I'm going to attempt to put into words something that I know will be elusive without having personally experienced the idea yourself. I'm sure you've heard people reflect back on some past phase of their life and say that it was a different life, or that they were a different person back then. Well, I actually think there is a lot more truth to this than meets the eye.
Take my "life" for instance. We already know that our physical bodies replace all their cells in a span of something like 7 years, so we are literally not the same physical person that we were seven years ago. But when I think of being a different person, I think of my circumstances, the people that were most influential on me during that phase of life, my attitudes and values of the time, how I saw the world and my place in it.
According to my completely nonscientific calculations and estimations, I am currently on life #5. My first "life within this life" started in the womb and continued during my childhood in Poland. It smoothly transitioned into life #2 when I immigrated to the United States. These two lives may be the easiest to compare due to the drastic geographical relocation. But there was so much more to that. There was an ending - death, if you will - to my Polish life, and a beginning - birth, if you will - to my American life. I did travel across with my parents, but other than that, I left behind other people with whom I had close relationships - my grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt. I also left behind people with whom I wasn't as close, but who nonetheless had a significant influence on who I was - my teacher and friends from school, my grandpa and my dad's side of the family, even my neighbors and really, random strangers on the street.
Being outside the house in my Polish life and being outside the home in my American life meant completely different experiences. In Poland, there were sidewalks and public transportation, and a greater freedom as to with whom I was out and about. There were always other people also walking around, taking the trolley or the bus like us, and with that came inevitable pleasantries or even just quiet observations of others.
In contrast, my American life meant the home, school, and the grocery store with my parents or the mall with my friends. I had to depend on a school bus to take me to school and back, no independence with that. I had to depend on my parents to drive me to meet my friends, so again, no independence. The people I grew up around were strictly limited to my close neighbors, my parents' friends, and people I saw in school or on the school bus. We went to church, but after the first couple of years we stopped attending a Polish parish, and once at an American church, we never developed a community with the people there. It was just in and out for our Sunday mass obligation I didn't really make friends at my Confirmation classes, which didn't last long anyway.
And so there was a huge gulf of experiences that divided my first and second life, and I haven't even mentioned the language difference! My second life lasted roughly until about age 16.
After the first two years of high school, we moved (for third time inside the US) and I had to change high schools. It was here that I remember wanting to "start fresh" where no one knew me. I had fumbled my reputation at my old high school while trying to fit in with my peers while simultaneously not letting my parents down. At the new school, I didn't have to worry about previous expectations. My third life began as I started to try to establish my independence after years of having no access to independence due to to way American society in my area was set up. Had I stayed in Poland, I would've been much more independent and responsible by then, but as it was, I had a late start.
In my third life, I had all new friends yet again. I met my best friend, Rachel, who was pivotal in helping me navigate life outside of school and home. She was allowed to drive me around before I got my license (at 18!), and thanks to her I experienced eating out, dance clubs, bowling alleys, and the homes of people I never would've otherwise seen. I didn't know it at the time, but I was trying to become an American adult without any real American role models. I was expected to stay Polish by my family, who also didn't provide any Polish role models to that end, and so I embarked on a journey of self-discovery that bled into my fourth life even. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
My third life went from my junior year of high school up to just before I got married. I graduated high school, I spent 5 months in my native Poland, I worked in retail, tutoring, and telemarketing. I went to community college where I was recruited into the Army. My father had a tragic vehicular accident that left him brain injured and unable to work or communicate well. I met my now-husband, we moved back to somehow help my family, we moved in together. I graduated college and my wild days of trying to figure out who I was settled down into a sort of background hum of uncertainty.
My third life smoothly moved into my fourth life. I graduated college, Alex and I bought a house, and we got married, all within the space of a month. I spent a bit of time in admin work before starting on a decade-long teaching career and graduate school. I thought I had an idea of what my future held, or at least what I wanted it to hold, and I patiently and naively hammered away at my goal without much thought to reality or practicality. For 11 years this was my life. We found that we had severe infertility and began to try to adopt. We spent 5 years struggling with various forms of adoption, having four false starts, before finally turning to infertility treatments. In the process, we both became more religious and began to share that religious faith with each other, which helped us make a bit more sense of our struggles. I was an adult, an American, but it sort of just plateaued that way. It wasn't due to any concrete intentions, and so without any mentors, I still didn't really know why I did what I did. I knew I didn't "feel" like a grown-up, but I attributed it to the American way, with the extended adolescence that is so common among high school through college graduates and 20-somethings. This fourth life died sometime after my best friend Rachel's suicide, the year before our daughter was born.
My current life, my fifth within this Earthly journey, began when I became pregnant with our daughter...or maybe with her birth. The transitions from life to life have usually been somewhat gradual, with the exception of the transition from my first, Polish life to my second, American life. That happened on December 19th, 1986, the day we arrived in the US.
My current life is that of a mother. This has brought a whole new set of challenges along with the blessings, and it has helped me to unpack some of my old identity issues from previous lives and try to make sense of where I've come from and where I'm going. It's thanks to insights from raising my daughter that I am able to look back on my own upbringing and deal with things I didn't have names for or didn't know were the issues at hand. I imagine that my current life will continue for some time, with the next transition taking place sometime when my daughter is a teenager or moves out on her own.
As I think about these five lives of mine, I can't help but think of the parallels between these lives-within-my-life and our Earthly lives. I'm not convinced of any details regarding various afterlife theories, including the different reincarnation theories that are out there, but I do believe we are eternal beings, and that in some way, we continue on after our physical death. I also don't believe that our souls are created at the moment of conception, because I think we existed before our current incarnations. Not necessarily in another human life, but possibly.
Anyway, the point is that every death, every ending, is difficult and sad. Sometimes such transitions are bittersweet. Looking back, I see that my life with Rachel as my best friend had to end before my life as a mother to Maya could begin. This hurts my heart. I couldn't have had a life with both of them in it. Yet here I am, and as I move from life to life, very few people actually travel with me. It's tempting to think that it's those people who give us a sense of continuity withing our incarnated identity, but this can't be true. I think of adoptees who had their ties to biological relatives severed upon their adoption. They have no one from their old life in their new life. Of course, I can't speak to that experience. I only know that in my life, one thing that has helped me sense a continuity from life to life has been the people who traveled with me across the bridges.
But really, the bottom line is that just like there are multiple deaths and rebirths within our Earthly life, there is always another existence to look forward to after our physical death. But believing that doesn't make the transition any easier, not for those who go before us, nor for us as we consider our own mortality. It's always sad to say goodbye, but that's life. We cannot keep adding and adding without some emptying to make room for new - new experiences, new people, new lives.