My daily writing has involved a lot of reminiscing about moments from my past that stand out for me. This one felt still meaningful enough to share.
Also: 100th post! <golf clap>
“Dad, what is God?”
I had picked my son up from his mom’s house on a Sunday night. He was six; my separation from his mother was more than a year old. he rode in back, strapped into his car seat, playing with his favorite action figure.
The freeway was dark, and my eyes had to adjust and search for him in the rear view mirror, blocking out the headlights behind me to find half of his face reflected back at me.
“What’s that bud?” I stalled.
“What’s God?” his face was neutral, like he might have just asked why honey is sticky, or if He-Man would win in a fight with Conan. He moved the action figure’s arms and legs around, making small shooting motions with it. I was reminded that my mother tried to eliminate violent tendencies from her kids by keeping us from seeing violent movies or having toy guns around. Didn’t work. Boys will find a way to simulate conflict.
“Well, it depends” I stalled, unprepared for this question; I thought I had several years yet before this would come up. What’s next, the sex talk at age seven? Educating him on Roth IRA’s at nine?
He stayed silent, waiting for me to continue.
“Some people believe that there is a… well, a being, that watches over everything, and created us and everything around us, and that when we die we either go to heaven or hell. Some believe there are many Gods. Some believe there is no God.” I breathed easy, happy to have given him an answer that placed no demands on him to believe in anything specific. Committed to nothing. Safe and vanilla.
“Well, what do you believe?”
He wasn’t letting me off easy. I groped for the right words, the right way to step through this potential minefield of personal programming and prejudice. If I tell him there is no God, does he grow up to belittle religion and those who practice it? Will he lose hope and never get any benefit from what I see as the good parts of religion? Does he become a nihilist? If I don’t tell him there is someone watching out for us, does he become fearful of the world and the evil that people do, knowing he’s all alone in this universe?
I want to provide him comfort. Something to hold on to in bleak moments. I want to tell him that it will be okay, because there’s a plan for all the bad things that happen, that there’s reason and sense and structure, even if you can’t see it. I want to give him the equivalent of a mental and emotional security blanket to carry with him at all times.
But I can’t. I won’t start his life with what I believe to be fairy tales. I won’t sell him on stories that are made up to comfort and guide us, teach us right and wrong, justice and acceptance and humility, but are still just that: stories. I read him plenty of fairy tales, and I tell him many stories that I intend as parables, teaching devices that will hopefully stay with him. But I don’t pass those off as truth or fact.
I haven’t given any thought to how I will raise my son in regards to religion. As a young man I railed against the evils I saw wrought by religion: the inquisitions, witch burnings, stoning and holy wars and oppression. I counted religion as inherently bad, a force for separation of people, not acceptance and understanding.
As I grew, my conflict with religion took on new dimensions. I saw individual people who believed strongly, and did great things through their faith. I came to accept that some people were better people through following religion than they might have been without it. The community that supports it’s own through religion did very well, both for those in the community and some outside of it as well. I could no longer believe that religion was a force for evil, at least not that simply.
In my late twenties, I studied world religions to better understand what all the different branches of Christianity believed, what Muslims believed, what Jews believed. I read up on Taoism and Buddhism. I tried to find commonalities and differences. Eventually I came to understand that a personal devotion to a religion can be a very good and powerful thing, but large, organized religion can be a very dangerous and damaging thing as the individual’s personal work to understand the religion is replaced by mindlessly following one man who interprets and dictates.
In Taoism I found concepts that finally made sense to me. The interrelation of all things. The universe itself as inherently good, the potential for a positive force through all things. Of one’s own infinitesimal spot in the vast cosmos and spread of time and space. The meaninglessness of struggle and pain, and the juxtaposition of the beauty of experiencing every moment. Buddhism as well had teachings that rang true for me: detachment from possessions and desires, seeing wonder in every small thing.
But still I did not choose to follow a religion. The teachings in those belief systems still seemed like lessons, guides, and words of wisdom. Not a dogma to base my life on. Not a scripture to follow and use as a lens for my entire world. And now here my son was taking his first hesitant step into this complex and maddening world of religion. “What is God?”
I opened my mouth to speak, not exactly sure what to say, but fumbling my way through an explanation as I found words that at least felt true. I gave him the only answer that seemed true to me. The only answer I could give him without feeling like I had dictated his beliefs yet had also not steered him away from what I think is a crucial search for meaning.
I told him that I believed it was everyone’s personal job on this earth to search and decide what felt true for themselves, to ask of many people what God meant, and find a way to believe in something larger than yourself. That you shouldn’t accept what other people believe, you should search for what you believe.
He seemed to consider this a moment. Silence stretched on, and I stole a nervous glance back in the mirror to see if I had troubled him, or soothed him, or set him on an inquisitive path. Cars passed me in dark and wet of the freeway, their dull, muffled roar approaching and receding in a never-ending pattern. He posed his action figure and walked it along the safety bar of his car seat.
Finally he spoke: “Dad, can I have a snack when we get home?”
“Yeah bud. Yeah, you can have a snack.”