Friday, December 26, 2008

Elvis is Alive!

A few months ago, it just so happened that I found myself watching an Elvis Presley movie with my mom. I don't recall the name of the movie, or even the premise of the plot, and as I missed both the beginning and the end, it didn't make a whole lot of sense. As I recall, the King was doing his best to win the heart of a red-headed beauty who was playing a pretty pathetic game of hard-to-get. Or something like that.

In the midst of these escapades (including a helicopter ride, a gambling-deal-gone-bad, and an Old West-style mock shootout), my mom turned to talk to me.

"He really wasn't bad-looking, was he?"

"Oh, I dunno. OK, I guess."

"Isn't it weird to think that he's dead now? And most of the other actors are either dead or really old now, too. Isn't that strange?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I mean, look at how young and successful and popular he was at that time. And there he is on that screen, preserved for all eternity, and we're watching this now and seeing how he was then, even though he's dead and gone. It's like he never got fat or lost himself to drugs or died at all."
"Mm-hmm. Yeah."

At the time, I was pretty unimpressed and not the least bit moved. But I've been thinking about it a little more lately, and it's starting to make more sense.

Even though Elvis Presley is dead and gone, he's still an incredibly significant cultural icon. His image is instantly recognizable. His movies still air on TV. His songs still play on the radio. Everyone knows his name. Graceland is still a tourist destination. In short, Elvis is still very relevant and very real.

Then what happens to us after we die? We've got a whole lotta options to choose from. Maybe we cease to exist, poof, we're gone. If we ever had something called a "soul" it's instantly extinguished, and that's the end. Or maybe we're reincarnated--that's an appealing concept, isn't it? To be reborn in another body? I think I'd rather like that. Or maybe we're sorted out good from evil, and the saints all go to heaven and frolic in the clouds, and the sinners all suffer the eternal fires of hell. Or maybe we unite with the infinity of the universe and acquire knowledge and wisdom of all things. Or maybe....

But really it doesn't matter, because regardless of which option we choose, our current earthly identity still vanishes in a puff of smoke. Once you're gone, you're gone--unless you believe in ghosts, I suppose. So what stays behind once we're dead? Earthly fame--is that what matters? Do we leave behind records and movies and Andy Warhol prints and "{Insert Name Here} Is Alive!" museums?

I'm reminded of a few lines from the Inferno. As Dante strolls about on his visit to the underworld, he meets a fellow named Ciacco, who begs him, "When thou art again in the sweet world, I pray thee to the mind of others bring me." That's what it all boils down to for the people in Dante's hell. They're already doomed to endless torment and excruciating agony--the only thing they have to hope for is earthly fame and remembrance. That is all they desire. Pathetic much?

But I think it's a noteworthy (if obvious) point: Once we're gone, all that remains is what we leave behind. So why not make the things we leave behind worthwhile? Leave the world better than we found it. Make a positive contribution. Do good (the thing that I decided a while back would be my personal Meaning of Life, if I could only live up to its expectations).

It's not about how people remember you, or how famous you are. It's about doing the right thing and living well. And, heck, a few hit singles, cheesy movies, and risqué hip-shaking wouldn't hurt, I guess.

But maybe the conspiracy theorists were right after all. Elvis lives!

1 comment:

Mark said...

These are the things I spend my time thinking about! I think my conclusion is that it doesn't matter what happens to us when we die so long as we endeavor to live so that our death doesn't result in a wasted life. We really can't know anyway, right? So let's try to be like Elvis and leave a legacy. Though perhaps our legacy should be more about love and compassion than sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Regardless, happy holidays and I already miss bumping into you on campus!