So much has been written about the LOST finale that it seems almost pointless to add my voice to the din, but it has been my favourite show (i.e. the only show I’ve regularly watched) for the last three years, and I have a lot of thoughts about it. Plus, it had all sorts of fun religious / spiritual elements, and there AREN’T many people in the blogosphere offering a Swedenborgian take on it.
More (including spoilers) below.
The best summary I’ve read is here (thanks Dylan Hendricks for pointing me to it). Read part two as well – Jeff Jensen is right on about almost everything. What I like about his summary is that right up front, he points out that having the sideways world be the afterlife (or a “pre”-afterlife) does not make everything that happened on the island meaningless. Just the opposite – it means it all mattered.
With twenty minutes left in the show, I was frustrated. If the sideways world was what happened if the island were destroyed, then what was the point of Jack re-corking the hell hole? It didn’t SEEM like all hell had broken loose in the sideways time. It seemed to be a pretty good place, actually. So what did it matter that they save the island?
But the sideways world wasn’t an alternate timeline. As they say, “What happened happened.” Blowing up the atom bomb didn’t change anything (despite Juliet’s assurance that “it worked”). Sayid really did die to save the others. Sun and Jin did die in the sub. And (presumably) Desmond was able to leave the island and be with his wife and son, just as Jack had hoped. Does the fact that they were reunited in the afterlife make everything that proceeded meaningless? That’s a question worth asking, but it’s an existential question, not a problem with the show: if we live forever, what value do our lives in this world hold?
To sum it up: I liked it.
On the Swedenborgian-ness of it all. The finale, like the whole show, had a lot of religious elements, but the big one in the finale was the LOST version of limbo / purgatory/ whatever the sideways time is. What exactly was it, anyway? It seems to have been a pre-afterlife space where people could work out their issues and come to the realization of who they were and what really mattered to them. As Doc Jensen points out, it didn’t seem to offer redemption for those who had never been redeemed in the world:
Ben chose to stay in the Sideways world instead of joining the castaways in their communal upload into the Source. He said he still had some things he needed to work out for himself. I’ve heard that some fans didn’t like the implications of Ben’s decision. If souls are allowed to kick around Purgatory for eternity and figure themselves out, then doesn’t the Sideways world effectively cheapen the Island story? If our redemption issues can be processed easily and painlessly in the cushy limbo of our own blue heaven, then what does it matter what manner of evil that we commit or suffering we endure in the world of matter? It’s a fair point — but it misses some points, too, and besides, the criticism can’t be fairly applied to Ben because it doesn’t take into account facts that are in evidence. Apparently, both he and Hurley enjoyed a fruitful partnership on The Island in the post-castaway era. I like to imagine Ben did much to change during that time, and that perhaps the principled teacher that he was in the Sideways world was a fair representation of the man he became in The Island world. I think the example of Ben tells us something about how Lost‘s version Purgatory works for all souls. Yes, you can stay and ”figure things out,” but this introspection doesn’t change who you are. Or rather, were. You don’t get to craft a flattering interpretation of yourself. You don’t get to accumulate more experience to improve your chances at heavenly election. You only get one life to live, and the opportunity that the Sideways world provides is the chance to puzzle together and come to grips with the person you became while you lived it.
To say that this sounds somewhat Swedenborgian is an understatement. But we’ll get to that in a second.
Some people – including Jensen – are calling the sideways “purgatory,” but it’s not really purgatory – purgatory is a place of punishment for sins, not as much a place of discovery. (Edit: The purpose of purgatory in Catholic doctrine is preparation for heaven / purification from sin, and after reading a little bit more about it, I think it’s probably fair to call the sideways a sort-of purgatory, although it seems pretty far from the Catholic purgatory). Others are calling it limbo, but in Catholic theology (according to Wikipedia) limbo is either a permanent state of “in-betweenness,” or it was a holding place for those who died before Christ, so that they could accept Him at His birth. It doesn’t hold that same idea of preparation.
Like any good Swedenborgian I see Swedenborg in just about everything, but since fellow Swedenborgians on Facebook have pointed out the similarities to the Swedenborgian idea of the afterlife, I feel mildly justified in claiming that the “sideways” world has more in common with Swedenborgianism than with many other religious doctrines. I don’t know of any other religions that have specific teachings about a middle ground, before a person reaches his ultimate destination, where they figure out what they truly love and meet up with the person with whom they will spend eternity. (Which isn’t to say they don’t exist – my knowledge of other religions is sadly limited).
Swedenborg writes that after a person dies, he does not usually wake up in either heaven or hell, but in a middle ground – the world of spirits. Here he goes about his daily life, often believing at first that he has not even died, but was only sleeping. Gradually he or she comes into the realization of the truth, and comes more and more into his “interior self” – who he or she truly became in this world, essentially his or her “ruling love” – hellish if it was love for self alone, heavenly if it was love for others and God. People meet up with their spouses, and if they were truly united, they spend eternity together (and if not, they meet their true soulmate, maybe a difference from the LOST sideways). A person won’t be redeemed if they were not in the world – there’s no afterlife change of heart – but since everyone has issues / evils that they pick up, they have to work through these things, often through some pretty painful processes (but still, not as punishments). The states that they have gone through in this world return.
All of which sounds an awful lot like the sideways to me. All the characters in the sideways had, in their this-world lives, repented of the evil that they did, and changed their hearts – but they still had issues they needed to work out. Take Ben Linus, for example. Presumably, even up to the point of his death, he was conflicted – otherwise he wouldn’t need more time to kick around the sideways while the others moved on. But he made decisions – he became a certain way – and so when in the sideways timeline he had the opportunity to put his love for Alex above his own desire for power, he made the right decision. The struggle was still real, but because he had changed later in his life, he was able to make a decision he should have made when he was on the island. Now, I don’t think this is exactly how the world of spirits works – but the concept is similar enough to be noticeable.
There are, of course, enormous differences between Swedenborg’s take on the world of spirits and Messrs. Lindeloff and Cuse’s take on the LOST sideways. Swedenborg does not teach that people go through weird alternate realities of their own lives where they’ve forgotten the lives they lived in this world – rather, they have all their memories from their lives, and feel like the world of spirits is a continuation of those lives. Still, as I mentioned before, the Writings do say that a person’s states of life return after death:
“All the states of the affection of good and truth with which a person is gifted by the Lord, from earliest infancy even to the end of life, are stored up for him for the use of his life after death; for in the other life all the states of his life return in succession, and are then tempered by the states of good and truth with which he has been gifted by the Lord” (Arcana Coelestia n. 1906).
Could you look at the sideways as a manifestation of this idea, that all a person’s states return, including the evil ones – but that these are modified by all the states of good and truth that a person has received? I think you can, and I do.
Oh, there’s so much more to say! I’d love to hear thoughts from fellow Swedenborgian LOST geeks.