This week’s episode of “Parenthood” included a storyline where one couple was faced with telling their six-year-old about death. The mother wanted to soften the blow by telling their daughter about heaven, but daddy was adamantly against it. When they tried to explain to the wee child that death is the end, that’s it, she became understandably upset. In a panic, mommy spontaneously told her about heaven, much to daddy’s tight-jawed dismay.
I brought the scene up with Odie over dinner tonight. I told him I understood why people told children about heaven. It really softens the “when you die, that’s it. Poof. Lights out” blow. Odie became tight-jawed and frowny, like the TV dad. He said he didn’t want to get in the habit of lying to our daughter. “But it isn’t a lie,” I retorted, “it’s what most people believe.” He agreed, but countered that he would need to choose his words very carefully when he talked about this subject with V.
And it suddenly became clear to me why people tend to marry within their own religions and belief systems. Sure, the irreverent atheist may be sexy and mysteriously appealing, but when it comes time to reproduce, he’s going to end up telling your innocent little baby that there IS NO GOD! That it’s a lie people tell to comfort themselves. A self-serving philosophy.
Which got me thinking about philosophies. Aren’t they ALL self-serving? Isn’t their purpose to bring us comfort and strength in the face of truly awful circumstances? “God has a plan” can be so much easier to swallow than “Random, horrible, unfair shit happens to everybody, but mostly only good people, every single day.” If you believe that when you die, you go to some wonderful place and are reunited with your family and friends (and former pets of course, because it isn’t “heaven” without dogs), then how is that hurting anybody? If it makes you feel better, then I say believe it.
“But you are deceiving yourself,” might be the argument. One time, someone said to me, “You seem like such an intelligent woman. I’m surprised to find out you have such folksy beliefs.” Don’t you just hate those back-handed insults? It sounds like a compliment up front, but there’s soft center of condescension when you bite into it.
Atheism is as much of a self-serving philosophy as the belief that there is something after death. I’m not going to make a blanket statement about all atheists (or “Secular Humanists”), but I will say that some of the ones I have known have been an awful self-congratulatory “I’m so much smarter than you, peasant” lot. Because they think they are right, and that most people are delusional idiots. And it feels good to be right in a world full of delusional idiots. Trust me.
I agree with Odie that my daughter and our other child should be free to choose their own beliefs. I’m not sure I even believe in “heaven,” but I understand why someone would tell a child that, especially when a beloved pet has shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to its reward. But I worry how this opens the door for someone to tell them about hell, which I absolutely do NOT believe in. And in my opinion, the heaven/hell story is too often used to manipulate and control people. I recently read a book about a particular cult, and before I read the book, I wondered how so many people could be made to obey a crazy lunatic, even giving their pubescent daughters to him for “marriage” (read: rape). These faithful believed to the core of their being that the only way to this perfect heaven they’d heard about since childhood was through this man’s grace. And to cross him, defy him, refuse to sleep with him or give your child to him for sexual gratification, means you and everyone you love would burn in hell for all of eternity. This fear of hell is a powerful tool. Easy to abuse. Terrifying to children.
Now, I’m not saying that my children’s only choices are atheism or blind allegiance to cult leaders. There is a whole world in-between, where most of us live quite happily with our individual self-serving philosophies. I remember becoming hysterical with tears when I realized around age six that my poodle was going to die someday. I was in my bed, sobbing, and my mother called the dog in, who ran around the room and jumped on and off of my bed like a spastic Tasmanian Devil, demonstrating how clearly full of life she was. Mom assured me that Daisy wouldn’t die for a long, long time. “Just look at her!” she exclaimed, as Daisy’s antics underscored her comforting words. She was right, Daisy didn’t die for over ten more years. When she finally did go, it was my mother who took it harder than I. “Don’t worry, Mom,” I assured her. “Daisy is in a better place. We’ll see her again someday.”
It’s more than just death that we need our self-serving philosophies to get through. Sometimes, I just have to believe that things happen for a reason. That someone smarter than me, or at least with a better view of The Big Picture, is driving this bus, and it isn’t going to go careening over a cliff. When I get uncertain news from doctors, like I recently did, I need to have something to lean on other than, “Eh. Shit happens.” When I stand on a precipice, peering into the unknown, I have chosen to believe that I’m not alone there. Not necessarily that God has a plan or that EVERYTHING happens for a reason, but that there is goodness and opportunity and joy in something that seems like only darkness and fear.
And yes, I’m going to be that cryptic, self-serving though it may be.