A few weeks ago, in order to wean my daughter from those Barbie shows she’s always watching, I suggested we watch a nice nature program instead. After spinning up a list of National Geographic shows on my smart television, I told my daughter to pick one and, since she thinks sharks are “cool” she selected a program about the Carcharodon carcharias – The Great White Shark.
Things were going swimmingly until the scene shifted to some seals living on some rocks off the coast of South Africa – complete with footage of a seal pup being born. “Aww,” my daughter cooed. “He’s so cute!” Then the narrator intoned that while the seals were safe on land, they’d eventually have to go into the ocean to find food. “And seals are snacks for sharks.” And, sure enough, my daughter was soon treated to the spectacle of a Great White killing a seal in a seething foam of water, blubber and blood.
“Did he eat the baby seal?’ my daughter yelled. “Did he eat him?”
“No,” I said, realizing I’d messed up child safe programming wise. “It was a grown-up seal.”
“Was it the baby’s mommy? The baby’s daddy?”
“Uh…maybe it was an uncle.”
“Like your brother?” Natalie said, her lip quivering.
“You know, honey,” I said. “I think the seal got away. Hey, let’s watch Barbie.”
Mollified by the going’s on at Ken and Barbie’s dreamhouse, I thought Natalie had gotten over her distress. But at my daughter’s soccer game later that day, she had a collision with another player and began wailing inconsolably. Unable to snap her out of it, the coach eventually told my wife and I to take her home, which only made Natalie more embarrassed and ratcheted her distress into overdrive. Since my wife was on her last nerve, I took Natalie to my job at the food pantry where I had some weekend chores to finish. After popping her into a chair with crayons, paper and chocolate milk for comforting nourishment, I let her free associate artistically for an hour while I did paperwork. Then some volunteers arrived to help sort food donations and I let Natalie join them. While she was occupied charming the volunteers with her spitfire personality, I looked at my daughter’s drawings. They all depicted my wife and I holding Natalie’s hands under a happy smiling sun. Then, later that night, as Natalie snuggled in my arms during story time she said, “If you die, who will cuddle with me?”
“I’m not dying for a long time,” I said. Natalie has no idea my surgery in June was to treat an early-stage cancer. She just thinks the docs fixed something in my “tummy.” Since my surgeon told me there’s a 90% chance my cancer is gone, I wasn’t technically lying – but there are no guarantees when it comes to this kind of stuff.
“But you are going to die?” My daughter said.
“Do children die?”
Yes, dear,” I said, “It happens.”
I knew watching a shark munching on seal had jolted Natalie. Then, when she got knocked down on the playing field, she came face to face with the aggressiveness of athletic competition – that in order to win, somebody else must lose. I wasn’t in my daughter’s head, but I know her very well. I’m guessing the minor violence of the soccer scrum reminded her of the frenzied appetite of that Great White. If a baby could get eaten, she probably thought, could such a fate befall her? Or mommy, daddy and Uncle Mark? That was why she was crying. And those drawings she crayoned? They were probably her way of reassuring herself that everything would be all right – that the world would always be a happy place beneath the smiling sun.
“Most people die when they’re old and have been sick a long time,” I said. “But yes, sometimes children get sick and die too.”
“Or get into accidents.”
“So why did that shark eat that baby seal?” Natalie asked.
“Because he was hungry,” I said.
“Couldn’t he have eaten something else?”
This is when parents usually have that “Circle of Life” talk with their kids. If they weren’t sharks there’d be too many seals and then seals would starve, so nature keeps everything in balance. If people didn’t die, then we’d have too many people. If forests didn’t burn, new trees could not grow. Life perishes to allow more life to happen. Life needs death and death needs life. Sounds perfectly respectable – until you think it though.
Saying life needs death puts death on equal terms with life. Having just gone through the medical ringer, acquiescence to such an equivalence bothers me. When a doc calls to tell you that your biopsy came back positive, trust me, you’re thinking life is much preferable to death. I wasn’t thinking, “That’s okay, I’ll just be making way for more humans.” The Circle of Life is a nice metaphor – until it comes for you. But death being essential to life means that goddamn Disney song isn’t a hymn celebrating nature’s interconnectedness and wisdom but, rather, a chorus celebrating an endless cycle of predation, violence and death. For life to happen, somebody else must lose. But, like most parents, we tell our kids, “That’s just the way it is.” Yet children, in their tender innocence and wonder, instinctively rebel against such tragic resignation. Why does the world have to be this way? Why can’t we call just be happy under the smiling sun?
Children possesses something adults often find in short supply – hope. It’s one of the reasons why they’re so resilient. Adults, on the other hand, after getting smacked around for a while, banish juvenile hopes as a self-protective measure and adopt a kind of guarded optimism in its place. Sort of like a lifer in prison for whom thoughts of parole have become too painful and focuses on small anticipations instead – like maybe the inmates will be served chocolate pudding on Thursday. We would certainly say that prisoner is living a diminished life but, when we say death is equal or necessary to life, so are we.
If you’ve given the yin and yang nature talk to your kids, ask yourselves this – how does that philosophical system hold up when confronted with the tragedy of four-year old girl dying from cancer? How did her death benefit anyone? Was her death a sad but necessary loss to make way for another child? Did she fertilize the earth with her corpse so beautiful flowers could grow? Her grieving parents, of course, might decide to funnel their angst into prodigious fundraising efforts to find a cure, efforts that might eventually bear fruit and save countless children, but did that girl really have to “lose” so other’s might “win?” Was her death the seed for new life? Could you say that while watching your child wasting away in a hospital bed, knowing how many of life’s joys were being stolen from her prematurely?
If you can, I don’t blame you. People desperately try searching for “silver linings” within tragedies so they can hold up under them. But when we do that, when we say decay, violence, and death are necessary for new “opportunities” to emerge, then we are making tragedies both large and small morally intelligible – and that they are most certainly not. That’s because Death is not a companion who greets us at the end of our journey or permits more life to flourish. Death creates nothing. It cannot make anything new. And, as a parent standing over their child’s grave knows all too well, Death only robs us of what is irreplaceable. Death is The Enemy, prowling “around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” And if that enemy is a necessary adjunct to life, then the universe is indeed a cold, dark, indifferent, cruel and violent place – much like a prison – making us anticipate small things because it’s much too painful to hope for anything more.
Children, however, always hope for something more. Since they are so young, they are by nature oriented towards the future. So, for them, the thought of there being no more tomorrows is quite perplexing. And since they have such a hard time grasping death’s finality, like when they ask when a deceased pet or relative is coming back, their innocence can be heartrending for us adults. So, we smile wanly, pat them on the head and then write off their simplicity as psychological and developmental immaturity. “They’re too young to understand,” we ruefully tell ourselves. “But one day they will.” We say this because, as life’s heartbreak and loss exact its toll on us, we start becoming very careful to what or whom we open our hearts too, lest we get hurt again. Instead of hope, we begin to “hope for the best” or, at the very least, the least painful option. Superficial optimism replaces hope. Maybe there will be pudding on Thursday.
A couple of days ago, I was revisiting the often misunderstood and much maligned theological concept of divine impassibility – that since God is perfect, simple and infinite, he is incapable of emotions or change. If God reacted to a situation, let’s say, choosing a response from a menu of options, that would mean he’s been affected by that situation and has changed in response, which would mean that despite being super powerful, he’s just another a finite being, ergo not God. “Wild and blasphemous,” Theodoret, an early Christian theologian wrote, “Are they who ascribe passion to the divine nature.” Translation? The Almighty doesn’t get worked up over anything. People often think Divine Impassibility means that God doesn’t care or that he is unmoved by suffering, but that’s not what it means at all. As all the major faiths teach, God can only be who he is – Existence Itself. His endless donation of being is what allows everyone and everything to be. And since God is perfect and had no need for you, me or any part of creation, then it follows that our existence is pure gift – a gift the giver never tires of giving because that also is who He is.
For a God who cannot change, death, suffering and evil are meaningless. He is maximally alive – life itself – so, for him, anything that is not life is of no account. For us of course, suffering, evil and death affect us greatly. They drive us to become selfless or selfish, resolute or cowardly, compassionate or cruel but they are, in of themselves, nothing. To wax Christian for a moment, the story of Easter is about an empty tomb – the Resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth suffered under and was legally executed by the civic authorities, scattering his disciples in fear. But, as the story goes, God simply took man’s tragic sigh of “That’s the way it goes” and turned it on its head – lifting His Son from the dead three days later. Not as a ghost or divine zombie, mind you, but as a living breathing man. He came back. Is that not the wild hope of every child when someone they love dies?
In their hopeful innocence children are a reminder that God, in his perfect, simple, and life-giving impassability, is also very much like a child. Like my daughter, he doesn’t think seals should be a snack for sharks or that any forest should burn; that pets or grandparents should die, and that no child – or their parent – should perish from cancer. God does not will that one must lose so another can win. He is not interested in “keeping everything in balance.” Perhaps a child’s inability to wrap their heads around death and loss is a “signal of transcendence,” a sign that God can’t abide such tragedies either. For Easter tells the tale of a God who simply ignores history’s cycle of predation, violence and death just by being who he is – life and life in abundance. And since life is a gift, it can only come from love – a love which is not a feeling but the very thing in which we “live and move and have our being.” Life only comes from love, not death. And when we encounter suffering and try to alleviate it through charity, which is just another word for love, we are the vessels of that endless gift – life coming to the rescue of life. Far from being sterile or uncaring, God’s impassibilty provides us with the most radical of hopes, a hope that infinitely outstrips “grown up common sense” and calls us to be like children again – to hope that all can and will be well again. God is infinitely full of tomorrows.
“Natalie,’ I told my daughter, “I know that shark eating that seal upset you. I know you worry about me not being around. I don’t know all the reasons why bad things happen. But I think one day that shark and seal will be friends and play together and be very happy. And even if I leave you, one day I’ll cuddle with you again.”
Smiling, I thought of a line from Scripture. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Everyone happy under the smiling sun, for The Circle of Life has been broken.
“Yes, dear,” I said. “I promise.”