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.