Bewildering Stories

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The Limitations of Being John

by David Jay Bernstein

John Lester was certain of only two things: First, he was alone in a white room (Well, to be completely honest he wasn't actually sure it was a room. He couldn't see any walls, or corners, or ceilings, but he did see a lot of white and he was alone.) and second, he was dead.

"You know what I hate the most about dying?" John asked himself. He often talked to himself. It helped to calm him whenever he was in an uncertain situation. And this, as he had commented to himself earlier, was as uncertain of a situation as he could remember.

"The pain?" responded a nearby baritone voice.

So, I'm not alone after all, thought John. Damn, there goes one of my two certainties. "Yes," he answered.

"I'm not surprised," said the baritone. "You always seem to return from mortals that have painful deaths. I can't help wondering if that's *not* coincidence."

John wasn't sure what was meant by "always returning" so he made a mental note to discuss that with himself later. "So, where is it I've returned to?"

"The Well of Souls."

A Well? In all this sterile endless white? He wasn't impressed. Then a flash of an old memory came to him. "Say, don't I know you?"

"Yes, many lifetimes over."

John was excited. "Yeah, yeah, the last time I saw you, you were a Japanese farmer named," he hesitated for a moment to get it right, "Kenichi. Yeah, that's it! Man, that was ages ago. It's good to see you again." John paused for a moment and then added, "I don't think I can I say that. I don't actually have eyes. Oh well, that's death for you."

Kenichi sighed. "Too bad it wasn't your jokes that died."

"Whatever. So, what have you been up to since then?"

"Open your consciousness," said Kenichi.

It was an odd expression but John knew what it meant. He unfocused his thoughts and suppressed his ego. Kenichi's memories flowed into him -- unexpectedly unpleasant memories. He mentally shuttered. "Whew, better luck next life, old chap."

"Don't worry about it, John. I don't. The Well washes the experiences clean so that I can learn from them."

"Uh huh," he said skeptically.

"So, tell me, how'd it happen this time?" Kenichi asked, changing the subject. "Nothing lingering, I hope."

"Nah, it was pretty quick. Some nut-case shot me during one of my motivational speeches. He pulled out a gun and demanded his money back. Let me tell you," he would have pointed a finger in emphasis if he'd had a hand, "John Lester does not give refunds. So, anyway, here I am."

"You sound upset about it."

He'd been shot. What did Kenichi expect? Still, deep down, he knew that wasn't the real reason. "I think it's because I still think of myself as John Lester."

"Don't worry. That persona will fade."

John knew it was the truth. He could feel the Well's tide flooding him with lifetimes of memories (his memories) while at the same time tugging at his current ego. Weird, but not unpleasant. He looked around the room. "This Well of yours isn't very impressive. Too much white."

"This is just the beginning. Open your consciousness again and take another look."

John did. He saw, or more appropriately felt, a whirlpool of colours and emotions rising from the horizon. It brightened his bland white surroundings with indescribable hues. John bathed in the colours as his mind expanded to accept the potentialities of what was to come. "Wow," was all he could say.

"Yes, I know. Now focus your attention on me again because I can't stay long. I'm on my way to being born. You know how it is, you're dead one moment and alive the next."

"How much time do you have before your birth?"

"Difficult to say. It'll just happen. Just like you'll know when to transcend into the Well."

Colours that would have been indescribable if he were still alive swirled around him, calling to him with textured sound. He felt his individuality was being washed away and to his shame, he didn't mind, since it felt so damn good. "Why is it," he asked, "that you have to be born? Why not stay here forever?"

"Oh boy, here it comes. Every few lifetimes you get into a funk over free will."

"We have it when we're mortals."

"John, John, my poor misguided friend, I've given this some thought and I've concluded that mortals don't have it. And, I'll tell you why."

I'm sure you will, John said silently. Let the lecture begin.

"John, don't interrupt me with your thoughts," Kenichi said. "We are all open books here. Besides, I don't lecture. All I was going to say was that the only reason some mortals think they're free is because they do not understand the combinations of causes that force them to make their decisions. They are directed by their schools, their government and even the financial markets -- all of which is controlled by society. It is a closed system. Hell, if you pardon that expression, they are even limited by their own languages. If the words to describe a concept don't exist within a language then does the concept actually exist to the speakers?"

John mentally shrugged (it was the best he could do without a body). "Oh, I agree that certain events are more probable than others, and that some mortals may fall into a predestined trap, but once events are understood then actions are free. There is still freedom through individualism,"

"But aren't conformists happier people? That's what religion teaches. Oh, but don't get me started on religion."

"Now, that's something we can agree on. The last time you got started on religion the Chinese Ming dynasty rose and fell before I could get a word in. I missed out on at least four lifetimes."

"That's untrue and malicious. I think I can hear my new parents calling. Good-bye."

"No wait! I was just kidding. I didn't realize you were so thin skinned. Oh wait, you don't have skin. Do you?"

"Again with the jokes? I can see why you were shot."

"Yeah, whatever." John was still sensitive about *that* subject. He watched as the remaining white surrounding him was slowly overrun by the Well's rich tones. Soon he would be home. But something still bothered him. "Hey Kenichi, *if* you're right then we, even as souls, aren't perfect beings. We are part of a system and communicate with language. Therefore we are limited and can never know everything."

"Unfortunately, John, that's the case. To completely know something, including the Well, we need to be outside of its system, language and all. But alas, we are all part of some system so we can't be all knowing."

"Ha! A soul that is an atheist."

"Don't be an idiot. I said *we* are always part of some system. If God exists he is an observer outside our system."

A disturbing thought (perhaps a revelation) about outside observers suddenly came to John. "What if all this -- you, me, the Well, everything -- are just part of a story? If no one reads this: Do we exist?

Kenichi didn't reply immediately. "I don't know," he finally said, sounding a bit worried himself, "but, if you're right then someone must be reading this, because we're here. But I don't think the reader is God because by reading about us they have become part of our system. Hey, did you become a philosopher as John Lester?"

"No. Truth be told he was pretty shallow. There were a lot of limitations to being John Lester. That's why he became a motivational speaker. I don't miss him too much." The Well's call was becoming louder, more insistent. He didn't have much time left here, perhaps only paragraphs -- if what he suspected was true.

"Listen John..."

Kenichi sounded distant. "You're fading. It's difficult to hear you."

Just barely audible, "I'm leaving, and so are you. We are going to different places. Enjoy yourself in the Well. Farewell, and if you ever come back to life during my mortality maybe we'll get married like before. Maybe you'll be the husband this time. Who knows? The author?"

Kenichi was gone and there was only silence.

Copyright © 2003 by David Jay Bernstein