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A Meditation on Life, Death, and Meaning in “The Good Place”


Image courtesy of NBC

In the series finale of “The Good Place”, our four human protagonists have finally made it to the real, actual Good Place. It is everything they imagined it would be. The truest, most hedonistic form of heaven. They want for nothing, there is no suffering, they have no formal obligations, and they can literally go wherever they please, real or imagined. All of their hard work to become better people has paid off, and their reward is the keys to paradise — forever.

As it turns out, it’s the forever part that’s the problem.

“On paper, this is paradise. All your desires and needs are met. But it’s infinite, and when perfection goes on forever, you become this glassy-eyed mush person,” Lisa Kudrow’s Hypatia warns Chidi and Eleanor. Dismayed and horrified that they’ve given the rest of humanity an eternity-sentence as joyless zombies, the gang regroups to solve the problem of the Good Place.

The solution comes in a flash of insight from Eleanor, as she recalls a poignant reflection about humanity:

“Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.”

Thus, it is not “more joy”, but meaning, that is missing from paradise, and they create it in the form of a final Door that residents can walk through, in their own time, when they’re ready, to end their journey once and for all. And as Tahani eloquently explains (“You don’t have to go through it if you don’t want to, but you can. And hopefully knowing that you don’t have to be here forever will help you feel happier while you are”), meaning precedes joy — the former is the gatekeeper to the sustainability of the latter. Theoretically, one could never walk through the door, choosing to “live” forever in the afterlife. But without the option to, life behind the door is pointless, devoid of meaning and deadened of pleasure.

For us human beings still alive on Earth, we also have a Door to go through to end our journey. Like the residents of the Good Place, knowing that death is the final stop is one of the things that gives meaning to our time on Earth. Unlike the residents of the Good Place, going through our Door is inevitable, and we don’t get to choose exactly when we go.

So what are the implications of the Door for those who have to and cannot choose when they go through it?

1. Accepting that we all have to go through the Door can give us the freedom to be happier in the present.

Similar to what was experienced by the Good Place residents, meaning precedes joy. The Good Place residents found meaning in the knowledge that they had the option to go through the Door. As normal residents of Earth, we must accept the fact that going through the Door is inevitable — not just for us, but for those around us, including those we love. With this knowledge comes the possibility for profound meaning, and the inevitability of a pervasive sadness (as Eleanor observed). However, if we are to always carry a sadness within us because of this fact, then it is wise to also carry within us the good things about the Door. Namely, that without it, we would be just like the residents of the Good Place — lacking meaning and thus unable to feel joy. The Door, and the sadness it creates, gives us the freedom to engage in its opposite — the freedom to be happy in the present.

2. We must also accept the improbability that we will do everything we want to do — giving significance to what we choose to do.

Because we don’t get to choose exactly when we go, we don’t have the luxury of taking the time to do everything and anything we have ever wanted to do before we walk through the Door, as the Good Place residents did. Instead, we must accept the fact that our time is finite, and thus so are the experiences we take in and the memories we create.

“I can do ANYTHING I want, but I cannot do EVERYTHING I want.” — Gretchen Rubin, “The Happiness Project”.

We cannot choose when we go through the Door, so we cannot do everything we may want to do. But we can do anything we want to do within the constraints of our resources (our finances, our health, our responsibilities, but most importantly, our time). And we can let that knowledge give us joy, freedom, hope, maybe even relief — and the courage to truly do what we want to do.

3. Although we can’t choose when we go through, we can prepare for the Door by learning to find peace.

The residents of the Good Place each spoke about a feeling of peace and calm that washed over them, most notably after reaching some kind of goal, that cued them that it was time to go through the Door. It’s why Eleanor could not go through when her soulmate Chidi decided it was his time — she hadn’t experienced this feeling, and simply wasn’t ready.

We who do not get to choose when we go through the Door do not have the luxury of waiting for this feeling to arrive. We don’t get to wait until we’re ready, and perhaps most of us aren’t ready when the time comes — for us or those we love. And we know that we cannot do everything we want to do, so the notion of readiness as a result of accomplishing some final task does not make much sense for most of us.

For me, the implication is that reconciling our relationship with the Door (death) while we are still on this side of it (life) is well worth our finite time — it’s just as much a part of living life to the fullest as is taking action. It is as wise to just Be, to find that center of calm, that feeling of peace that came over the Good Place residents, as it is to Do. The two states exist in tandem and balance each other. Mindfulness, meditation, and other spiritual practices serve this purpose.

“The Good Place” is a show I go back to over and over again, and just as Eleanor observed way back in season 2, the series finale left me feeling deeply sad yet profoundly complete. In other words, it left me feeling human. Which, I suppose, is the best I can hope to make out of life.

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