Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Big Question

This post is a contribution to Josies writing workshop, although it is not strictly speaking a piece of creative writing, it was still very much inspired by prompt 3 which was itself inspired by Christine at Thinly Spreads beautiful post: What Comes Next?

Occasionally when I find myself unable to sleep and it is a clear night, I open my curtains and lie on my bed looking out at the sky. Its vastness is soothing, the moon always seems to stare back knowingly, and sometimes if I'm lucky I will catch a shooting star flaming across the inky backdrop as if intent on a last hurrah before its light finally goes out for good. It is a good time for thinking and for half-dreaming.

The Butterfly Effect is a metaphor that seeks to sum up the principles of Chaos theory - it is a metaphor that asks a question: Does the flap of a butterflies wings in Brazil start a ripple effect that could result in a tornado in Texas? Although the science behind it is beyond me really I have always loved this idea and the image it creates. Recently whilst lying half awake on a late and starry night I found myself gazing out at the sky and dreamily wondering if perhaps the death of one human being could set off a similar ripple effect - eventually causing a small but significant shift in the entire universe - with planets and stars all being forced to change course and realign as a result? Whilst I do not believe that this could be literally true, it is nevertheless an idea that I find beautiful, and that weaves seamlessly into my genuine belief that birth and death are simply a part of the cyclical nature of life along with the tides and the seasons.

Neanderthals were one of the earliest species of hominid to inhabit the earth. They lived 250,000 years ago and survived on their own wit and resources through an ice age, but perhaps most interestingly of all they are said to have been the first hominids to have buried their dead. Not only that but some evidence has also been found to suggest that alongside the bodies of their dead they sometimes buried trinkets and animal bones. The assumption made by many archaeologists is that this indicates a belief in some sort of an afterlife, and that this is turn is evidence of their humanity. Which then of course begs the question: is there an intrinsic human need to want to trust in our own relative immortality? If the most primitive humans who must only have been bent on survival in the harshest of conditions sought the comfort of belief in a life beyond the grave, what might this say about human nature in general?

None of this would ever have crossed my mind for long if it weren't for the fact that inevitably - like every other mother sooner or later - I was confronted with The Question.

'Mum, what happens when you die?'

Nothing. You just die. For some reason I balked at saying this to my child. It seemed almost cruel, so abrupt, so harsh and yet it is what I have always believed and it has never frightened me. I have no problem with the idea of an end point, of closure. Indeed the promise of eternal life - that triumphant carrot dangled so enthusiastically in front of non-believers by the majority of the worlds religions - has never held any lure for me. My money has always been on Darwin. But when my curious and sensitive eldest son first asked me The Question, an inner voice suddenly said, 'You can't just say 'nothing'. It won't do, not on its own. You will cut him off dead when what he needs is to explore the possibilities for himself.' So I have tried my best to enable him to do that, which has not always been easy to square with my own strongly held atheism. I have also tried to answer his many questions as honestly as I can, which has not always been easy to square with my desire not to steer his train of thought too sharply in any direction. He knows that I do not believe in a heaven. He knows that I do not believe in ghosts. He knows that I do believe that unquestioning and devoted faith in something which has been proven to be highly improbable can be dangerous, and that far from being a virtue I believe it can breed intolerance and inhibit moral behaviour. He also knows that he is absolutely free to make up his own mind.

My mothers father - my 'Diddydad' - was dying in a small cottage hospital just at the time I was due to give birth to my second child. My mother sat with him through the last days of his life and one night when she could not sleep in the armchair beside his bed, the nurse on the night shift took pity on her, made her a cup of tea and some toast, and sat down with her for a while to chat. My mum talked of how I was expected to go into labour at any time and how sad she was that she could not be there for me. Apparently the nurse had said briskly but kindly, 'Well I'm a firm believer in one in one out dear'. My mother still remembers this particular nurse fondly and repeats this story often, and somehow - although I know her words of comfort were essentially nonsense in light of the current global population explosion - it always brings me back full circle to where this post began.

A full circle back to the butterfly and its flapping wings. Back to my night gazing and nocturnal imagining that with every death the stars and planets might sigh, change course and roll over to make room for the new life that is to follow.


  1. Gorgeous post, beautifully written!

    I'm of the same opinion as you but find it hard to explain that I don't believe whilst still allowing no1 son the freedom to decide if he wants to believe or not.

    Coming from Northern Ireland, anything vaguely to do with religion makes my skin crawl with distaste and it's hard not to show it. But I try....

  2. Beautiful writing. Really enjoyed it. I wonder too.. where, how, why... do we go?

  3. "One in one out." I think that's possibly the most comforting phrase around death ever uttered. What a beautifully written post (yet again). Thanks Gappy.

    My son is asking questions around this now and I've been struggling as well to find words which I can say honestly but which don't cut off the right to come to his own conclusions.

    I wish I had no problem with closure, but I must admit that this level of closure still terrifies me and the last thing I want to do is pass on fear.

  4. I posted on the same question, but as a Christian I have to be careful not to be 'absolute' in my answer too, I always tell my daughter that 'no one' really knows, and then we talk about what people believe....

    Nice post. But *I'm* not planning on just being nothing when I die :-)

    oh and I talk about the need to 'make room' for babies too. xx

  5. beautifully written. Although I personally do believe in after life, i respect each person's personal beliefs.

    I am curious (not because I am trying to change your point of view) whether you always have thought there is nothing or if something caused that belief.

    I personally have a problem with Darwin's theory because everything in this world is so intricate, I can't believe it all just evolved. It is kind of like cutting open a pen and letting the ink drip on a paper and it coming out with the words I love you mother. Don't think it could happen. But that is what I personally believe.

    If you are ever interested, I could recommend some books that definately made me think over the years.

  6. Cheeky Wipes Helen, hello nice to meet you. I can completely understand how growing up amidst the civil war that we euphemistically term The Troubles might have coloured your view of religion. I have a friend whose father helped a protestant man who was lying injured and dying in their street in the late 1970's. The whole family lived in fear of retribution from their Catholic neighbours for years. My friend now feels exactly the same way as you and will not countenance the idea of religion being in any way a force for good.

    Vegemitevix, I loved your post too. How did you come up with that? So clever....

    Flo, It is hard isn't it, trying not to let your own opinions stifle your childrens freedom of thought. I think the main thing is to be aware of that though, and to try as best you can to guard against it.

    Tattooed Mummy, I think it's great that you're discussing it with your daughter - so many parents just avoid the subject as if it were some great taboo - and I think that can sometimes just make kids more anxious.

    Susie, That's a really interesting question. I was actually baptised a catholic and went to church as a child with both sets of grandparents. My mother was taught by nuns in a convent school, but by the time she had had me (out of wedlock at 19) she had seriously rebelled. To be honest I can't ever remember believing in God. I'm a fairly faithless person in general I'm afraid! I don't even believe in fate. But I am extremely interested in how other people feel about these questions and what their beliefs are, and I have found reading the posts inspired by the same prompt as my own fascinating.

  7. You have such a talent with putting words together! I actually meant to say to you on your last post - maybe you should try your hand at freelance writing?
    Anyway sorry I digress, I have such admiration for people that have no need to believe in an after-life (and I have worked alongside staunch Darwin supporters). I'm such a scaredy cat that my biggest fear is what happens if there's no after-life and life is infinite. It scares the life out of me!

  8. This is a beautiful post. I'm struggling to explain all this to my 5-year-old as well. For some reason, she is intrigued by Jesus and death. I was raised Catholic which is probably why I'm now an agnostic. But, like you, I balk at saying that we just go in the ground when we die. Earth to earth and all that. I really want to believe that we are reincarnated. Interesting questions.

  9. Mojito lady, Why thank you very much (blushes) what a lovely thing to say. Yes the idea of life being infinite certainly makes me feel quite exhausted!

    Nappy Valley Housewife, I think children are naturally curious about these things eh.

  10. Hi nice writing. I think you really handled it with sensitivity. I am unable to convey my beliefs with certainty to my children any more as I no longer hold them as certainly as I did when they were young. I also want give them thinking space to weigh up these ideas for themselves. My children talk about heaven a lot and really look forward to seeing people there...but not yet, they always add. I am not so sure heaven is a literal place but I try not to share that with them as I think it's part of their memories of lost ones to imagine them in heaven and it brings them comfort.

  11. I actually share similar views. When I talk about this stuff with my kids, we talk about the various beliefs that people have rather than any absolute answer. Giving any kind of definitive "this is what happens" answer is dangerous. So we're letting the kids make up their own minds. At the moment, their own beliefs seem to shift from day to day, but that's fine - they're working out their own answers. I wouldn't want anything else.

  12. Gillian, Hello - thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. I completely agree with you about giving children space to think through the different ideas for themselves - that's what I'm trying to do too.

    Drawingdad, Yes my children change their minds a lot too! But like you say that's just part of the whole process of them thinking things through... My 6 year old said to me at Easter that it must be true that Jesus died on a cross otherwise why would we eat hot cross buns at Easter? The way he said it was so funny - as if it was just a complete no brainer!