The Ultimate Question

Manfred Monk had never in his life spared any effort when it came to the pursuit of the truth, and he'd be damned if he was going to let his death change that. To be clear, he was not damned; moments after his peaceful death of old age, he awoke to find himself in Heaven. Well, it seemed like moments, at any rate. It was hard to be sure, just as one couldn't quite remember the precise moment of falling asleep, or in most cases waking up, Manny was unsure exactly when he had transitioned between life and death. For years now, he had imagined that when the time came, it would be like a scene from "Lost," starting with a close-up of an eye opening. Of course, he didn't suppose he'd be able to watch his own awakening, so he wouldn't actually see his eye opening, or a pan-out to reveal his whole self and his surroundings, but still, that was how he imagined it. Not, he supposed, that one would actually have a physical body, in the afterlife. And as it turned out, he was right about that. But old perspectives, like old habits, die hard. True, he no longer had eyes to open, but... there was an awakening, of a sort. There wasn't really a segue between life and afterlife, but neither was it instantaneous. That, he thought, would have been a little too jarring. So, in a way he couldn't describe with any great accuracy, consciousness of his new reality dawned slowly. Not too slowly; just... moments.

Moments ago, Manny had been 78 years old. His friends all said he didn't look a day over 50, though of course he knew that was an exaggeration. But not as great an exaggeration as one might think; he really did look like he could be in his 60s (and indeed, he'd seen people in their 50s who looked older than than he, though he supposed they must have either made some very poor life choices, or else had very little in the way of choice about how they lived). Appearances aside, Manny had certainly felt every one of his seventy-eight years, at least physically. Mentally... well, he'd felt like an old soul his whole life, ever since he was a young child, but on the other hand, he'd also felt young at heart, to his dying day (March 27, 2016). Now that he thought about it, he'd died on Easter. Yes, he remembered thinking about that, earlier in the day. He, and his doctor, were both fairly sure today would be his last. He doubted there was any significance to that fact; surely many people must die on every day of the year, so it was hardly worth attaching significance to any particular date, as far as that went.

Nor was it surprising that he wound up in Heaven. He'd always been a believer, even if he (and most of those who knew him) called himself an agnostic. And therein lay the main trust of his lifelong pursuit of the truth. (Or "Truth," he supposed, with a capital "T.") It wasn't that he didn't believe, nor even that he really had any doubts. It was just... he had questions. Not just pertaining to matters of spirituality, but to virtually every aspect of life. He still remembered how much he'd annoyed his parents, when he was a small child, asking them questions all the time. They'd been quite relieved when he learned to read (which he did at five years of age, earlier than any of his peers). At age 6, he'd gotten his very own library card; it was fortuitous that the local library was on the same block where he lived. It would be a couple of years before his parents would let him walk there unaccompanied, but they needn't have worried. It was a good neighborhood, with friendly neighbors, and no child-snatchers around (it was, after all, the 1940s). And Manny was hardly the type of child to absentmindedly wander into traffic, not that there was much of it on their quiet street. In any event, Manny had always had a great love of reading. He read every type of book you could imagine, every genre of fiction, and every type of nonfiction. Throughout his youth, he imagined many possible careers for himself. Writer, adventurer, philosopher, scientist, theologian, detective, journalist, and on and on. And when he got old enough, he dabbled in all these fields and more.

In the spring of 1959, Manny graduated from college with a degree in journalism. He became a freelancer, and spent most of the next twenty years of his life traveling around the world. There were always lots of interesting and newsworthy events to investigate and report on, and the articles he wrote became quite popular, in many newspapers and magazines. He covered wars, crime, politics, scientific discoveries and achievements, entertainment, civil rights movements, cultural revolutions, epidemics, all manner of natural disasters, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Over the years, he turned down countless job offers from news outlets in print, radio, and television. He preferred to remain independent. However, in 1978, at the age of 41, he returned to his hometown. He missed his family; he'd never started one of his own, despite having fallen in love a few times (his relationships always ended amicably). Now, his parents were getting on in years, and he was afraid of missing too much of what little time they had left. Not that they felt their own deaths were imminent; they felt much younger than they were, and like their son, they looked as young as they felt. In any event, Manny finally took a regular job, working for a local newspaper. Readership soon grew, and because of his popularity across the country, the paper started getting subscribers from many far-flung cities.

In 1985, Manny ran for the state legislature, and won in a landslide. Many thought he could easily win a seat at the national level, but he had no interest in that. Meanwhile, he still took occasional trips to locales that many would call "exotic," though he himself had long-since abandoned that term, having found it to be meaningless (and potentially offensive). He never stopped writing, and not just for the newspaper that had employed him, up until he entered politics. He wrote about virtually every subject under the sun, as there was little that didn't interest him. Some readers had preferred topics, while others enjoyed everything he wrote, whether it was something they had theretofore had any interest in or not. His father died in 1992, near the end of Manny's second term in office. After that, he decided not to run for another term, but rather entered semi-retirement. He still continued to travel, and to write. His mother died in 1996. He had no siblings, though he had a few cousins, who all lived in different places. Nothing now tied him to his hometown but memories. Well, that and the house he'd lived in since moving back there.

Manny had been aware of ARPANET since 1969, and it fascinated him, though he had no first-hand experience with it. He began using the Internet in the 1980s, but only rarely. It wasn't until the World Wide Web came along in 1993 that he began using it daily. And he was incredibly glad that he no longer needed to travel as much as he used to, to stay informed. As the web and its potential grew, his interest in it, and reliance upon it, steadily increased. He became one of the most popular bloggers on the internet, at least among websurfers of a certain age.

He had asked many questions throughout his life, on a broad range of subjects. Sometimes the answers came easily, sometimes they required a great deal of digging. But to some question, he never could find answers that satisfied him. Chiefly, these unresolved questions related to spirituality. He couldn't remember exactly when or why he had first developed this particular interest, though he thought it may have had something to do with his surname. None of his research into his genealogy revealed the origins of the name "Monk," at least as far as his direct ancestors were concerned. Not even, when it came along late in his life, was able to help with that. Had there been actual monks in his family's distant past? Perhaps. Perhaps not. He supposed it didn't matter; either way, he had developed an interest in religious matters early in life, and he had never shaken it. Throughout his life, he'd studied science extensively, and he believed in it firmly, yet he'd never found anything in science that he considered proof positive that there was no God. Nor did he believe strictly in any one religion. He studied many different religions, and while ultimately his leanings remained close to those with which he'd been raised- namely, Christianity- he thought all religions probably contained some truth, and some distortions of the truth. But just as he didn't see science as disproving religion, he also didn't see religion as disproving any aspect of science.

In the end, he decided there was only one way he'd ever learn the answers to his ultimate questions (or as he liked to say, "the ultimate question," which was essentially, "How do you reconcile the seeming incompatibilities of science and religion, if indeed both are true?") The only way to know, he figured, was to ask God Himself. And so, he did not fear death, when it neared. Indeed, he eagerly awaited it (though not so eagerly as to actively hasten it). His final weeks were spent in hospital; he wasn't exactly ill, but rather he had checked himself in as a matter of convenience. He lived alone, and didn't like the idea of his body remaining undiscovered for who knew how long. And to be completely honest about it, he had been having a harder time getting around, of late, so having his needs taken care of by an attentive staff seemed a great luxury. Meanwhile, he had a number of visitors, during his stay at the hospital. No relatives, but various friends and professional acquaintances, and a few reporters came to see him. He even kept up with his blog (which had changed hosts a few times since he first started it, a couple of decades earlier). His final entry said, "Today is most likely the day. Soon I will either have my answer, at long last, or else I will cease to exist in any form, in which case the question won't matter to me anymore, anyway." Short, and to the point. It was really all he had left to say. In the few hours that remained after he posted it, he read a few comments, smiled at a few likes, even clicked "like" on a few comments. But he didn't reply. Instead, he spent his final moments offline and alone, privately reflecting that it had been a good life. Most people who knew him (or who knew of him) defined him by his pursuit of knowledge and understanding and, always, Truth; but his life had been so much more than that. He'd always taken time for fun. Family, friendship, a bit of romance, reading, sports, music, games, adventures, movies, television, internet, and so much more. There were a few things he regretted never having done, but on the whole... he was satisfied with the life he had lived. He was ready to move on, and again he thought of how eager he was to finally get the ultimate answer.

And so, when he figuratively opened his eyes upon his awakening in Heaven, he was happy. He figuratively breathed a deep sigh of contentment, and of excitement. He felt... he wanted to say, he felt young again, but that wasn't quite right. When he thought about it, he quickly realized he experienced no physical sensations whatsoever. He thought perhaps his clarity of mind had increased somewhat, but then it had never really dimmed to any considerable degree, in his old age. In any event, he decided to begin exploring (something he hadn't done in quite some time, and the idea of doing so again added to his initial excitement). It took him a few more moments to figure out exactly how to go about exploring, in a realm that was completely lacking in physicality, but he quickly got the hang of it. Despite his many years as a writer of news, fiction, and philosophy, he couldn't think of any words to properly describe how he explored, but he didn't suppose it mattered. It wasn't like he was going to be writing about any of this. "Those days are over," he said to himself (voicelessly).

The one thing he could say is that his consciousness called out (again, voicelessly) to get the attention of any other consciousnesses that might be listening. His mother and father were the first to respond. Of course he couldn't see them, or even hear them, but nevertheless, he recognized them at once. They greeted him with warm affection, which he blissfully returned. After the afterlife equivalent of hugs, he got them up to date on what he'd been doing since each of them died, and they filled him in on what they'd done in the same intervals. Partly that meant giving him a sort of orientation on the nature of Heaven, and its residents. (Something like a biology lesson, without the "bio.") Manny found it quite fitting for his parents to be his first teachers in the afterlife, as they naturally had been in life.

Once he had a firm grasp of the basics, he asked whether they'd gotten any answers to the Big Questions he'd spent his life asking. They said they were sorry, but no. "As you have already ascertained," his father thought at him, "we aren't imbued with anything like omniscience, when we die. And while there are ways of learning, there are some things that are known by rather few people, even here. So unless you can find the right person to ask, you're kind of out of luck. And despite the lack of physical limitations like distance, there's still, as we explained earlier, the matter of compartmentalization."

"Ah yes. The 'zipping and zapping' between residences, as you called it. Without roads or maps or anything. Sounds like looking for a needle in a haystack, without knowing what either needles or hay look like. But... isn't there someplace to look things up? No metaphysical phone book? No library? No information kiosk, even?"

"Fraid not," said his father. "It's sort of catch as catch can, around here."

"No ethereal ethernet, either," said his mother.

"What's an 'ethernet'?" asked his father. "Is that like the internet thing you were talking about?"

"Kinda," said Manny, doing the Heavenly equivalent of grinning. "Good one, by the way, Ma."

"Anyway," said his father, "I did talk to someone once about implementing a sort of Dewey Decimal System up here, but... he said that would take an eternity. I'm not quite sure if he was joking. But anyway, most souls aren't too keen on doing a lot of work, once they're dead. Everyone's just on permanent vacation. Can't say I blame them. I thought about cobbling together some kind of library myself, but... I quickly realized it'd be way too much work for just one soul."

"That's okay, Pop. It just means more exploring for me. And that's actually my idea of a pretty great vacation."

"Thought you might say that."

"In any event, I suppose the best person to ask my questions would be God. Is there any way to get in touch with Him? Surely He must be easier to find than any random souls. Does He have like a palace, or something?"

His parents exchanged glances, then his mother spoke. "Well, dear, it's... a bit more complicated than that. The thing about Heaven is... it has levels. Sort of like what Dante described, but sort of not. Anyway, to get to God's level, you kind of have to make an appointment. Actually, you have to make an appointment to see someone with whom you can make an appointment to see someone... there are I don't even know how many people you have to go through before you reach God Himself. It's pretty involved, so most souls don't even bother, or else they give up long before they get to Him. But even then, there are countless souls who do reach Him, so He's always pretty busy. Which is why there's all this... bureaucracy."

"But He's omniscient and omnipresent, right? He can do anything? Surely He already knows I want to see Him, and what I want to ask. It seems to me He could answer every single soul's question all at once."

"I reckon He could," said Manny's father, "but look at it this way: we've got all of eternity, and so does He. Even if it takes a million years to reach Him, there'll still be eternity after that. And even God can get bored. All this red tape gives us something to do while we wait, and meanwhile, spacing out interviews, talking to people individually, it gives Him something to do."

Manny did the noncorporeal equivalent of nodding. "I see." He paused to consider the fact that saying 'I see' was particularly meaningless, on this plane of existence, but soon dismissed the thought. "Well, do you have any idea where I should start?"

They did. In fact, it was ridiculously simple to contact the first person in the chain of communication. Manny got the ball rolling almost immediately, but quickly discovered that it was a very long chain, much longer than he had guessed, based on what his parents had told him. And there was a lot of waiting involved, between each link in the chain. Luckily, he needn't sit in some Heavenly waiting room, nor did he have to wait by the phone. (Waiting by the phone was something he'd done more than enough of in life, even after getting his first cell phone in the early 80s.) He had but to let one contact know he was interested in talking to God, and at some point thereafter, the contact would... contact him, one might say telepathically, to let him know how to get in touch with the next contact. Manny didn't really understand why he had to wait just to get that information, but he didn't mind. It gave him plenty of time to do other things, including "moving in" to his new residence, getting to know his nearest neighbors, and doing all sorts of exploring and seeking of information by methods other than the seemingly eternal chain of intermediaries between himself and God. It really was an enjoyable afterlife, and since there was so little actual effort involved in seeking an audience with the Almighty, he wasn't sure why anyone gave up on it.

Since there was no such thing as time in Heaven, at least not in any measurable sense, Manny had no idea how long it took before he reached the final link in the chain. Of course, "How long" was a meaningless question, but one he couldn't shake. All he knew was that the most recently deceased person he met in Heaven, not too long before receiving the call from the final contact, had died in 2133. So, he supposed he had been working his way along the chain for at least one hundred seventeen years, by Earthly reckoning. Hardly the million years his father had posited, but still it never ceased to come as a shock to Manny to realize he'd spent more time dead than he had alive.

Rather than being given instructions to contact the next person, Manny was invited to appear before the last contact "in person," so to speak. And almost as soon as he received the invitation, he was there. Getting around was so much easier here than it had been on Earth. As long as you knew where you wanted to be, you could simply... be there. The tricky part was knowing where you wanted to be.

"Greetings," said the person (soul? angel?) who had contacted him. "Manfred Monk. Nice to meet you; I've read all your work."

"All of it? Really? I didn't think my reputation would have preceded me, up here..."

"Oh, it didn't. But I do like to do research on the lives of the souls I'm to introduce to God. Decide whether they're worthy, and all that. Luckily, it's pretty rare for unworthy souls to make it this far."

"I should have thought it would be unlikely for unworthy souls to make it into Heaven at all."

"Heh. Yeah... well, a concert ticket isn't exactly a backstage pass, you know."

"No, I suppose not. Anyway, am I worthy?"

"Oh, I should say so. And this time, there'll be no waiting. Or at least not much. Before I show you into His presence, I do have to let you know a few things. Well, one thing, mainly. As you know, He has no innate form, but rather appears in the most appropriate form for each soul who visits him."

"I'm familiar with the concept. Not just from my orientation, but from countless stories on Earth. And I get that that means He'll take the form that is most familiar to a soul, to make them comfortable. Like for humans, he'd appear human, and for aliens, he'd appear as their own species, whatever it might be. Or he could take the form of a loved one, a relative or friend. Or-"

"No, no, no. Well, yes, potentially. But it's more complex than simply making you comfortable. I said most appropriate. That can mean pretty much anything you could imagine, or anything you couldn't imagine. But if you're worried about your own comfort, you can be permitted, within His presence, to assume the form you had on Earth. At any age."

"Oh. Uh, that would be nice, actually. Very... nostalgic. But I'm afraid I still don't understand what you mean by the most appropriate form."

"Ah. The thing is, He rarely, if ever, says anything in a straightforward way. He's a big fan of metaphor, allegory, parables, that sort of thing. He boils ideas down to... I can't say their simplest form, exactly. No, actually, the way He conveys ideas can be... confusing, without a previous understanding of... shall we say, context. In fact, two different people could listen to... or witness, for it doesn't always involve words... whatever He says or does, and one person might instantly understand what He means, while the other would become more confused than they were to begin with. Unless... unless you have within your experience the sort of... well, experience... to grasp His meaning, it will more likely than not seem like utter nonsense to you. Of course, He knows exactly what will make things clear to you, specifically, as an individual. So you needn't worry about that. Anyway, the form He takes is a part of His method of conveying the understanding you require. So it could be someone you knew, or it could be a historical figure, or it could be an animal, or a celestial object, or an ordinary chair. Anything. Or nothing, if a disembodied voice is what you need to hear. Whatever it is you see, if you see anything, you will know it to be Him. I mean, it's not like you'll walk into His presence, see a chair, and think it's Him when He's actually a bunny sitting on the floor next to the chair. Or vice versa. Whatever form He takes... you will know Him."

"I see." (He had never gotten past using that phrase, and he didn't suppose he ever would.)

"Good. Follow me, then."

In Heaven, 'following' someone was not at all the sort of process it was on Earth, of course, but it was just as simple, when you knew how. So, Manny followed the final contact, whose name he never learned. One might say they entered a room, though it wasn't a room in a physical sense. It had no doors, no windows, no walls or ceiling or floor. Nevertheless, it was in some way cut off from the ether that the two entities had occupied before entering the room. A completely separate level of Heaven. His guide announced Manny, then exited the room, closing the nonexistent door behind him.

Manny looked around the room, but couldn't see anything, at first. Except for his old body, aged about 40 (and with a grin of remembrance, Manny thought that at that age, most people said he looked like he was in his late 20s). He wished he had a mirror, but simply seeing his arms and torso and legs was, as he'd said earlier, quite nostalgic. He was even wearing his favorite clothes that he'd had, at that age. He looked up again, and suddenly noticed a small stage, on the far side of the room. He was fairly sure it hadn't been there a moment ago. The stage was empty, except for a microphone. (The mic, he knew, was not God. Nor was the stage itself.)

Manny cleared his throat, something he hadn't done in over a century, and tried to remember how to speak. "Um, hello?" he said. (Like riding a bike, he thought.) "If You're there, Lord, I'm Manfred Monk, as Your... I guess Your assistant... said. I have... I mean, I'm sure You know this already, but I have a question. Actually, a number of questions. At this point, obviously one of them has already been answered. I know there's a God, and a Heaven, and... all that. So there's obviously more to life, and the physical universe, than science has been able to explain. But I also know that... well, that what we do know of science, I mean people who are still alive, on Earth or any of the other worlds in Your creation, what we- they- know is all true, as well. And all my life, I struggled to reconcile my belief in You with my belief in science. Some things about each belief system don't seem mutually exclusive. But other things... really do seem sort of either/or. That is to say, some aspects of science and of religion seem rather incompatible, but not so much that I ever quite thought they were definitely incompatible. It's just that I couldn't see quite how they might be compatible. I... I could give You some examples, if You like." He paused, waiting for a response, but received none. "Well... I mean, I'm sure You already know all the things I've wanted to ask about, specifically. All the individual questions that make up my main question. I'm not sure if You'd need to answer each one individually, or if there's some grand unifying answer to all of it. I've been told that the reason You grant individual interviews rather than answering everyone's question at once is so that we, and You, have something to do with our time, here. So... maybe that means You want to answer my questions individually, to stretch it out as a way of passing the time. And I'd be fine with that, Lord, but I always rather thought... there must be, finally, one ultimate Truth that explains everything. An explanation that makes the seeming incomprehensibility of existence make sense, in a way that things like science, religion, philosophy, and even love, never have. Because honestly, there's just so much about life that really doesn't seem to make sense, no matter how you look at it. Any one way of looking at things makes some degree of sense, and explains some things about life, but each way, I mean science or religion or whatever else, each way of trying to understand life leaves some things unexplained. Leaves some things just seeming wrong, or incomplete. You know? So that's why I always thought the ultimate Truth must be some combination of worldviews, but try as I might, I could never fit them together in any way that didn't end up making things... make even less sense than they did when I viewed only one thing or the other as true. So that's it. My ultimate question. How do all these disparate, even seemingly opposite concepts, fit together in a way that makes complete, perfect sense of life, the universe, and... everything?" (He didn't quite like the sudden realization that he was unintentionally referencing Douglas Adams, but then again, he couldn't see any alternative.) And so he stood, and waited, and enjoyed the old, familiar-yet-long-forgotten sensations of standing and waiting.

Suddenly, there was a man standing behind the microphone, and Manny knew him to be God. (Manny recognized the form God had assumed, but he also knew that the original owner of that form was definitely not God.) He appeared as a white man, with red hair, wearing white slacks with a black and white striped polo shirt and a black sport coat. Familiar music began to play, with no apparent source, and the man on stage began dancing (sort of). Then he began to sing. (His outfit changed a number of times as he did so. Manny's favorite was the beige trench coat over black shirt and slacks.)

God sang: "We're no strangers to love. You know the rules, and so do I. A full commitment's what I'm thinking of. You wouldn't get this from any other guy. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling; gotta make you understand. Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye. Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you."

There was more, but Manny could barely hear it over his own laughter. When the song ended, he said, "Okay, I get it, now. But I feel like "Together Forever" might have been more apropos. 'I would move Heaven and Earth to be together forever with you.' Don't You think?"

The man on stage grinned briefly before vanishing. But a disembodied voice said, "Maybe. But that's not how it works. I didn't make the rules." And that was all; the interview was over.

Manny found the door and let himself out. When he saw God's assistant again, he asked, "Did you see that? Have you got a monitor out here, or something?"

He looked at Manny with a baffled expression. "Yeah. And to be clear, when I said someone without the proper experience would think His answer sounded like nonsense, the reason I know that is because I'm generally the other person. The one who doesn't get it. But man... this one takes the cake. Did that performance really answer your question?"

Manny smiled, although in that moment he realized his body was gone again, and his 'smile' was just the Heavenly equivalent of such. "It really did."

"But... what... how... what does it mean?"

"What can I say? You had to be there." With that, Manny departed. He was a bit disappointed to think that even if he could write up his experience and share it with people on Earth, they might get the joke, but it wouldn't help them understand the Truth. But that was okay; Manny understood it, and for the first time, he truly knew he'd be able to relax and enjoy eternity. Because as crazy as the living world seemed, he finally knew it all made sense, after all....

stuff I wrote