The Meaning of Life [and LOST]

No worries: if you haven't been watching, there's no possible way you could piece my references below into a spoiler!  However, shame on you -- start from the beginning on Hulu.  Pronto.

I still remember the day I discovered that salvation was neither guaranteed nor permanent.  It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life, a little like discovering that you don't really own the house you just finished paying off.  Only, okay, a much bigger deal.

What helped me to make peace with this tenet of my church's theology was the realization that ultimately what you believe is only important insofar as it affects what you do.  Take a guy who prays the sinner's prayer and then goes on to live the rest of his life as -- well -- a sinner.  He figures he's okay because he did what he had to do to ensure salvation.  But whether the "sinner's prayer" phase lasts five minutes or five years, his conversion clearly wasn't sincere, because it didn't change him.

Now if you want to split hairs and talk about whether salvation comes from the act of the prayer or from the life that follows it, whether the prayer itself is even necessary or a mere formality that prefaces a much more deep and lasting commitment to a life of spiritual growth, whether the belief is the important thing or the actions that prove it heartfelt -- well, fine, I'll buy you a coffee and we can hash it out.  But ultimately it doesn't matter.  What we do on this earth matters.  What we do in our hearts, with our neighbors, to our enemies -- all of this matters.  All of this determines whether we will be saved.

This is why LOST is the most shockingly meaningful and significant series I have ever seen, the reason I haven't watched much of anything else since it started, and the reason why I can't get excited about much else on television.  It's about the big stuff: about how we live, how the fallen seek and find redemption, how our lives and souls are shaped by those with whom we keep company -- for better or worse, by choice or chance.

The trope of the antihero, the conman / prostitute / killer with the heart of gold, can be a morally-ambiguous cliche, implying that actions are meaningless and only "heart" matters.  (Remember Pretty Woman?  We're supposed to pull for the protagonist because, despite her choice of a deplorable occupation, she has a soft spot for her attractive and wealthy rescuer.)  But in LOST, we see people whose sins are real and damaging: torturers who are haunted by their cruelty, murderers who are always running, children who are paralyzed (literally and figuratively) by their inability to forgive their parents.  They can't just sweep those crimes off their proverbial slates; they have to reckon with them, to seek closure and possibly judgment, before they can even begin to heal.

Each person comes to the island, as a character says in one of the final episodes, broken.  They all have demons to wrestle, and they do so with nowhere to hide.  They become part of a community, literally in communion with one another; they love and fight with and learn from each other.  In the finale, one of the main characters explains it this way: "The most important time of your life was when you were with with these people.  That's why you are all here.  No one does it alone."  The heartbreak, the persecution and violence and pervading confusion that made the show famous -- no one fully understood the complex mythology, maybe not even the show's creators, who are wont to shrug and say, "no, we never intended to explain that" -- all of that was simply a means to an end, a way for them to learn how to remember what was important and let go of what wasn't.

So, ultimately, the hair-splitting is irrelevant.  Sure, I'd like to know the mechanics of the monster, the back stories of some of the minor characters, and the prelude and postlude to the short time frame that's chronicled in the series.  I'd love to buy you lunch (coffee wouldn't quite cover this) and debate about that just for argument's sake.  But kudos to the show's writers for refusing, in the end, to get caught up in the nit-picky intricacies of plot and setting.  What made the show great was its focus on the universals of death, love, forgiveness and deception -- the human experiences and ideals we've all lived and suffered through.

And really (okay, stop reading here if you might someday want to be surprised by the ending) it also doesn't matter whether the alternate reality depicted in the final season is called purgatory, or karmic reincarnation, or heaven.  The point is that each person in that church made a decision to live an honest and selfless life, and they were rewarded with a chance to right the wrongs they had committed, and to enter into the afterlife as purer, more whole human beings -- free from the corrupting influence of mankind that extended even to their island paradise.

You know how I know it's an amazing series?  I can't wait to watch the whole thing all over again.  Starting tonight.  Who wants a Dharma beer?