Friday, December 3, 2010

Telling My Five Year Old Heaven Doesn't Exist

Why do writers write?

It's an interesting question. When you think about it the writing profession is a pyramid-like structure. At the very top are the people who get paid very, very well. Stephen King is an example of the uber-writer who sleeps on a mountain of cash. In the middle of the pyramid are folks who get modestly paid. These folks include columnists in local newspapers, writers who do jokes for comedians, and/or those who grind out weekly TV scripts. Then you have the vast majority of writers who don't get paid at all. Nothing. Zip.

However, they all write for the same reason.

Writers write because they have a story to tell. Sure, in order to get paid (or even a chance to get paid) often times you have to commit to writing the story your boss wants to tell. Even then a writer will try to spin some of their own tale into the plot. Blogging, for me at least, allows the greatest degree of freedom to tell the story I feel that needs to be told.

I'm going to guess that you, dear reader, come here because of that story. Whether I'm making a joke about the soon to be  Noah's Ark Theme Park, writing something a bit more serious concerning Don't Ask Don't Tell, or relating how I'm trying to muddle through being an atheist and a father, you are here to listen to the meme (the idea) that runs through it all.

Tonight you will not be disappointed (I hope).

Tonight I'm going to tell you about my five year old's (Ali) discovery of death.

For the last month Ali has mentioned death off and on. We would be eating lunch and she will stop and say, "I don't want you to die." Her little eyes full of tears.

Christ on the cross, I don't want to die either.

I'll retort the party line, "I'm not going to die for a very long time."

"I don't want to die."

"Ali," thinking hard of something clever to say and coming up with nothing, "you are going to live a long and happy life." Then I tickle her a bit and it's all good. For the moment.

It's clear that she's still processing the problem of death. Aren't we all?

A few days later, the wife, Ali, Will, and I were having lunch (yes, meals are officially the time when the life lessons are reviewed) and she said to her mom, "I don't want you to die."

"Don't worry when we die we go back into the earth and help all the plants grow."

Ali gives her the look.  The "I'm going to think about that" look.

About an hour later I was outside doing the leaves (to date I have done 107 thirty gallon bags and brought them to the dump) and Will was climbing the very large oak tree.  Ali runs over to where he is.

"Will! Get off the tree! Someone is buried underneath it!"

Oy. I dropped the rake and explained that there isn't any dead body under the tree. I did a quick tickle to distract her and she went on playing with her brother. However, doubt was growing in my mind. Doubt about how I was raising my children. Would it be that bad to say it was only a person's body that dies and their immortal soul drifted up into happy ever after land? It would be a lot easier. And I'm not saying this just to have something to write about either. Christ, there is always material to draw from. No. My five year old's life is being made more difficult because I am not lying to her and saying Heaven is real. With Heaven comes comfort and I am withholding that comfort.

You may have noticed that on both occasions I was able to redirect her attention with a quick tickle. We all know that strategy wasn't going to hold. It didn't

Will, Ali, and I were having dinner last night.

"Is Uncle David living in the clouds?" She asked me.

This was a problem. Uncle "David" died years before the kids were born. They both know this. Here was the decision point. Here was when I would either give comfort or tell her the truth. Atheists often talk about the shear awesomeness of godlessness. However, there is a downside. As a parent you want to protect your children from all the nastiness of the world -- to whisper, "There, there - all is right in the universe and there is nothing to worry about."

I looked at her straight in the eyes, "No. Uncle David is not living in the clouds."

"That's what Grandma said," she replied.

I hadn't really expected that. My in laws are not religious folk. My father in-law may be an outright atheist, but he is Scottish. Being Scottish (he was born in the Highlands and moved to America when he was in his twenties) means not divulging a whole lot about his internal life. My mother in law (also a Scot) doesn't go to church, but that certainly doesn't mean she's an atheist.

"Grandma is wrong. Heaven is a lot like God. God is an imaginary friend that a lot of people have. But we can not tell them he is not real. They will get upset. We can't tell them heaven is not real either - some people will get very, very upset."

"It could be real," my five year old replied.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

"Look," I pointed to the baseball cap on my head, "if I told you I had an elephant under my hat what would you say?"

"I don't know."

"You would would me to take off my hat. And guess what?" I took off the cap. "No elephant! If I'm saying something  that doesn't make sense ask me to prove it." The only thing I wanted was for this conversation to be f*cking over.

Ali thought through that thread for a moment and her eyes welled up with tears. Good job Daddy. Well, things couldn't get worse.

"Life can be hard," came the voice from the eight year old at the other end of the table. Will had been listening the whole time. And then I realized two things. First, I felt a sense of failure that he knew this disturbing fact at such an early age. He hadn't been totally protected from the nasty nasties of life. Second, my happy and well adjusted son understood that living can be difficult at times and this fact didn't break him. Will was resilient.

I held my arms out to Ali and gave her a hug. Sometimes words just don't cut it

- in Purgatory


  1. As difficult as I'm sure that situation was, I think you did the right thing by telling your daughter the truth. Life's hard, but eventually everyone has to learn that. I think its better to tell children the truth than for them to grow up and discover that their parent(s) knowingly lied to them. And even though your kids may not take comfort in heaven, they can take comfort in their dad's love knowing that you will always be there for them with open arms and sound, HONEST advice. I'd take that over some fake fantasy land anyday.

  2. Being Scottish and a West Highlander, I was brought up by parents who, as you say, 'didn't divulge a lot about their internal lives'. I went to church and Sunday school but the indoctrination didn't really stick. There was one incident from my childhood that to this day has formed my opinions - a family was cast out of the community because the husband worked on the Sabbath - I can relate the whole story as I know it if you like, but that's not the theme of this comment. I brought my children up to question, to look for supportable truths rather than believe general assumptions. My eldest daughter was working at an assembly line job during summer break. Her colleagues were mostly Muslim and one day one of them said to her, "You must be very religious." She said, "no, not really". But said the other girl, "You're so nice and happy all the time." My daughter replied, "I don't have any religion, I don't believe in a god." "Oh" said the girl, shocked; "If you don't believe in God then you will go to Hell when you die!" My daughter replied, "But I don't believe in Hell either!" Bring your children up to be free thinkers, that's the best gift you can give to them. T.

    1. My father in-law is from Ballachulish, and he doesn't divelge a whole lot either.


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