone, Jack: you needed all of them, and they needed you ... to let go."

The notion of letting go leads me to another aspect of this Purgatory which doesn’t leave everyone with the happy ending the castaways achieve. The Sideways/Purgatory world is somewhat reminiscent of the afterlife created by C.S. Lewis in his book "The Great Divorce" in which dead souls can gain entrance to heaven if they let go of elements from their earthly pasts that are holding them back from fully loving God. For instance, one "Bright Spirit" from heaven tries to talk a mother whose son died years ago to let go of her grief and anger so she can see him in heaven. The mother refuses saying, "You are heartless...The past was all I had." The Bright Spirit responds, "It was all you chose to have. It was the wrong way to deal with a sorrow." In other words, the very normal grief she felt after losing him became the core of who she was to the point that the resentment holds more sway over her than the opportunity to see her son again. Another Spirit later explains, "Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried."

This exchange reminds me of Eloise Hawking in the Sideways world. She appears to understand where she is and discourages Desmond from pursuing knowledge about the flashes that will make him realize he's dead because she knows that her son Daniel will then leave her. So instead of valuing Daniel's eternal happiness and maybe even joining him, Eloise prefers to possess him in the in-between world. Unlike Hurley & Libby or Sawyer & Juliet who remember their human love for each other and allow it to move them on toward something greater, Eloise is like the mother in Lewis’ story. She chooses stagnancy over growth, an earthly possessiveness over a higher love.

Of course, there’s someone who’s even worse off than Eloise: Anthony Cooper. It’s a Christian belief that God doesn't send people to hell; we send ourselves to hell by choosing to separate ourselves from the love and will of God. The one denizen of the Sideways/Purgatory world that appears to fit that bill is Anthony Cooper, John Locke's con-man father who was responsible for paralyzing him and who led Sawyer's father to shoot his own wife and then himself. One of the few characters who never demonstrated any redemptive qualities, Cooper is locked in a stroke-like frozen state, seemingly forever. Interestingly, in Dante's Inferno, the denizens of the 9th circle of hell are depicted as being frozen in a lake of blood and guilt. The choices Anthony Cooper made in his real life have left him with much blood on his hands. He also died unrepentant, so that final act of defiance against the natural moral law appears to have caught up with him here.

In the end - though the series ended showing everyone eventually dead - it can still be considered a happy ending from a Christian perspective. The main characters that viewers grew to love all lived their lives in a manner that will allow them to spend eternity together in heaven. Endings don’t get any happier than that.

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