21 grams: how a leather ball can explain the mystery of the soul

We all remember Chuck Noland’s leather-faced friend Wilson in the 2000 cinematic blockbuster Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. Washed up on a desert island, Noland roams his way desperately across the beach in search of survival tools and food. Under a scorching sun, the island is the epitome of paradise. But Noland’s loneliness is palpable; life is made for sharing. Frustrated by the absence of anyone else, the protagonist gets into a fight with himself and loses. He accidentally slits his palm with a knife, takes up the volleyball in his bloodied hand and throws it hard in a total rage. Later he looks at his bloody print on the ball, scratches in eyes and a mouth, and Wilson is born.

Life after death

The ball becomes Noland’s best friend. The audience connects with Wilson as closely as they would with a loveable animal like Lassie. The threat of his survival is even more profound than the possibility that the main character could die. But Wilson is a metaphor that depicts people’s desperation for a companion. More than that, he is an example of how people attribute human characteristics to anything they want to conceptualise. When people think about death, they consider the soul. And the soul is seen as the essence of the being. So the question is, what happens to the soul when we die?

None of us know the answer. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest the soul is real. It is certainly not tangible. But we conceptualise the soul as our essence –the accumulation of all of our personal characteristics. And when we die, we might believe that our character lives on through the eternal soul. In reality, our character is a byproduct of nature and nurture. And our character is expressed through our words and actions, which are facilitated by our brains. But our brains are mere biological organs that are subject to death. Thus, when we die our character dies with us. Does that mean there is no soul? Absolutely not.

Dismantling the soul

Perhaps the soul is just the accumulation of particles such as atoms. Luc Besson’s Lucy certainly plays on the idea that people are essentially made up of balls of energy that are scattered in death but ultimately form another life source, whether that is a human, animal or plant. Like atoms, these bundles of energy are indestructible and they explain how all life forms are interconnected. The particles may never form the same living being again, but the being is never destroyed in death since their essence is merely dismantled and those particles gravitate towards others to create another being.

The weight of death is said to be 21 grams*. And for anyone who has lost somebody they love, the departure of the essence of that person is overwhelming on viewing the corpse. The characteristics and idiosyncrasies of that individual are instantly gone, and the body truly is a mere vessel for the soul – the unique accumulation of a set of particles. This set of particles is not necessarily responsible for the personality of that person, but it may explain their je ne sais quoi, which transcends personal characteristics. Everybody has an individuality that goes beyond their behaviours and characteristics.

Eternal existence

One of our biggest fears about death is the possibility that there is no afterlife, which begs the question of the meaning of life. What was it all for if we merely cease to exist again? But if our essence is a bundle of energy that gets repackaged in another being then we have always existed, and always will. We have conceptualized existence using the same method that Noland did to create his best friend; by attributing human characteristics to it. And as with Noland, that has been fundamental to our survival because we require hope in order to function and progress. But perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the belief that our soul is a bundle of energy balls is the idea that we are all formed with the same materials; that we are not only united biologically and physically, but through our shared and indestructible soul.



*In 1901, Dr Duncan MacDougall measured six dying patients’ weight before and after death. They were lighter after death and some interpret this weight loss as the weight of the soul. 


About natashabrowne

Natasha is a freelance journalist and aspiring economist.
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One Response to 21 grams: how a leather ball can explain the mystery of the soul

  1. Pam Groves says:

    I truly enjoyed this perspective!

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