Last night at dinner my son Sam, who is three, asked, “Is Tom going to die?”
Tom’s his brother. Tom is two.
It’s hard when your three-year-old asks if he’s going to die, if his brother’s going to die. Because they are. And yet parents, especially with very young children, are possessed by the need to keep those children alive. It’s a losing game, you know it, but perhaps you rarely think about it.
Because life is for the living, and we live by forgetting. You were there when they drew their first breath. You held their blazing bodies the first time they were sick. You know how fragile they are, like bundles of sticks with big eyes. And you’ve known the sudden bottomless gape of dread when you look for them in a public place and they aren’t there.
I never lied to my daughter and we don’t lie to the boys. When Sam asked where the dog went we told him he died. But a three-year-old doesn’t know what that means, “died.” So you have to explain it. And that’s not as easy as it might first seem, if you want to tell the truth.
There are hard jobs if you want to live virtuously, and this is one of them.
I should clarify. I can’t use the word “soul.” I can’t use the word “Heaven,” or anything like it. I can’t say anything that implies anyone is aware of anything after they die, because I don’t believe they are.
When we had the cat put down my wife explained that his body was in the ground now, and was becoming part of the earth, and Sam said maybe a flower would grow out of it, and that was a pretty idea. But he also said that Percy had gone into the compost. Which was kind of true, but a dire formulation nonetheless.
More for me than for Sam. He seemed cool with it.
People say that very young people feel like they’re immortal, and this was true for me. Actually, it wasn’t so much that I thought I would never die, it’s just that the concept was purely speculative. I had to take it on faith, much like my current very sketchy understanding of quantum mechanics. I remember my mother crying on the phone when I was very young and being told it was because her sister was sick. I know now that this was my Aunt Dorothy, whom I never met, and who died then.
But I don’t think I was very clear on what this meant, “died.” And I fear I wasn’t much help to my mother.
My grandmother died when I was twelve. Coincidentally, we were visiting my mother’s people in Montana, and had to come home early. I remember I got very drunk with my friends (I know, I know—I was twelve. But there it is…) and afterwards wept pitifully alone on my bed, saying, “I loved her so much…I loved her so much…”
It shames me a little to tell that story, because I remember very clearly that the words felt false, like I had heard them in a movie, like I was acting a part, trying to feel what I was supposed to feel. I was fond of my grandmother, and I remember her warmly. I wish I had been kinder to her, taken her more seriously, and spent more time with her. But I don’t think kids are like that. I wasn’t, anyway. I took her for granted, like everything in my cosseted life.
When I was twenty-five my brother Mike died. It was AIDS that killed him, and I watched it happen. It took a long time. I wasn’t there for the final moment, but my mother was. She nursed him for the last year of his life, bathing him, watching him disappear.
Can you imagine?
Can you imagine that?
My brother John died a few years ago. He was…what? Fifty-one? Fifty-two? Not much older than I am now. His death was sudden, but not unexpected. He probably could have lived many years more, but who knows? It wasn’t the worst way to go—he died in his sleep. But he was alone, as he had been for years, adrift in the dark alone, surrounded by people who loved him.
Socrates is praised as a man who faced death calmly, uncompromised, living his path to the end. But Socrates was convinced that after death he would go to a better world and discuss philosophy with the wise (maybe just poking at them until they broke down.) What Socrates called “death” was just a doorway into another life, much like the one already lived, only better.
And I’m pretty sure that’s bullshit.
There are people who are at this moment planning to blow themselves up along with the greatest number of strangers possible. There are people who have sent their children out with high explosives strapped around their frail torsos.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine?
But these people believe that at the moment of death they and their disintegrated children will enter Paradise, and all their troubles and pain will be paid. So that’s why they can do these terrible, terrible things. They’re not evil. They’re just catastrophically wrong.
We don’t live in that kind of universe. And their children are just dead and gone.
This is a major bummer. And it ‘s quite possible to weave a misguided, nihilistic, narcissistic philosophy from the stark truth, proven by modern science and supported by close subjective observation, that there is no eternal soul, no life after death, and nowhere over the rainbow. And wise people, knowing this, have quite rightly mourned the death of religious tradition and its consolation.
Those poor people…who wants to strip from them the idea that their babies are in Paradise, safe at last, safe at last? Who could bear the alternative?
Living to beat death is a fool’s game, because death will surely win. Unless winning is not the point. One could live, or play, as if it were possible to win—but can one really believe this? That one could triumph over death, forever?
Millions of Christians and Muslims profess this every day, but I’m not sure how hard they think about it.
Still, even though the game is not winnable, perhaps we need not abandon our side. Perhaps we can spend a little time thinking about a well-played loss.
Knowing we will lose, perhaps the only success is to lose well, to lose beautifully. To lose with peace in our hearts, walking off the field. Unbowed.
All of this assumes that death is our opponent. Indeed, that there is a contest at all. Children play games without winners, children play without games. Children just play, if you let them. And it seems to me that in very small children play is inseparable from love. They don’t have a strong distinction between Self and Other. And when this distinction is gone everything is awareness, everything is love.
To rest in the world, just as it is, to accept it, unconditionally, with a light heart. Without grasping. To play, without keeping score.
I’m never going to lie to my babies. I’m going to give them the gift that I was given: the gift of knowledge, the consolation of truth. That we are not separate, not alone. Not One, but not Two. There is so Self, no Other. There is no In or Outside.
There is no separate soul, trapped and alone, desperate for union. Peace is right here, right in front of us. Within us, everywhere.
The gates to the Deathless are open. Stop for a moment, and breathe. Step through.