Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Catastrophic Earthquakes, and Other Things That Terrify Me.

Oh christ, it's happened again.

Another cataclysmic act of mother nature has left tens of thousands of people dead.

I thought these things were supposed to happen but once every hundred years... and now, they seem to be happening again and again, only a few years apart.

I can't even bring myself to look at the pictures of the bodies lying in the streets; I feel as if my heart might implode. My skin is already so thin when it comes to my ever-present fear of being able to protect my children, and I avert my eyes as a means of self-preservation.

But what do I say when, as happened this morning, my 4-year-old asks, "What are you guys talking about, Mommy?"

My poker face is non-existent, so it's hard for me to lie. Further complicating my role as mother is that I don't *want* to lie to my children: I want them to know that they can trust me to provide accurate information. I want to set the precedent that I am honest with my kids, so that one day, when it really matters, they will be honest with me. (This is why I'm getting stuck on the Tooth Fairy-- but that's a subject for another day.)

So I told my 4-year-old that every once in a while, in certain parts of the world like California, the earth sometimes shakes, because there is rock under the ground that is moving around. (Not at all scientifically correct, I'm sure, but I was trying to make this-- wait for it!-- "age-appropriate.") And in a part of the world called Haiti, I told her, there was a very big shaking of the ground, and it has caused a whole lot of damage to a whole lot of buildings. She seemed satisfied with that answer and went back to humming a song she learned in school and looking out the car window cheerfully. (I left out the 100,000 dead people part; don't answer a question that wasn't asked, I figured. Call it a lie of omission, which is definitely not a real lie.)

But I was left unsettled. Because I know that, as my girls get older, the questions will get tougher, and the answers will need to be more elaborate. And how can I look into my darling, precious, trusting children's eyes and tell them that sometimes, the earth shakes, and every building falls, and people-- mommies and daddies and children and babies-- die?

I don't really believe in God (I say "don't really" because there is a part of me that truly *wishes* I did, even though the idea goes against every rational thought I've ever had). But I don't know if a belief in a supernatural steward would make my job as a parent easier or harder.

SCENARIO ONE: GOD. Mommy, what are you guys talking about? Well, kids, a lot of people have died in an earthquake. And when I say a lot, I mean more people than you could count. And that's very sad, especially because some of them were probably crushed by buildings and others probably had to watch those people being crushed by buildings and there was probably a lot of screaming and for the few people that survived, their lives are effectively over anyway and they will never for one second stop thinking about what horrors they saw. So they would probably be better off if they had died, too. But the good news is, all of those dead people have gone up to Heaven! And they are happy now, and they are all reunited with their families, and they are not in pain any more. They are with God and God is great! But Mommy, why did God let those people die in the first place? I don't know, honey. It's God's plan, and we can't understand it. We just have to have faith that God knows what He is doing.

[Ok, that sounds like the biggest bunch of BS I've ever heard, honestly. And I wasn't even trying to be snarky, it just happened. Let me try another approach.]

OPTION TWO: NO GOD. Mommy, what are you guys talking about? Well, kids, sometimes nature does crazy things. And some of that craziness is probably the fault of people, because for many many years, people haven't been taking very good care of the planet, and our bad behavior is probably messing up things like weather and ice and oceans and things like that. So every once in a while, things happen in nature like earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and floods, and sometimes nature causes buildings to fall down and lots of people can get killed by the falling buildings. It's very scary and very sad when this happens but I don't want you to worry about it because the chances of something like that happening to us are very very small. Chances are, we will live long and happy lives. But just to be on the safe side, please try to be happy every day, because everyone just gets one life, and it's very important that we appreciate all we have while we're here.

See, this explanation also sucks, and would definitely leave my chicken-sh*t eldest daughter complaining that she can't go to bed for the foreseeable future because she's convinced that an earthquake will indiscriminately strike during the night. But at least I can imagine getting through it without choking on the words, as I might in the first scenario.

Does this mean that I plan on raising the girls to be atheists? Not necessarily. In fact, I *hope* that they learn a faith in God, either from me (if they can see past the uncomfortable smile that appears on my face whenever I talk about religion) or from elsewhere (like from their dad, who I think still believes, bless him, despite my cold-hearted efforts to convince him otherwise). I *hope* that they have faith because the world can be an utterly terrifying place, and how could any person NOT want their children to believe that (a) it's all going down according to God's plan (which includes even the child molestations and the runway model decapitations and the genocides, I have to assume); (b) all the good people are ultimately rewarded for their goodness and all the bad people are ultimately punished for their badness; and (c) we will all live happily ever after on a cloud one day, for all of eternity, eating our favorite foods and watching our favorite tv shows and just generally giggling ourselves silly. How could any parent deny a child this existential safety net? Conversely, how could any parent coldly tell a child that bad things-- unimaginably bad things-- sometimes happen to perfectly good people, just by random chance?

I was a philosophy major in college. My mom died recently and at a very young age. I have never witnessed a miracle (in the biblical sense, like frogs raining from the sky. Of course another school of thought dictates that I witness miracles every second of every day: my heart beating, and the existence of my children, and the sunrise... but this just reminds me of the line from that brilliant Bill Maher movie "Religulous" in which he accuses some guy of having "a very low bar for miracles"). For these 3 reasons, I am rather disinclined to believe that there is a Heavenly Father who is watching over us and smiling down upon us and who intended for the Haiti earthquake to happen.

But then there are 3 other reasons-- my 3 impossibly precious little girls-- that make me hope like hell that I'm wrong.


  1. This was my exact scenario this morning as I accidentally left The Today Show on in the background. My 5 yr. old daughter asked question after question regarding the scenes on the tv as I scrambled to turn it off..... I answered her much the way you answered your daughter. Always a tough call with wanting to be honest, but keeping it non-damaging. I too struggle with where to put God into it. I want to believe, but I'm not there yet.
    BTW~Love your blog! Your honesty is refreshing! Keep it up!

  2. I completely understand the brain-gone-mush experience. At the other end of the spectrum on God, however...
    Enjoying the blog. The boobs entry had me on the floor!

  3. Ah, what is it about becoming a parent that makes us obsess about our mortality? I haven't yet had to have any of these hard conversations (I'm still firmly in the one-sided running monologue phase with my 15 month old), but I like your examples...consider this my official request for ongoing "sample conversations to have with your toddler" entries, since I have NO IDEA what I'm doing. Seriously.

    My husband and I also struggle with the God issue and we are running out of time, because our son is becoming increasingly aware of our routines and if we're going to declare ourselves church people then that sh*t needs to happen soon. I've been able to postpone this decision for the past 15 months by leaning heavily on the "there's a PANDEMIC out there, for crying out loud, the last place he needs to be is in a church nursery or congregation of people passing the peace/a.k.a. swine flu!" excuse. Part of me really values the role that the church played in my childhood (every male on my father's side of the family is an ordained minister) and I long for that sense of community. Finding the appropriate place is the problem. If we choose somewhere that fits my husband's and my theology, then our child is going to be in the nursery/youth group with crazy hippie offspring with names like "Lotus Flower" who ostracize him for eating meat. If we choose somewhere that teaches the core bible stories and "Jesus Loves You" songs (which I think is a wonderful foundation for a child, so long as your theology doesn't get stuck there, a la my gun-toting in-laws), then my husband and I will be stifling laughs from the back pew and not experience any spiritual growth of our own. Either way, I don't want to force my child onto the wrong side of Pascal's Wager and ignore the God/faith issue altogether.

    I don't have answers there. However, my husband and I HAVE agreed on how we'll handle the Tooth Fairy issue (and we'll also be contending with Santa and the Easter Bunny as well). We are *not* going to lie to our children. I don't think it sets a good precedent ("what?! Santa's not real? I wonder what else Mommy lied to me about??") and, in case we end up in the "Jesus Loves You" church, it's not what the season is all about. :) Our kids are also not going to miss out on all the fun either. We have agreed that we'll tell our kids that the Tooth Fairy/Santa/Easter Bunny is a fun game that families play (which we get to play too! Put the tooth under your pillow! I wonder what the Tooth Fairy will leave behind?!) and that we trust them enough to know they can keep the game a secret so that everyone can enjoy playing (since obviously I don't want my kid to be "that kid" that ruins Santa for everyone else at school, especially if their only back-up friends are the hippie church crowd). We'll still set out cookies, dye eggs, and all the other fun, anticipatory activities...but our integrity as trustworthy parents will be preserved. This is our game plan - we'll see how it actually pans out...