I once struggled to understand how anyone could propagate, let alone believe in the idea of “life after death”. Then my three-year-old asked me what dying meant and it all became crystal clear.
All those books written, all those temples built then destroyed then rebuilt, all that blood spilled, just because we cannot bear to tell our kids the awful truth.
My mother died earlier this year, and I remember sitting in her hospital room late one night with some of my brothers. Mum was propped up on pillows and being held by two of us, she was heavily drugged to alleviate pain and her eyes seemed utterly vacant - even though they were open most of the time. I wondered whether she was conscious or in any way able to comprehend where she was or what was happening to her. We spoke to her as if she was although I occasionally fell into a pattern of discussing her as if she wasn’t in the room - something my brothers found a bit uncomfortable (so I stopped).
We all knew she was probably “gone” for all intents and purposes but it didn’t feel right to treat her like she was - at least not within ear shot of her.
She was going in any case, there was no chance of recovery (miracle notwithstanding!) so what was making us dance around that issue?
Some remnant of love and a desire to not upset her I suppose, not wanting her last moments of life to be any more painful than her last few years had already been.
But the awful truth was, at that moment of terminus there was no feeling of joy at her pending re-birth in some amazing spiritual afterlife resort. She was gone, we were now motherless and fatherless and had to reconcile that and get on with what remained of our lives. If anything I felt relieved for her that her pain was finally at an end.
So what did I tell my daughter? I am somewhat ashamed to say I squibbed completely and changed the subject, told her something like “Oh that just means going to sleep when you get very, very old [code for much, much older than anyone you know my little girl]. After all, how can you sit a little person down and say, “Sorry honey, as far as I can tell you live a certain indeterminate period of time and then you just stop existing one day and that’s it.”?
It does not seem a great leap from my squib to parents telling their kids “Well, honey as terrible as it seems that [someone close to you] has died, you can take great comfort in the fact that (i) they are in an amazingly happy and lovely place and (ii) you will get to see them again one day [when you get to die?].”
That, to me, is the true genesis (pun intended) and rationale behind religion as we know it. That first time a parent had to deal with a tough question about death and dying.
Perhaps if religion had just been confined to dealing with these unpleasant events we might not live in a world where religious zealots routinely kill other people, or call for the imposition of their moral code on others.
Unfortunately it seems to have taken on a life of its own. Like a public servant left to their own devices it has expanded its horizons, built an empire and now puts to the blade anyone who dares mock it or question its validity.
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