My two daughters and I were lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling.
“Dad, I have to tell you a thing. Promise you won’t get mad,” said Delaney (6), with very serious eyes.
“Oh jeez, Laney, so dramatic,” said Erin (9).
“I plan to be furious,” I said. “Out with it.”
“I . . . I kind of got into a God fight in the cafeteria yesterday.”
I pictured kids barricaded behind overturned cafeteria tables lobbing Buddha-shaped meatballs, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and Jesus tortillas at each other.
“What’s a ‘God fight’?”
“Well, I asked Courtney if she could come over on Sunday, and she said, ‘No, my family will be in church of course.’ And I said, ‘Oh, what church do you go to?’ And she said she didn’t know, and she asked what church we go to. And I said, ‘We don’t go to church,’ and she said, ‘Don’t you believe in God?’ And I said, ‘No, but I’m still thinking about it,’ and she said, ‘But you have to go to church and you have to believe in God,’ and I said, ‘No you don’t, different people can believe different things.’ ”
I asked if the two of them were yelling or getting upset with each other.
“No,” she said, “we were just talking.”
“Then I wouldn’t call it a fight. You were having a conversation about cool and interesting things.”
“Then Courtney said, ‘But if there isn’t a God, then how did the whole world and trees and people get made so perfect?’ ”
“Ooo, good question. What’d you say?”
“I said, ‘But why did he make the murderers? And the bees with stingers? And the scorpions?’ ”
I don’t know about you, but my first-grade table banter never rose to this level. Courtney had opened with teleology, the argument from design. Delaney countered with theodicy, the argument from evil.
“But then,” Delaney said, “I started wondering about how the world did get made. Do the scientists know?”
I described the Big Bang theory to her, something we had somehow never covered. Erin filled in the gaps with what she remembered from our own talk, that “gravity made the stars start burning,” and “the earth used to be all lava, and it cooled down.”
Laney was nodding, but her eyes were distant. “That’s cool,” she said at last. “But what made the bang happen in the first place?”
I told Laney that we don’t know what caused the whole thing to start. “But some people think God did it,” I added.
“The only problem with that,” I said, “is that if God made everything, then who . . .”
“Oh my gosh!” Erin interrupted. “Who made God?! I never thought of that!”
“Maybe another God made that God,” Laney offered.
“Maybe so, bu—”
“Oh wait!” she said. “Wait! But then who made that God? Omigosh!”
They giggled with excitement at their abilities. I can’t begin to describe how these moments move me. At ages six and nine my girls had heard and rejected the cosmological, or first cause, argument within 30 seconds, using the same reasoning Bertrand Russell described in Why I Am Not a Christian:
I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?’ ” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.
Incredible what an unfettered young mind can work out with or without a parental boost. I doubt that Mill’s father was less moved than I am by the realization that confident claims of “obviousness,” even when swathed in polysyllables and Latin, often have foundations so rotten that they can be neutered by thoughtful children.
There was more to come. Both girls sat up and barked excited questions and answers. We somehow ended up on Buddha, then reincarnation, then evolution, and the fact that we are literally related to trees, grass, squirrels, mosses, butterflies, and blue whales.
It was an incredible freewheeling conversation I will never, ever forget. It led, as all honest roads eventually do, to the fact that everything that lives also dies. We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s face.
“Sweetie, what is it?” I asked.
She began the deep, aching cry that accompanies her saddest realizations, and sobbed,
“I don’t want to die.”
Now let’s freeze this tableau for a moment and make a few things clear. The first is that I love this child so much I would throw myself under Pat Robertson for her. She’s one of just four people whose health and happiness are vital to my own. When she is sad, I want to make her happy. It’s one of the simplest equations in my life.
I say such obvious things because it is often assumed that nonreligious parents respond to their children’s fears of death by saying, in essence, “Suck it up, worm food.” When one early reviewer of Parenting Beyond Belief implied that that was the book’s approach, I (shall we say) corrected him. I am convinced that there are real comforts to be found in a naturalistic view of death, that our mortality lends a new preciousness to life, and that it is not just more truthful but more humane and more loving to introduce the concept of a life that truly ends than it is to proffer an immortality that inquiring minds will have to painfully discard later.
But all my smiling confidence threatens to dissolve under the tears of my children.
“I know, punkin,” I said, cradling her head as she convulsed with sobs. “Nobody wants to die. I sure don’t. But you know what? First you get to live for a hundred years. Think about that. You’ll be older than Great-Grandma Huey!”
It’s a cheap opening gambit. It worked the last time we had this conversation, when Laney was four.
Not this time.
“But it will come,” she said, sniffling. “Even if it’s a long way away, it will come, and I don’t want it to! I want to stay alive!”
“Well, a lot of people think you do get to stay alive, in heaven.”
Her expression told me that she was already past that one. She had told me before that it seemed like something people only believed to make themselves feel better.
She stopped sniffling and looked at me. “I don’t get it.”
“Well, what do you think being dead is like?”
She thought for a minute. “It’s like you’re all still and it’s dark forever.”
A chill went down my spine. She had described my childhood image of death precisely. When I pictured myself dead, it was me-floating-in-darkness-forever. It’s the most awful thing I can imagine. Hell would be better than an eternal, mute, insensate limbo.
“That’s how I think of it sometimes, too! And it frrrrreaks me out! But that’s not how it is.”
“But how do you know?” she asked, pleadingly. “How do you know what it’s like?”
“Because I’ve already been there.”
“What? Ha-ha! No you haven’t!”
“Yes I have, and so have you.”
“What? No I haven’t.”
“After I die, I will be nowhere. I won’t be floating in darkness. There will be no Dale McGowan, right?”
“And millions of worms will eat your body!” chirped Erin, unhelpfully.
“. . .”
“Well, they will.”
“Uh . . . yeah. But I won’t care because I won’t be there.”
She shrugged. “Still.”
I turned back to her sister. “So a hundred years from now, I won’t be anywhere, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay. Now where was I a hundred years ago? Before I was born?”
“What do you mean, where were you? You weren’t anywhere!”
“And was I afraid?”
“No, because . . . .”
It hit both girls at the same instant. They bolted upright with looks of astonishment.
“Omigosh,” said Laney, “it’s the same!”
“Yes. It’s exactly the same. There’s no difference at all between not existing before you were born and not existing after you die. None. So if you weren’t scared then, you shouldn’t be scared about the next time. I still get scared sometimes because I forget that. But then I try to really understand what it means to not be anywhere, and I feel better.”
The crisis was over, but they clearly wanted to keep going.
“You know something else I like to think about?” I asked. “I think about the egg that came down into my mom’s tummy right before me. And the one before that, and before that. All of those people never even got a chance to exist, and they never will. There are billions and trillions of people who never even got a chance to be here. But I made it! I get a chance to be alive and playing and laughing and dancing and burping and farting . . .”
(Brief intermission for laughter and sound effects.)
“I could have just not existed forever—but instead, I get to be alive for a hundred years! And you too! Woohoo! We made it!”
“Omigosh,” Laney said, staring into space. “I’m like . . . the luckiest thing.”
“Exactly. So sometimes when I start to complain because it doesn’t last forever, I picture all those people who never existed telling me, ‘Oh, come on. At least you got a chance. Don’t be piggy.’ ”
More sound effects, more laughter.
Coming to grips with mortality is a lifelong process, one that ebbs and flows for me, as I know it will for them, and I doubt we ever really achieve it. Delaney was perfectly fine going to sleep that night, and fine the next morning, and the morning after that. It will catch up to her again, but every time it comes it will be more familiar and potentially less frightening. We’ll talk about the other consolations—that every bit of you came from the stars and will return to the stars, the peaceful symphony of endorphins that usually accompanies dying, and so on. If all goes well, her head start may help her come up with new consolations to share with the rest of us.
In his brilliant classic The Tangled Wing, Emory psychologist Melvin Konner notes that “from age three to five [children] consider [death] reversible, resembling a journey or sleep. After six they view it as a fact of life but a very remote one.” Though rates of development vary, Konner places children’s first true grasp of the finality and universality of death around age ten—a realization that includes the first dawning deep awareness that it applies to them as well. So grappling with the concept early, before we are paralyzed by the fear of it, can go a long way toward mitigating that fear in the long run and maybe even replacing some of it with wonder and gratitude.
Laney is ahead of the curve. All I can do is keep reminding her, and myself, that knowing and understanding something helps tame our fears. It may not completely feed the bulldog—the fear of our mortality is too deeply ingrained to ever go away completely—but it’s a bigger, better Milk-Bone than anything else we have.