I have immense respect for Mitch Albom. Not only is he a well-known author and columnist, but he is also a incredibly generous philanthropist. The Water Ice Factory, his ice cream shop in downtown Detroit,opened on August of 2015 and is currently operated by his charity organization whose proceeds are allocated to fund after-school programs for the city’s youth, assistance for the homeless, along with viable care for the elderly, particular veterans. As a fellow Detroiter, I applaud everything he is doing for our city.
(Update: When I wrote this post, I wasn’t as familiar with Mitch Albom’s columns. Most of his column pieces are on sports, a topic I find more boring than the Weather Channel. After reading some of his non-sports pieces, including his “Anthem protesters may want to look at the calendar” article, I find Albom to be self-righteous, out-of-touch, and intolerably condescending. I still applaud Albom’s philanthropic endeavors. However, I can no longer honestly say that I “have immense respect” for him)
One of my closest friends recommended Five People You Will Meet in Heaven. At first, I raised an eyebrow, making no efforts in concealing my skepticism. The title of the book sounded very Oprahesque and new-agey. Spirituality is a topic that doesn’t enticed my interests. Nevertheless, I thought I would give it a try. Why not, I thought to myself. After all, I had nothing else to do during that weekend.
The book length is a mere 196 pages. The paragraphs notably consist of only one line. The prose is simple enough to attract the average, pedestrian ‘non-reader’. You know, the type who would fancy themselves to be intellectual for reading The Da Vinci Code. However, I cast my pretentious inclinations aside to give the book a fair chance.
The narrative opens with an elderly man named Eddie, who is employed by Ruby Amusement Park as the head maintenance man. On his birthday, during his shift, one of the park rides malfunctions due to a damaged cable. One of the cart detach, set to drop on an unassuming girl, to the horror of Eddie. Within a short interval of time, Eddie runs to the little girl in attempts to shield her from the impact, yet he is unable to rescue himself. After being blinded by a bright flashing light, Eddie is ‘transported’ to ‘heaven’ where he encounter five people who had an indirect, yet crucial influence on him during his lifetime.
The narratives reconceptualizes our understanding of death. Mitch Albom makes it clear that death is not the end of life, but a mere part of it. On page 28, ‘The Blue Man’, the first person whom Eddie encounters in heaven, states “Birth and death are part of a whole” Death is not something to fear and mourn. One can think of it as the liberation of the soul, akin to the Dharmic concept of Moksha.
Think about every people you’ve encountered. Every single person. Not just your friends or a casual acquiescence. I mean every person. The janitor you walked by on your way to the office. The homeless lady to whom you gave a dollar. A cashier at your local grocery store. It’s unfathomable to believe they play any role in your life. I mean, how can they? You’ve never had a conversation with them. Not even a one-minute small talk session. However, when conceiving the bigger picture that is your life, they’ve all had a noteworthy impact on your existence as you’ve had on theirs.
In his encounter with those five people in ‘heaven’, Eddie is constantly reminded that humanity is interconnected. Even if two people have never engaged in a conversation, they’ve had a tremendous influence on each other’s lives.
Eddie laments about his broken dreams. His aspirations towards a career in engineering were cut short and he had to settle for a maintenance job at an amusement park. A position seen as non-professional and meaningless. Nevertheless, during his time in heaven, Eddie realizes his life had purpose, even if he failed to realize it during his lifetime. We’ve all heard the adage “Everything happens for a reason”. To most, including me, it sounds nothing more than a flowery platitude, planted in our minds to inhibit misery and regrets. However, it’s a fascinating and comforting thought worth entertaining, even if you don’t believe in supernatural beings.
Would I recommend Five People You Will Meet in Heaven? Yes, and no. A person who is not spiritual inclined might be annoyed by the numerous spiritual overtones. While the narrative in itself is interesting, I wouldn’t blame anyone for citing the preponderance of platitudes and cliched adages as reasons for discarding the book.
But I would still encourage skeptics to maintain an open mind. In my opinion, the author does a beautiful job clarify philosophical concepts like Monism, Intertwingularity, and Eternal Return in a language that is easy to understand.
You don’t have to be religious to enjoy this book. In fact, the author pleads for a humanistic outlook. For example, on page 80, in his conversation with an elderly woman named Ruby, the third person he meets in heaven, Eddie claims “People don’t die because of loyalty”. Ruby mockingly replies “They don’t? Religion? Government? Are we not loyal to such things, sometimes to the death. Better to be loyal to one another”. I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment.
If you have a Sunday afternoon to kill, why not read this book? You can even access the pdf version online if you don’t want to spend money on a paperback (like me). You may not care for the story or agree with the underlying themes however, the novel will give you something to think about.