I came across this short story by David Eagleman via Jonathan Goldstein’s Wiretap last year and something about it really resonated with me. Of course I do not believe that this theory will come to fruition, but I think it’s a great thing to keep in mind. Some people have commented that they find it depressing. But for me, it is motivational. It is in no way saying that you can never be satisfied with yourself, but rather it is encouraging you not to fall short of your potential. I hope you will find the inspiration in this too.
Always strive to be the very best version of yourself.
In the afterlife you are judged not against other people, but against yourself. Specifically, you are judged against what you could have been. So the afterworld is much like the present world, but it now includes all the yous that could have been. In an elevator you might meet more successful versions of yourself, perhaps the you that chose to leave your hometown three years earlier, or the you who happened to board an airplane next to a company president who then hired you. As you meet these yous, you experience a pride of the sort you feel for a successful cousin: although the accomplishments don’t directly belong to you, it somehow feels close.
But soon you fall victim to intimidation. These yous are not really you, they are better than you. They made smarter choices, worked harder, invested the extra effort into pushing on closed doors. These doors eventually broke open for them and allowed their lives to splash out in colorful new directions. Such success cannot be explained away by a better genetic hand; instead, they played your cards better. In their parallel lives, they made better decisions, avoided moral lapses, did not give up on love so easily. They worked harder than you did to correct their mistakes and apologized more often.
Eventually you cannot stand hanging around these better yous. You discover you’ve never felt more competitive with anyone in your life.
You try to mingle with the lesser yous, but it doesn’t assuage the sting. In truth, you have little sympathy for these less significant yous and more than a little haughtiness about their indolence. “If you had quit watching TV and gotten off the couch you wouldn’t be in this situation,” you tell them, when you bother to interact with them at all.
But the better yous are always in your face in the afterlife. In the bookstore you’ll see one of them arm in arm with the affectionate woman whom you let slip away. Another you is browsing the shelves, running his fingers over the book he actually finished writing. And look at this one jogging past outside: he’s got a much better body than yours, thanks to a consistency at the gym that you never kept up.
Eventually you sink into a defensive posture, seeking reasons why you would not want to be so well behaved and virtuous in any case. You grudgingly befriend some of the lesser yous and go drinking with them. Even at the bar you see the better yous, buying rounds for their friends, celebrating their latest good choice.
And thus your punshment is cleverly and automatically regulated in the afterlife: the more you fall short of your potential, the more of these annoying selves you are forced to deal with.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman