Something dawned on you when you heard the children’s song: Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. You began to suspect that you were, perhaps, a butterfly dreaming it was a human, or, worse yet, a brain in a jar experiencing sights and sounds and smells and tastes—all of them but dreamstuff. And so you waited for death in order to wake up, in order to find out whether you were strapped with spotted wings or surrounded by a glass jar.
But it turns out you missed the mark. It is not life that is a dream; it is death that is a dream.
Stranger still, it is not your dream; it is someone else’s.
You now recall that your dreams always had background characters: the crowds in the restaurant, the knots of people in the malls and schoolyards, the other drivers on the road and the jaywalking pedestrians.
Those actors don’t come from nowhere. We stand in the background, playing our parts, allowing the experience to feel real for the dreamer. Sometimes we listen and pay attention to the plot of the dream. More often we talk among ourselves and wait for our shift to end.
This is not a job choice but indenture: you owe the same number of hours of service as you spent dreaming during your lifetime. No one is very pleased about this work except for some former thespians among us. Mostly we give them the interactive roles every night; we’re happy to sit in the background. If we’re lucky enough that the dreamer casts us in a restaurant, we get a free meal out of it. On less fortunate nights, we’re cast as masqueraders at a terrifying party, or as sufferers in deep circles of Hell, or as co-workers who have to point and laugh when the star walks in without clothes.
For those in the interactive roles, lines of dialogue are flashed on a screen behind the dreamer, to be delivered as convincingly as possible. Most of us give poor performances; we’re not trained actors and have little incentive. Fortunately, the dreamers seem to believe whatever we deliver. Even if we don’t look like the characters in question, the dreamers are convinced that we are who they think we are, and are only mildly confused even when we cast different genders in the roles.
Once, a long time ago, the dream casts went on strike, and for three days everyone on Earth dreamt of wandering empty homes and threading through deserted streets. Interpreting this as a grim omen, several people jumped to their deaths. When they showed up as new inductees in the dream cast, their piteous stories brought forth tears of sympathy from the others, who abandoned the strike immediately.
Perhaps it doesn’t seem to you as if the afterlife is much of a punishment. But I haven’t told you the worst part.
In the mornings, when we’re done with our nighttime haunts in other people’s skulls, we fall into restless slumbers of our own. And who do you think populates our dreams? Those who have finished their time here and pass from this world. We forever live in the dreams of the next generation.
The man to your left hypothesizes that everything is cyclical and that we’ll eventually be back on Earth. This appears to be a time-sharing plan devised by some efficient deity; in this way we’re not all populating the Earth at the same time.
What’s the problem with this? There is a woman in my dreams whom I see every night, but I can never catch up with her, passing as we do into our next worlds.
Sum forty tales from the afterlives David Eagleman