Thinking About The Good Place

After finishing The Good Place a few days ago, I’ve found that it hasn’t been far from my mind. Obviously the show has some appeal for me, what with all the philosophy talk and such. But I wanted to say a few words, specifically in response to something Nibs said earlier.

Heads up, spoilers may abound. You’ve been warned. Also, this is a bit rambling. Again, you’ve been warned.

Anyway, here’s what Nibs wrote:

I really liked the horror of infinite wish fulfillment as a kind numbing negative thing. I'm not sure that I'm totally sold on their solution to the issue, but it was vastly better than "everything perfect forever" as an ending.

This question – and the whole show really – touches (embraces, encircles, confronts directly) one of the great questions in life: what do we want the afterlife to be?

It’s no secret that I’m a person of faith. I believe in an afterlife. But even if you don’t, I think this question really captures something fascinating about human nature. If you had infinity time, what would heaven be? Can anything infinite even really be called heaven?

The Good Place captured this succinctly, with the happiness zombies in the Good Place, where people were completely numb. Infinite wish fulfillment is, frankly, crap, according to human nature. We crave challenge, growth, improvement, variety, etc. That’s just in our nature. And it is precisely why traditional notions of heaven are so… depressingly boring. Harps and clouds and sitting around with nothing to do. Blech. But even if heaven is infinite wish fulfillment… is that really better? According to The Good Place the answer is clearly “no.”

So what would we want the afterlife to be? It’s actually a topic I’ve spent a long time thinking about, particularly since my sister passed away. Now, I believe in a Heaven and a Hell, and that, in some form or another, what we do on Earth directs what our afterlife might be. But I also don’t super-subscribe to traditional notions of afterlife and that somehow sitting quietly in a church your whole life is what gets you to heaven.

In fact, that notion is part of what helps me think about the afterlife. See, I think life is meant to be lived, not hidden away from. If you want to be a good person, in the truly virtuous sense of the word, that probably means getting out in the world and living life to the fullest. Being a positive influence in people’s lives. Loving. Laughing. Crying. Suffering. There is beauty in struggle. There is something human in pain. If we could just infinitely waive away all unpleasantness, we’d basically be those happiness zombies of the Good Place.

So for me, the test of whether you would get into heaven at all turns less on traditional notions of “good” and more on notions of whether you’ve lived life the fullest in a virtuous way. Did you seize your opportunities to make the world better? Did you push yourself to grow? Did you suffer loss because you had things worth losing?

And I think to some extent, this approach helps address the “problem of infinity.” A person who lives fully is going to be less likely to be bored with the afterlife than a person who just seeks the pleasurable ends. Ultimately, I think the true answer to the problem of infinity is that time doesn’t exist in the afterlife – we’ll all experience it the way Janet does (or maybe as the dot over the ‘i’?) – but I think the notion of an afterlife that fulfills human nature is a heck of a lot more appealing than the traditional notions.

I also think that there is one final smart move that The Good Place made: in having characters walk through that final door, they left the ultimate afterlife as an unknown. Which, of course, it is. But they showed that essence of Eleanor drifting back to Earth and landing on that one guy, who was influenced to bring Michael his mail. That influence itself is a huge part of the afterlife: namely, the way we live on here on Earth, after our lives. We want to have a lasting impact on the people still here (note: the absence of children for all the characters makes perfect sense, but I’d love to see what they’d have done if any of the main 4 had had kids on Earth).

In this regard, too, I think that “living life to the fullest” approach is essential. How many people have impacted your life for the better by sitting quietly and avoiding their own temptations? Probably very few. But how many have impacted your life for the better by either seizing opportunities, living their lives fully, or helping you do the same? And, maybe somewhat depressingly, how many more times could our lives have been better if we’d seized those chances?

Anyway, I’m officially rambling now. But I wanted to get some thoughts down, because they’ve been burning a hole in my head. These are fun questions to think about. And for me the conclusion to be reached – and, the ultimate takeaway from The Good Place – is this:

Life – and the afterlife - is an opportunity to be seized, and Good is in the struggle.

26 thoughts on “Thinking About The Good Place”

  1. Another part of what I wanted to say is that I think Nibs is onto something with his "not totally sold on their solution" line. I absolutely adore the notion of an afterlife where you keep getting rebooted with a vague memory of what existed before, and get an opportunity to improve. A solution that is somehow more of that would maybe have more appeal for me?

    And I loved when they showed the impact that the main characters had on their friends and family. I think there was a missed opportunity there - talking about the relationship element being a big part of living your life to the fullest. And Chidi going off without Eleanor seemed somehow hollow - their "readiness" seemed like it should have been tied together? And I think that's because you'd never be ready to pass through the gate until all the people you were with were ready too? Or maybe not.

    Philosofette's grandpa lived into his 90's. His wife passed when he was... probably in his early 70's? And he lost a son in his teens or 20's too. I vividly remember him on his death bed, knowing it was coming, and he said he was ready. He was ready to see his wife and son again. And he almost seemed to be choosing to pass. It's a striking thing, because personally I'm about as far from that as I could be. I have trouble thinking that I'd ever be ready. I'm not quite sure what that means, but it's another aspect of the show that has just been sticking with me these past few days.

    Could I ever be ready?

    1. Finally caught up and finished the series yesterday so reviving this post for one little thing.

      And Chidi going off without Eleanor seemed somehow hollow - their "readiness" seemed like it should have been tied together?

      I liked them leaving at separate times. It felt that even though they're "soul mates", they remain separate people with their own desires and goals. Chidi found fulfillment first and that in turn spurred Eleanor to seek out her own fulfillment.

  2. I haven’t see the show but I will check it out. However you said something that always gnaws at me. You can ignore if you want...

    “Now I believe in heaven and hell...”

    I have a hard time getting my head around hell. Why would a loving God create creatures with such obvious flaws and moral shortcomings and then subject them to eternal damnation full of pain and absolute agony if they fall short of some prescribed notion of good? What’s the point? Where is the love in that?

    Frankly I don’t want to be party to any religion with a God so petty, so sinister.

    Or maybe hell is a social construct created by those in power to control those below them. Shitty answer too but at least God is out of that equation.

    1. I don't worry about if there is a heaven or hell. Here's my thought processes:

      God (however one chooses to conceive of God) doesn't exist - nothing to worry about.

      God exists and is just - I follow the advice of (I think) Marcus Aurelius, which paraphrased poorly is "If I do my best to be good, God will recognize that and I'll be OK."

      God exists and isn't just - Well, we're screwed anyway then.

      So just do your best to be good, because that's all you can control anyway.

    2. I think the questions you raise here capture a lot of the failings of how Christians traditionally think of the afterlife. But I think that a shift of focus can help elucidate why hell is a necessary construct.

      First, I posit free will. I think that we have it (in fact, I think the "created in the image and likeness of God" in Genesis has more to do with free will than it does with any physical semblance. God is a being who creates by will - he says the words and a thing comes into being - people, similarly, are able to create our lives by our choices - by our exercise of the will).

      Second, I propose that a God who overrides our free will is not a loving God. As a parent, this seems especially true. It is important that I guide my children, but I would not be a good parent if I overrode their choices. If I do my kids' schoolwork for them, they aren't learning, they aren't growing, etc. Sure, they might get a good grade, but it isn't their grade. If my kids make a mistake I might help moderate the negative consequences of that, but I also will do my best to make sure they learn from their mistakes, and depending on the consequences, they might suffer the full brunt of their choices. Similarly, with the Divine, respect for our free will is a function of loving us, not of apathy or spite.

      Third, if people are free to choose to reject God, then there must be a consequence of that rejection. And I'm not talking about metaphorically. I'm talking about a person who takes the position that they reject God. So what happens then? Well, Hell is that consequence. Hell being the absence of God. It doesn't have to be fires and demons with pointy sticks. But it does have to be a real consequence. If someone has the free will to say "I reject God" and God is going to respect their choice and not override it, then there must be a Hell.

      Now, this is all somewhat theoretical (go figure). But Hell strikes me as necessary. That said, it is my fervent hope that, while theoretically necessary, Hell is uninhabited. I don't know what Divine Justice looks like, how many opportunities God gives us after death to embrace him, etc. I know human justice and Divine justice are two very different things. So hopefully Hell is as sparsely inhabited as possible and Divine Justice steers us right. But, at a minimum, it seems like there must be a Hell, if we believe in free will (and accept that there is an afterlife).

      ----

      I want to say a little bit more too about how The Good Place could alternatively be titled "The Invention Of Purgatory." Because really, that's what the show came up with. People die who are not good enough to be in Heaven, but not really bad enough to be in Hell. They need more opportunities to become worthy of Heaven.

      That is, conceptually, what Purgatory is supposed to be: the process of "purging" the imperfections that are left on our souls at death, so that we become worthy of Heaven. Indeed, us Catholics teach that everyone who goes to Purgatory eventually* (*there is no time in the afterlife) makes it to heaven - they just have to get through the process first. In that way, Purgatory is even less of a place than Heaven or Hell, and more of a process.

      I'm actually surprised this notion didn't occur to me a lot sooner than it did, since it seems pretty clear that The Good Place made a strong argument for the importance of a purgatory-like-process.

      1. it is my fervent hope that, while theoretically necessary, Hell is uninhabited.

        So, either the threat is empty (because loving and forgiving God) or it is so effective that everyone limbo's over the threshold?

        I believe in incentives. I believe in game theory. I believe in the Folk Theorem.

        From that perspective, heaven and hell (all of the various stories) can be seen as convenient myths for social collaboration on "nicer" equilibrium paths. I.e., if God did not exist, humans would invent God.

        YMMV, of course

        1. I absolutely agree that what has happened is as you describe it - that some concept of heaven/hell has been used to motivate behaviors, but I would suggest that, from an actual theological/philosophical perspective (or a Divine perspective?), the afterlife wasn't really intended to be used that way. I think that the theological and incentive theories of hell describe very different concepts.

      2. Purgatory, the Veterans Committee of Heaven!

        I choose to believe. However, on the subject of Hell, as with most things spiritual, I prefer the apophatic tradition. If all I have to go on is that God is perfectly good, then it seems like I’m only left with two possible conclusions:

        1) God is so infinitely and perfectly good that even the worst person to walk the Earth (who needn’t be named since we all can fill in that blank pretty easily) is not beyond redemption. However, the goodness necessary in order to overcome what in human eyes is a life cloaked in near-total evil is so beyond my ability to comprehend, that it’s practically useless for me to speculate further about Hell. A god capable of that kind of redemption is probably worthy of my reverence; if I keep that in mind, whether or not Hell exists, who goes there, or how seems drastically less important.

        2) God does not send people to Hell. If Hell exists, people must choose Hell themselves. Exactly how this happens seems less important than why.

    3. We had a dinner party on Garfield Ave, Uptown, with some Thai friends (a long time ago).

      They both believed that after you die, you spend some time in retribution for your sins, but then before coming back into the game, you drink a bowl of cold soup, that erases your memory of the previous life. If you have lived a good one, you come back in with a higher position/life form.

      She (Kit) believed that she had been a corrupt official, and was now paying for it with her current (lowly) life. He (Kao) thought he didn't drink all of his soup, for he had real recollections of being a warrior.

  3. Also, I'm pretty sure I don't conceive of heaven as a place where I will consciously be and enjoy the fruits of my doing good on earth for eternity (not suggesting you believe that either). I think afterlife is more becoming part of what Christians call the Holy Spirit, new agers call "energy" and many eastern religions have similar concepts, especially as related to Nirvana (not the band, although maybe?) We become one with all.

    1. I think you're probably right, though, frankly, this thought depresses me in a way that matches exactly the depression of being an eternally bored happiness zombie.

      I crave an afterlife that fulfills my human nature, not satiates desires or erases that nature.

      1. This sounds like you are having a fulfilling existence (good on ya), and hope to carry that forward. What of God letting you have your human nature on earth, and when that nature is necessarily ended, draws you in to fulfill the spiritual nature that you were also deliberately created to be? Just because we can't fathom what that would be like (outside of eternal happiness zombie), doesn't mean it isn't the just, fulfilling eternity you were created for.
        Fun though it is to speculate, I think we have to acknowledge this one may be something beyond our current comprehension. This requires a bit of faith and hope, which, conveniently, is also part of the whole plan.

        1. I very much hope it is a failure of my ability to comprehend.

          I think there's a difference between "fulfilling" and "erasing." So, for example, I think it is in human nature to be both an individual and a collective animal. [Edited to add: I think human nature is both earthly and spiritual, but that "human nature" and "spiritual nature" are not two separate things. I think. I might have to reflect on this one more/check teachings of authorities I respect].

          If the afterlife is simply merging into the collective, then we'd maybe be "fulfilled" on that collective side, but we'd likewise be "erased" on that individual side. That would bother me.

          I want fulfillment of both - of all of human nature.

      2. Funny. It absolutely thrills me. Imagine being part of the essence of everything. From a rock in a babbling brook to a mother grieving her lost child to a lifeless gas ball burning in space to a couple making love on their wedding night to a line drive being mishandled by Delmon Young somewhere in Australia....

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