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Story and the Symbolism of Reincarnation

The human mind, consciousness, life, death, and the afterlife are wondrous concepts to ponder, each of these ideas are intimately wrapped up in the doctrine of reincarnation. Although I personally don’t believe in literal reincarnation, the idea has always fascinated me, so...

...let's start with a story.

I couldn’t have been any older than three of four years old. We lived in Cahokia, Illinois at the time, where my father was serving as a minister at a local church.

I remember one particular night when we’d congregated in the fellowship hall after a weekly prayer meeting. I remember being held in the arms of some adult and looking out over all the people who were present. All I saw was a sea of grey haired women chatting about “this or that” and groups of old men probably discussing just about anything other than the sermon they just heard. Although I was too young to understand death, I had a keen sense of awareness that the lives of the people in this room wouldn't go on forever.

Though I doubt my tiny brain was able to formulate any worded thoughts about death and the afterlife, I remember “feeling” things about all the old people in the room. I wondered, “What happens AFTER ‘being old’?” My grandmother was someone I loved dearly, but I knew she wouldn’t be around forever. I envisioned her face as a distinct thought came to my mind, a thought that was just as natural for me to think as breathing a breath of air…

“One day, after grandma is really old, she will wake up one morning and be a baby again.”

This thought made me happy. And so, at the age of four, I averted my first existential crisis. I loved the idea of grandma being around forever, even if it meant experiencing her in a completely new and different way.

And then I didn’t think about death again for many years.

As I stated at the beginning, I don’t believe in reincarnation, but because of this experience, reincarnation as a mythos, has always held me captive.

Speaking of “mythos,” I’m currently watching the Joseph Campbell series called Mythos. Mythos is a series of Campbell’s lectures recorded shortly before he died. They are dense and definitely require your full attention.

I just watched an episode on the myth of reincarnation. In it, Campbell talked extensively about Buddhism and Hinduism. He delved deeply, as only Joseph Campbell can, into the multi-layered, and complex symbols of these mythic practices.

Hinduism is filled with many outrageous, fantastical stories, but Campbell was quick to point out that Hindus don’t actually believe these stories literally. For example, Hindus don’t actually believe that the four corners of the universe are resting on the backs of elephants who are standing on the back of a giant sea turtle; these stories are mythic… they are filled with symbols that stand in the place of deeper revelations.

After watching the lecture, I retreated to our kitchen to make some lunch. As I made my sandwich, I started stressing out over a recent job interview. After losing my teaching position to Covid back in 2020, I entered a season of life that afforded me a LOT of free time. Though I’ve always kept myself busy, my schedule, for the most part, has been flexible… maybe TOO flexible. If I get this job, my work load will increase tenfold, and time management will be of utmost importance. And I wondered, “Could I actually handle such a dramatic change?”

As I thought back over the past two years, I realized that, despite my leisurely schedule, I’ve had many opportunities to practice time management, but I haven’t really done so.

Although I don’t actually think the universe works in a cosmically-authored, narrative fashion, just for fun, I asked myself, “What if the universe is waiting for me to be more responsible with my time before it brings along a new job? What if, over the past two years, I’ve missed out on incredible opportunities to grow because doing so would have subjected me to mild discomfort and inconvenience? Am I going to have to keep experiencing these disappointments in life over and over again until I learn my lesson?” It was as sobering thought, but with Campbell’s reincarnation lecture still fresh in my mind, I immediately made a connection.

What if, just like the elephants that hold up the universe, reincarnation is a metaphor?

Nearly twenty years ago I heard a sermon that changed my life. Although I don’t necessarily subscribe to this flavor of theology anymore, I still think there are some nuggets of truth buried within it.

Back in 2003 I heard a pastor give a sermon about the frustration of having to learn the same lessons over and over again. He said, “Do you ever feel stuck in life and wonder why God hasn’t moved you on to the next thing?” I answered with a resounding inner rhetorical, YES! The pastor went on to speculate, “Could it be that God hasn’t moved you on because you haven’t finished the work you need to do in your current chapter of life?”

Immediately I thought about my masters degree; I abandoned my graduate program just weeks before the end of my final semester. I had considered my attempt at graduate school a complete failure and planned to live the rest of my life with an incomplete degree hanging over my head. After I heard that sermon, I didn't waste any time; I walked out onto the church lawn, called an old professor, and declared my intention to return to school.

Six months later I received my diploma, and the stage was set for the next chapter of my life. I don’t think there was anything magical in that moment; it was just a beautiful narrative projection that I’ll always treasure.

When I think about the story of going back to school and the countless other times in life I've had to "relearn" lessons over and over again, the symbol of reincarnation becomes profound.

There are millions of people on this planet (if not billions) who believe in some literal form of cyclical death and rebirth. I certainly don’t want to take on the task of proving or disproving something that cannot be proven or disproven, nor do I wish to disrespect the cherished beliefs of a massive percentage of the world's population, but rather I want simply to consider the idea of reincarnation as symbolic in my own life and the the lives of the characters I write.

What if reincarnation is a symbolic representation of a process that a person experiences over and over again throughout the course of a single lifespan? Everyone experiences pain, but we resist “the opportunity of pain” by shutting ourselves down to pain’s transformative power. And so we metaphorically die and are reincarnated back into our “underdeveloped” states. We repeat this process over and over again, until finally we face our fears and allow pain to do its work, and we’re transformed.

And so, we die once again, but this time we’re reborn into a higher stage of moral development.

When I look back over the course of my life, the symbolic pattern of dying and being reborn over and over again is crystal clear.

Story guru John Truby once said that a story, in simple terms, is just a series of moral tests, each of which the main character fails over and over again… until the very last one.

Or in other words, a story is just a narrative about a character stuck in a repeating pattern of living and dying, caught in a never-ending karmic cycle of flat-lined growth until, one day, they finally allow the pain of the journey to do its hard work inside of them, after which they are reincarnated to a higher level of understanding.

Seeing our own personal journeys through the light of symbolic reincarnation might actually help mature our relationship to pain. From a storytelling perspective, viewing a character’s journey as a process of reincarnation can help focus your writing. One of the fundamental problems I encounter in my students’ stories is the lack of any cohesive theme. Students love to figure out the “what” of story, but few want to do the hard work of figuring out the “why.”

“Plot” is WHAT a character has to do, and “theme” is WHY the character has to do it.

Thinking about story in terms of a journey of reincarnation focuses your attention on the “why.” Ask yourself, “Why is my character being reincarnated into their same original state over and over again? What revelation must they understand and integrate into their lives so they can ascend out of their karmic rut?”

If you can answer that question, you’ve just found the theme of your story.


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