Oh, hell

My 80-year-old mother and I got into a big argument about hell on Sunday. She’s absolutely certain that I’m going there, and I’m just as certain that I’m not.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. One of the most important laws of physics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only change forms.
  2. I believe that our essential selves–the core of who we are–are made up of energy.
  3. This was made clear to me at the funeral of my friend Jill, who died in a car accident at the age of 16. Seeing her body at the funeral was a shock. Though it looked like Jill, her essential “Jillness” was gone, and all that was left was a shell.
  4. Jill’s death caused my then-fundamentalist Christian faith to crumble. It took me 20 years to rebuild a belief system that made sense to me. But I never stopped believing that Jill’s consciousness had survived the accident.
  5. I concluded that, because a disembodied consciousness (or “soul”) does not have physical senses, you can’t hurt it by hitting, stabbing, or burning it.
  6. So, even if a physical hell did exist, how could it hurt something that is pure consciousness?

There are many other reasons why I don’t believe there’s a hell (more of my journey away from fundamentalist Christianity is described here). But as I said, Mom is just as sure that there is a hell, and that it’s my destiny. There’s a little girl inside me who has always yearned for my mother’s approval, and it hurts to know that the only way I will ever receive it is to become what I am not. I find it difficult to reconcile Mom’s professions of love for me on the one hand with her insistence that I am going to hell on the other.

A few years ago, Mom got not one, but two ulcers. She attributed them to my sister’s and my refusal to accept Jesus as our lord and savior. She was hospitalized, so I called the hospital’s gift shop and asked them to fill up two helium balloons, then write my name on one of them with a permanent marker, and my sister’s name on the other. I asked them to take the balloons up to Mom’s room, then called Mom and instructed her to go outside and let the balloons go. I wanted her to experience the release of that, but she didn’t do it. She asked my brother to go outside and do it for her, saying she’d watch from the window. I don’t know if he ever did. The whole meaning of the ritual was lost.

So here’s take two: A declaration of emancipation.

Declaration of Emancipation

Hear ye, hear ye!
Be it known to all that read this that

[my mother’s name]

is herewith absolved of any responsibility for
the eternal welfare of

Petra Elisabeth Martin

Petra joyfully takes complete responsibility for
her spiritual journey in this life
and for her life thereafter.

Declared on this 30th day of December 2009


Petra Elisabeth Martin

I don’t know if it’ll help Mom, but it helped me. When my son and I want to let things go, we find big rocks, write what we want to release on them in permanent marker, and throw them off a bridge into the water. It gives us a satisfying feeling of release.

Our New Year’s Eve tradition (in fact, we just did it today), is to conduct a burning bowl ceremony. We write on slips of tissue paper all the things that we want to release, take turns sharing them with each other, touch the paper to the flame of a candle, and then drop the burning paper into a metal bowl. One of the things I burned up today was “My mother’s expectations.”

Can a recession teach us anything about happiness?

Like many of us, I’ve been affected by the economy. Sometimes, when projecting my life out into the future, I have become deer-in-the-headlights scared, which has caused me to turn to the past and berate myself for choices that got me to where I am. No matter which direction I turned—forward or back—I felt awful. Eventually, I realized that I felt most comfortable in the present moment.

I realized that I would create the very future that I feared if I didn’t bring my thoughts home to the present. I also realized that no amount of second guessing could change the past, and pulled those thoughts into the present as well. (This is not something that stays done, by the way. It takes constant vigilance.)

For some reason, I believed that the circumstances I found myself in amounted to failure, and I feared that others would judge me as harshly as I judged myself. They didn’t. In fact, I received the most love and support from the people I least expected to receive it from.

Letting go of the past and the future and feeling the support of loved ones enabled me to relax into the moment and discover that I have absolutely everything I need—right now.

I achieved a somewhat fragile sense of inner peace when I heard a recorded interview with Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason, and checked her book out of the library. Since then, I’ve learned more about the field of Positive Psychology, and have a queue of books to read, including two by Positive Psychology founder Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism) and one by scholar Sonja Lyubomirsky, who wrote The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

In the Upanishads, it says, “Happiness for any reason is just another form of misery.” The idea that I could be happy for no reason was a new one for me.

Like most of us, I thought my circumstances determined my happiness. We think we’ll be happy when we get a better job, find our soul mate, earn a certain amount of money, acquire a desired object, lose weight, achieve better health, and so on. But when we realize those goals, we often find that they don’t make us happy after all–or do for only a while. So we set our sights on a new goal, get back on the hamster wheel, and try again. It’s a game that can’t be won.

Not so with happiness that we find within. Because unconditional happiness isn’t linked to what we have, what we do, or who we’re with, we can never lose it. The spiritual masters we revere most achieved this state. They had nothing in the way of possessions, yet radiated a sense of unshakable peace and happiness that draws us to them.

For years, I’ve claimed the saying, “My greatest gift to others is my own happiness.” I even had it printed on my checks. But I never really got it until the recession forced me to realize that happiness doesn’t come from anything outside me. It comes from within and to achieve it, that’s where my focus needs to be.

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life,
the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Happy” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.