I love roller coasters. When I go to an amusement park the roller coaster is usually the only ride that interests me. Many years ago, I went with my stepdaughter to Opryland, a park near Nashville, and a big thunderstorm came through. We decided to stay at the park and wait out the storm. Almost everyone else left so, once the storm was over, we had the unusual experience of having an amusement park to ourselves. My stepdaughter liked a ride with twirling swings that wasn’t too far from the roller coaster, so I left her there—she never even had to get off the swing between rides—and headed over to my favorite. This was a corkscrew coaster, meaning you spent time upside down. I rode it six times in a row with no waiting; what a fabulous experience!
Why are roller coasters and other extreme rides at amusement parks and fairs so popular? Why do we pay to be scared? Clearly many of us like to experience the simulation of approaching death. Why is this, when our whole animal nature is programmed to survive at all costs?
The message of my husband and my book, The Game of God, (newly revised), is that one reason the universe exists is to allow unlimited God to experience the roller coaster of life, the ups and downs of limited existence, which eminently includes life and death. In the first chapter (read it here, complete with cartoons) Arthur and I imagine someone who “has it all,” who is rich, beautiful, and powerful beyond measure, who has no problems, who is perfectly healthy, and best of all is immortal. That is, someone who is as close to being unlimited as possible. We ask, “Would there be any experiences this person would miss?”
We conclude there would be plenty of missed experiences: from adventure to learning, from falling in love to anticipation of something new, from struggle to triumph, from fear of dying to the joy of aliveness. Even riding a roller coaster would lose its excitement if there were no possibility of risk:
|Cartoon by Arthur Hancock, from The Game of God|
Recently I saw an old Twilight Zone episode called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” This is from a short story by Ambrose Pierce set during the U.S. Civil War. The TV episode begins with a group of soldiers preparing to hang a man from a bridge. The soldiers pull the board that is holding him up out from under his feet, but the rope around his neck breaks and he is free! He stays under water as the current of the creek carries him away out of range of the soldiers’ rifles. Once he’s out of sight he climbs up onto the bank and you can see he feels profoundly alive; he appreciates the simplest things: breathing, smelling flowers, and the song of birds. Only at the end do you realize that the rope didn’t break; he did die. The “escape” was a fantasy that happened in the few seconds between the platform being removed and his death. But in those seconds he lived.
Somewhere I heard a story about Civil War veterans that also illustrates this idea that the edge of death brings about a passionate experience of life (maybe it was from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”?). These veterans were imagining heaven, and this was their conception: every day they would fight a battle, then every evening every soldier—including those who had “died”—would gather and tell stories around the campfire. On the surface this seems completely bizarre—who would want to recreate brutal, bloody battles in heaven? But once you see the link between risk-of-death and the buzzing energy of aliveness, their fantasy makes sense. For these men, the most alive they ever felt was on the battlefield.
This wisdom is embedded in many spiritual traditions. For example, the Tao te Ching teaches that we live in a dualistic universe of opposites, and that pairs of opposites arise together, they are linked. We begin the first chapter of The Game of God with a quote from the Tao:
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy compliment each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
|Cartoon by Arthur Hancock, from The Game of God|
Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui Indian shaman in the Carlos Castaneda series, taught Carlos that he should make friends with his death.
When we deny death, ironically we deny life. We end up taking life for granted. We don’t see the perfection in every moment. We think of death as the worst thing that can happen to us, yet it makes life meaningful.
The Game of God presents the theory that the first purpose of the universe is to allow unlimited God the experience of limitation—life and death, beginning and end, fear and hate, happiness and sorrow, ignorance and learning.
In order to have a realistic experience of limitation, God must forget that She-He-It is God. In other words, the universe is God…in a state of amnesia.
The universe is a game in which God forgets His-Her-Its identity and, in the process of playing, remembers who She-He-It is.
Evolution is the process of God awakening from amnesia into the remembrance of His-Her-Its true identity.
The universe is literally An Expression Of God In Amnesia (AEOGIA). And God likes roller coasters!
Zen, by Arthur Hancock: