My daughter told me existence was too big for her.
She is ten years old and is overwhelmed by the inevitability of death, the seeming futility of life, the impossible demand to achieve something so that she can outlast death. Again, she is ten. I was the same at ten — or I would have been, if I hadn’t had the security blanket of heaven.
That’s a security blanket we never let her have, because it can keep you warm, but it can strangle you too. It doesn’t just cover your body; it covers your eyes. And we wanted our little girl to have her eyes open. But with your eyes open, sometimes you see scary things, like the vastness of the universe.
When I became an atheist I struggled with these same ideas. Every now and then I still do. I think about how I’m going to die and turn to dust, and my kids are going to die and turn to dust. The world—the only place of existence I have ever known, the sum total of my experience—will die and turn to dust. It is a suffocating thought. It can kill you if you let it.
Like I so often do, I wrote a book about it to get my thoughts out. Running from it wasn’t working, so I plunged into the reality and inevitability of death, and I managed to find some meaning, if not resolution.
The other morning, when my daughter was gasping for breath as those same relentless waves buffeted her, I knew I owed her something. I had taken her blanket. I owed her something. Whatever I could find.
So I shared with her the same idea that eventually helped me get my feet. It goes like this:
Imagine a vast desert. A place of death so large it has no endings and no barriers. In it you cannot breathe. You cannot survive. There is no food or water or love. It is endless devastation.
And then, somewhere in that horrible place, imagine a little oasis. Water and cool air. Oxygen and family and hugs. A walled place, a place of safety.
Through sheer luck or cosmic providence, we are in the oasis. Right now. And dwelling on death and inevitability is choosing to leave the walls of the oasis and go into the desert, where all we can do is die. We have the power to stay in the oasis. All we have to do is exercise it.
How long will it last? What’s the point if the end is inevitable? Even asking these questions is leaving the oasis. The universe is full of unanswerable questions, and worse, answers we don’t want to hear. We can’t change those answers. But dwelling on them is ignoring the single most beautiful, precious gift the universe gave us: the existence we have at this moment.
I don’t know if it helped her. Later that day she said she had developed her own analogy—not just like mine, but maybe inspired by mine—and now she felt better.
That was enough for me.
The election was two weeks ago tomorrow, and I think I’m finally coming to realize how I feel about it.
The constant, vise-like pressure in my chest has eased. It’s not gone, but it’s eased. Certain immediate terrors that I considered on a daily or even hourly basis appear — for now — to be staved off.
I find the most immediate of those are the fear we can no longer have free and fair elections in America, and the looming question of whether staying in this country would endanger my family.
On the second topic first – yes, I seriously considered leaving. I didn’t have an answer to the question of whether it was a good idea, so after voicing it to my wife a couple times I kept it to myself and wrestled with it pretty much every day of the last two years. Even before the election I concluded it didn’t make sense to move — it’s difficult and expensive, first of all, and there is hardly any guarantee that any other country (even Canada) would remain immune to this fever of nationalism that seems to be sweeping the planet. But post-election, all thought of this has vanished from my mind. It’s an enormous relief. The work I and countless others did in Minnesota kept this state blue for the most part, particularly by sweeping every statewide race, which goes a long way toward making me feel safe here — even as I recognize there are many others who do not feel that way, and still need good people fighting for them.
On the first topic — free and fair elections — it’s obvious the country’s democratic processes are not as clean as they should be. In my estimation the Georgia governor race was blatantly stolen, and rampant voter purges and “anomalies” in other states demonstrate that our democracy remains very much under attack from within. Despite nearly a decade of gerrymandered districts, though, the people spoke loudly enough to swing control of the House.
I’ll be honest with you, I did not believe that was possible. I thought the infrastructural advantage the Republicans had etched into districts around the nation would prevent it. And that barrier did blunt the impact. There are several examples where a state’s House seat allocation didn’t even come close to an accurate translation of that state’s popular vote.
So there is still a lot of work to do. But I’m glad to live in a Republic where the ability still exists to do it, and it’s good to be able to breathe again.
The Facebook post is about the slaughtered children in Texas today, and a Democratic Senate candidate going on the air to demand action. Most of the responses are Likes. At least one is a laughing face.
A laughing face.
To the user who posted it, I have to say, your response makes me wonder. How broken, how monstrous, must you be to laugh right now? If it had been your child slaughtered today, would you still find this Democrat’s outrage funny?
It is a particularly brutal response to post publicly, because Facebook, presumably, added that laughing reaction as a way for people to share joy. Laughter is one of the most fundamental of shared human experiences. It can break the tension of a hard situation. It can bring enemies together. It can dispel tears and conquer grief.
To twist it this way, to turn it into a thing of scorn in a time of such deep sorrow, is a repulsive abdication of empathy.
I wonder if you could take a step back and truly examine what it is, exactly, that you find so humorous about this situation. If you could take a look in the mirror and say to yourself: “I am a person who laughs when children are slaughtered.” Is that really something you’re comfortable with? Does there come a point when you realize that perhaps your philosophy has led you astray? That it’s transformed you so thoroughly that empathy and compassion appear to be powers you’ve lost?
Or is the philosophy so ingrained, the indoctrination so complete, that no amount of bloodshed will wipe the smirk from your face?
I think when you create a work of art, it belongs to the human race. I don’t mean from a legal perspective – I’m not talking about copyright law here, an artist deserves to be compensated for their work – but in a greater sense, beyond that artist’s life and death. At some point the trappings of legality and financial considerations fall away, whether we want them to or not, and art’s worth is judged by the degree to which humanity benefits from it. It will lift people up or open their eyes in ways beyond those which its creator may have intended. It will be admired or criticized, emulated or shunned, based on its meaning to every individual – and paradoxically, by extension, on its meaning to the species. Over time it will morph, its influence leaking into other pieces, guaranteeing it a form of immortality not unlike our own ability to procreate.
I understand that making these claims as an author will invite supposition that I’m talking about literature. I’m actually thinking more of music. What got me thinking on this topic was covers, specifically Bad Wolves’ cover of Cranberries’ Zombie. When I was younger I universally hated covers. The original is always better, leave it alone, etc. I look at them differently now.
A good cover is not an attempt to co-opt the original’s success. A good cover is a love letter. A merging of new and old, an homage and an expression of beauty. When a cover comes from a place of love and respect, you can hear it.
I thought I heard that love in the new cover of Zombie, so I did a little research. Did you know that Dolores O’Riordan, the original singer, was scheduled to record the cover WITH Bad Wolves on the day of her death? She was. When she passed away, they went ahead and recorded it without her. It isn’t just an homage or even a love letter – it is a eulogy. That rawness in the lead’s voice is real. It’s grief.
I loved the Cranberries growing up. I would listen to them in the dark, enveloped in Dolores’ voice, soaring on melancholy with my arms wide. Her death rocked me.
But it brings me deep joy to hear her voice carried forward, to learn that her influence has joined that great, eddying river of musical art that carries all of us forward. In its way, it will never leave us; it’s part of us now, and wherever that river ultimately leads, O’Riordan’s haunting voice will always glitter in its waves.