The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

Endings

[Reposted from January 2008.]

An animated video of a kiwi with a dream nabbed “Most Adorable” in the 2007 YouTube Awards, along with 14 33 million views to date. As you’ll see, there’s something more profound going on here than mere adorability:

My kids all loved it. Connor watched it again and again, sorting out the implications of and emotions around the kiwi’s decision.

This morning Erin asked to see it again, and I got her on the YouTube page. She watched it once, then clicked on one of the video responses that popped up. Suddenly she was clapping and woohooing.

“What happened?” I asked.

“THE KIWI LIVES!” she crowed. “He doesn’t die at the end! He LIVES!!”

I walked to the computer, puzzled. She replayed what she had just watched. Somebody had done a 15-second remake of the ending:

Most interesting of all are the comments on that one — mostly irate, convinced (as I am) that this revised ending robs the original of its poignancy and power. I agree, but I LOVE what it reveals about the human inability to accept, or even think about, death.

In addition to death itself, the original raises issues about the right to die, the consequences of free will, the power of the creative spirit, and the dangerous beauty of singleminded dreams. It’s incredibly rich and provocative. If instead you prefer a dose of denial with your entertainments, the revision’s for you.

Or, if you prefer no remnant of redeeming features, there’s this:

Scooby meets The Shining

Back from an EPIC two-week family vacation in California, probably our last big trip as a family unit.

We ended in Yosemite, the most sock-off-knocking place on Earth, staying outside of the park in the tiny Gold Rush town of Coulterville at the Hotel Jeffery. It was an unmissable opportunity. The Jeffery, you see, is haunted. In my enthusiasm for the idea, I even booked Room 22, “the most haunted room in the hotel.”

Right after I booked and paid for it, I ran and told the kids about this fun thing I’d done, thinking they’d jump up and down. What a putz. Connor (16) thought it was cool, but the girls pretty much jumped up and down on my head.

“What were you THINKING?!” Laney asked. “Seriously, Dad, jeez!”

“Well most of the hotels near the park are already booked!” I said defensively. “And this one had a lot of rooms available, and they’re uh…they’re cheap.”

“Gosh I wonder why.”

It shouldn’t have surprised me. My kids have a healthy skepticism, partly because I’ve been pulling their legs continually since birth. (Hey, they were having a hard time out of the canal.) But their well of experience and reading and thinking about the supernatural isn’t much deeper than mine was at their ages, and I would NOT have jumped at this chance if my dad had come up with it. Hell no. I’ve worked it all out since then, so I no longer register more than a distant, limbic twinge at this stuff. Oh yes, still that.

But I’d already handed over my gold nuggets for the rooms, so we were going to be staying at the Jeffery. But to avoid a revolt in the parking lot, I knew I’d have to offer the girls something from my own well.

My biggest breakthrough in thinking about religion was realizing I didn’t have to search for the deity to decide whether I believed; I just had to look at the reasons other people believed and decide whether they were any good. (SPOILER ALERT: Nope.) The same thing works with the paranormal. So before the trip, I showed Erin and Delaney the first two minutes of this video:

“Oh, please!” Laney said when the door opened (1:30). Erin laughed with relief. Now they were dipping into their own wells of experience. Both of them grew up in a 115-year-old Victorian house in Minnesota. Like the Jeffery, none of our door frames were quite squared, and the slightest change of air pressure would cause a door to drift open, even if you couldn’t feel it. The silliness of somebody else’s evidence helped their concerns melt away. “You’re just people like us in the universe” became one of the catch phrases of our trip.

So I thought we were done. Oy, putz!

The last leg of the trip arrived. We drove straight from LA and pulled up in front of the Jeffery, which has a very cool, fairly authentic, unpolished feeling. Gaudy wallpaper, dim lighting. Wood creaks and paint peels. No check-in counter — you get your keys from the bartender at the period saloon downstairs, which was nicely filled with bikers. And upstairs we went.

The doors of unoccupied rooms are left ajar. Of the 22 rooms in the hotel, 22 were ajar. We were the only guests for the night, and we had one room on each of the two floors — at opposite ends. Becca noticed there were no phones. And we hadn’t had cell reception for twenty miles. This was getting good.

And then it got better. Once the saloon emptied out, even the staff left. Locked the door and left. We were now the only people in the building.

Despite all this, and the sun going down, everybody was still fine fine fine…until Becca opened a little black case we’d been given with the key for Room 22. It was a ghost detection kit, with instruments like a “GaussMaster electromagnetic field meter,” a motion detector, and a laser thermometer.

Delaney had been sitting on the bed, reading the instructions, which she slowly lowered into her lap.

“I don’t want to do this.”

All of her earlier fear was right back on her face. It’s easy to dismiss mediums cooing over a door that opens by itself — literally kid’s stuff. But this looked an awful lot like science.

I wasn’t going to force her to do it, of course. But I also thought we should try to defuse her fears before the lights went out.

I picked up the instructions and read. “Hmm. Um hmm. Looks all official and sciencey.” She nodded. “Well there’s a word for that. It’s called pseudoscience. Guess what ‘pseudo’ means.”

“I dunno.”

“Fake,” I said. “Pseudoscience means fake science. Something pretending to be science that isn’t.”

Now this was interesting. From nothing more than that, she suddenly looked visibly relieved. Not completely, but better. Somehow knowing there was a word for the fakery, a whole category, gave skepticism a form of its own, something she could hold on to.

Of course having this long, fancy word didn’t really confer legitimacy any more than the sciencey words in the instructions did, any more than calling something “transubstantiation” makes it less goofy. But in that moment, having a name for “fake science” helped her see that it might be exactly that.

I read the instructions aloud for one of the gizmos. “‘If the reading is between 0.3 and 0.5, you may be in the presence of a spirit.'” We turned on the meter and pointed it at a corner. The needle went up and down from 0.0 to 0.6. “They said that means there’s a ghost there. How do we know that isn’t the normal variation?” She shrugged. “We don’t. And they know we don’t know that, so they make up numbers to freak us out and sell ghost detection kits.”

Two minutes later, we each had a device and were tiptoeing, Scooby-style, down the intentionally dark hallway, humming scary organ music, pointing at shadows and giggling. We went into dark guest rooms, scanning everything as we went, needles bouncing and lights flashing. By the time we got back to our rooms, they were back to the reaction they’d had to the video of the self-opening door.

The next day we talked about the incentive the Jeffery has to bill itself as haunted — hell, it’s what snared me! — and came up with a few ways they could do it better. I think their skeptical wells are a little fuller for the experience. And it was damn fun.

(If you have a minute, go back and enjoy the video of “orbs” around 4:00.)

7. Hey…it’s your funeral

(Post 7 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

11:00 am EDT

Speaking of death — if you are anything but conventionally religious, and you love your family in the least, write down your funeral plans in detail.

I know what you’re saying — “Hey, what do I care, I’ll be dead and gone!” This is not about you. You will indeed be as demised as a Norwegian Blue. And it’s not even about sending a “message to the world” about dying without illusions. It’s about the loved ones you’ll leave behind.

When a person with a relatively conventional religious identity dies, there are plenty of decisions to be made by the family. But they are largely a matter of coloring within existing lines — which hymns will be sung, which Bible verses will be said, which church cemetery will receive the remains. If you diverge from a conventional identity and have not made your wishes known, your death can leave your family utterly without lines and uncertain even of which colors to reach for. They want to honor your wishes, but they don’t know how, and you will have thrown them into this situation in the midst of their grief at your loss. Guilt and confusion are not helpful additives to grief.

So right now, this week, even if you aren’t sure what you want, slap something together. Burn some songs on a CD, write down a few instructions, print out some nice readings, and put them where they can be easily found. THEN, once this basic emotional safety net is in place, refine and adjust it until you’ve created the kind of event you’d like to have. They will be grateful for it.

(Have you donated a few coppers to SSA yet? That’s what this is all about. The sidebar widget awaits.)

On being awake


To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

From Walden by Henry David Thoreau

A question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page brought this post to mind from August 2008:

I had just been interviewed for the satellite radio program “About Our Kids,” a production of Doctor Radio and the NYU Child Study Center, on the topic of Children and Spirituality. Also on the program was the editor of Beliefnet, whom I irritated only once that I could tell. Heh.

“Spirituality” has wildly different meanings to different people. When a Christian friend asked several years ago how we achieved spirituality in our home without religion, I asked if she would first define the term as she understood it.

“Well…spirituality,” she said. “You know—having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and accepting him into your life as Lord and Savior.”

Erp. Yes, doing that without religion would be a neat trick.

So when the interviewer asked me if children need spirituality, I said sure, but offered a more helpful definition—one that doesn’t exclude 91 percent of the people who have ever lived. Spirituality is about being awake. It’s the attempt to transcend the mundane, sleepwalking experience of life we all fall into, to tap into the wonder of being a conscious and grateful thing in the midst of an astonishing universe. It doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion can and often does blunt our awareness by substituting false and frankly inferior wonders for real ones. It’s a fine joke on ourselves that most of what we call spirituality is actually about putting ourselves to sleep.

For maximum clarity, instead of “spiritual but not religious,” those so inclined could say “not religious–just awake.”

I didn’t say all that on the program, of course. That’s just between you, me, and the Internet. But I did offer as an example my children’s fascination with personal improbability — thinking about the billions of things that had to go just so for them to exist — and contrasted it with predestinationism, the idea that God works it all out for us, something most orthodox traditions embrace in one way or another. Personal improbability has transported my kids out of the everyday more than anything else so far.

Evolution is another. Taking a walk in woods over which you have been granted dominion is one kind of spirituality, I guess. But I find walking among squirrels, mosses, and redwoods that are my literal relatives to be a bit more foundation-rattling.

Another world-shaker is mortality itself. This is often presented as a problem for the nonreligious, but in terms of rocking my world, it’s more of a solution. Spirituality is about transforming your perspective, transcending the everyday, right? One of my most profound ongoing “spiritual” influences is the lifelong contemplation of my life’s limits, the fact that it won’t go on forever. That fact grabs me by the collar and lifts me out of traffic more effectively than any religious idea I’ve ever heard. A different spiritual meat, to be sure, but no less powerful.

Born this way?

It is an interesting and demonstrable fact that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so…[T]here is no religion in human nature, nor human nature in religion. It is purely artificial, the result of education, while Atheism is natural, and, were the human mind not perverted and bewildered by the mysteries and follies of superstition, would be universal. —ERNESTINE ROSE, “A Defence of Atheism” (1861)

Boy do we secular parents love us a quote like that. It says my atheism is just a return to my natural condition, a rejection of something artificial that had been blown into my head by human culture. Like!

But in the last few years, I’ve come to think of the idea that we are born atheists as a seriously misleading one, and correcting it as Job One for secular parents.

It’s obviously true that we are born without religious belief. But this equates to what is called weak or negative atheism, the simple absence of belief in a god or gods. But what about the other major assertion there — that without inculcation, that absence would remain?

This gets at the very basic question of what religion is. The Rose quote implies that it’s a cultural construction, pure and simple. But if Ernestine Rose was right and atheism is so damn natural, why is the inculcation of religion received so eagerly and pried loose with such difficulty?

I’ve spent years chasing this question through the work of EO Wilson, Pinker, Boyer, Dennett, Diamond, Shermer and more. The result has made me less angry and frustrated and more empathetic toward the religious impulse, even as I continue to find most religious ideas both incorrect and problematic. It has also deeply informed my secular parenting in a very good way. Yet I’ve never expressed it out loud until a few months ago, when I reworked part of my parenting seminar to include it.

Thinking about religion anthropologically has made me a better proponent of my own worldview, a more effective challenger of toxic religious ideas, and a much better secular parent.

Why (the hell) we are the way we are

If you want to understand why we are the way we are, there’s no better place to look than the Paleolithic Era (2.4 million years ago – 11,000 years ago). Over 99.5 percent of the history of the genus Homo120,000 generations — took place during the Paleolithic. For the last 10,000 of those generations, we were anatomically modern. Same body, same brain. The brain you are carrying around in your head was evolved in response to conditions in that era, not this one. The mere 500 generations that have passed since the Paleolithic ended represent a virtual goose egg in evolutionary time.

To put it simply: we are born in the Stone Age. Childhood is a period during which we are brought — by parenting, experience, and education — into the modern world. Or not.

So if we were evolved for the Paleolithic, it seems worth asking: What was it like then? In short, it sucked to be us.

In the Lower Paleolithic, starting around 2.4 million years ago, there were an estimated 26,000 hominids on Earth. The climate was affected by frequent glacial periods that would lock up global water, leading to severe arid conditions in the temperate zones and scarce plant and animal life, making food hard to come by.

The average hominid life span was about 20 years. We lived in small bands competing for negligible resources. For two million years, our genus was balancing on the edge of extinction.

Then it got worse.

About 77,000 years ago, a supervolcano erupted in what is now Lake Toba in Indonesia. On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, (apparently created by a seven-year-old boy), this eruption was a “mega-colossal” — the highest category. Earth was plunged into a volcanic winter lasting at least a decade. The human population dropped to an estimated 5,000 individuals, each living a terrifying, marginal existence.

Now remember that these humans had the same thirsty and capable brain you and I enjoy, but few reliable methods for filling it up. The most common cause of death was infectious disease. If someone is gored by a mammoth, you can figure out how to avoid that in the future. But most people died for no apparent reason. Just broke out in bloody boils, then keeled over dead.

Imagine how terrifying such a world would be to a mind fully capable of comprehending the situation but utterly lacking in answers, and worse yet, lacking the ability to control it. It’s not hard to picture the human mind simply rebelling against that reality, declaring it unacceptable, and creating an alternate reality in its place, neatly packaged for the grateful relief of subsequent generations.

The first evidence of supernatural religion appears 130,000 years ago.

Religion solves our central problem: that we are human (to quote Jennifer Hecht), and the universe is not. It’s not really about explanation or even comfort, not exactly. It’s about seizing control, or at least imagining we have. To be fully conscious of our frailty and mortality in a hostile and indifferent universe and powerless to do anything about it would have been simply unacceptable to the human mind. So we created powerful beings whom we could ultimately control — through prayer, sacrifice, behavior changes, ritual, spinning around three times, what have you.

Conservative, traditional religion is a natural response to being human in the Paleolithic. Whether it was a good response or not is beside the point — it was the only one we had.

But we’re not in the Paleolithic anymore, you say. You certainly have the calendar on your side. We began to climb out of our situation about 500 generations ago when agriculture made it possible to stand still and live a little longer. Eventually we had the time and security to develop better responses to the problem, better ways of interrogating and controlling the world around us. But the Scientific Revolution, our biggest step forward in that journey, was just 20 generations ago. Think of that. It just happened. Our species is still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of 120,000 generations in hell. And like the battle veteran who hits the dirt when he hears a backfiring car, it takes very little to push the Paleolithic button in our heads.

Yes, your kids are born without religious belief. But they are also born with the problem of being human, which includes a strong tendency to hit the dirt when the universe backfires. One of the best things a secular parent can do is know that the Paleolithic button is there so we can help our kids resist the deeply natural urge to push it.

(Part 1 of 3. Go to Part 2.)

Hitchens’ best moment

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) has had a profound influence on me for years. It’s hard to think of a greater artist with the language or a more incisive thinker. He took a different approach than I do to religion and atheism, but it irritates the crap out of me when interviewers set me up as a nice-guy foil to the Horsemen. It’s not an either-or. Hitchens speaks to me, and often for me, while I’m busy reaching across aisles. I wouldn’t for a minute want to do without that voice. And when his conclusions were different from mine, he gave me serious pause. It’s damn hard to wave Hitchens away with a casual hand.

When my son Connor told me this morning that Hitchens had died, my mind went straight to what I think is his greatest moment — not one of his debates, and not a written polemic. It was what he did when he was wrong.

Several times, including in an article in Slate in late 2007, Hitchens defended U.S. interrogation methods in the “War on Terror,” saying they fell short of torture. Instead of just bloviating for applause, he agreed to test his claim by undergoing the experience himself. He relented in mortal terror after 16 seconds, then went on to write a Vanity Fair piece titled, “Believe Me, It’s Torture.”

Several liberal commentators went all John 20:29 on him at the time, saying duh, they figured out it was torture without getting under the towel themselves. A lot of conservative fans of the technique apparently need, but for some reason decline to volunteer for, the experience.

Hitchens made a false claim, then put his money where his mouth was, changed his mind, and gave me a lesson in intellectual integrity I won’t forget. It’s one of many gifts from Hitchens that I’m grateful for.

“I thought it over and believed it by myself”

Scrambling to finish the complicated manuscript for Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics by the December 1 deadline. Rather than go to complete radio silence on the blog, I’ll share some of the more unusual bits with you.

In order to make this book something more than just another freethought anthology, I set two goals for myself: (1) to include disbelief in cultures beyond Europe and the US, and (2) to fill in the usual 1400-year gap between Ancient Rome and the Renaissance. After nearly a year of careful digging, I managed to do both.

During the initial research, I came across references to Jacques Fournier, a 14th century bishop who was instructed by Rome to undertake local interrogations to root out adherents of Catharism, an unorthodox sect that had been spreading through the south of France. Fournier took the unusual step of having each of his hundreds of individual interrogations transcribed in detail.

Nonbelievers were not the main concern of the late medieval Inquisitions, which were primarily designed to root out heretical Christian sects whose beliefs were not entirely in keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine. Such sects often spread rapidly and were perceived to be a threat to Catholic religious and political power on the continent. But once in a blue moon, an inquisitor came across not a heretic but an outright unbeliever, or at least someone who would cop to being an unbeliever at some recent time.

Sometimes it’s hard to be sure from what was said in the interrogation whether a person’s actual views constituted heresy or unbelief. One such subject, identified as “Guillemette, widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac,” testified that she had come to believe that the soul was nothing but blood, that nothing survives of ourselves after death, and that Jesus was no exception. Let’s listen in to the end of the interrogation, 16 July 1320, in the village of Montaillou:

BISHOP JACQUES FOURNIER: From the moment that you believed that human souls die with the body, did you believe that men would be resurrected or would live again after death?

GUILLEMETTE: I did not believe in the resurrection of human bodies, for I believed that just as the body is buried, the soul is also buried with it. And as I saw the human body rot, I believed that it could never live again.

JF: Did you have someone who taught this to you, did you learn it from someone?

G: No. I thought it over and believed it by myself.

That’s the lovely sound of free inquiry echoing down through the centuries.

Her neighbors testified to her empirical bent as well, including one who described Guillemette’s response to a child dying in her arms. “When she saw nothing but breath go out of his mouth, she said, ‘Take notice, when a person dies, one sees nothing leave his mouth except air. If I saw something else come out, I would believe that the soul is something. But now because only air has come out, I do not believe that the soul is anything.'”

Back to Jacques and Guillemette:

JF: Did you believe that the soul of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, is dead or with his body?

G: Yes, for, although God cannot die, Jesus Christ died, all the same. Therefore, although I believed that God has always been, I did not believe that Christ’s soul lived and subsisted after his death.

JF: Do you now believe then that Christ was resurrected?

G: Yes, and it is God who did that.

JF: Do you currently believe that the human soul is anything other than blood, that it does not die at the death of the body, that it is not buried with the body, that there is a hell and a heaven, where souls are punished or rewarded, and there will be a resurrection of all men, and that the soul of Christ did not die with his body?

G: Yes, and I have believed it since the last holiday of the Ascension of the Lord because at that time I heard tell that My Lord the Bishop of Pamiers wanted to carry out an investigation against me about it. I was afraid of My Lord Bishop because of that, and I changed my opinion after that time.

(“Officer, I stopped speeding the moment I saw you.”)

Of the 578 individuals interrogated by Fournier, five heretics were burned at the stake. Most of the remainder were imprisoned or sentenced to wear a yellow cross on their backs for the remainder of their lives as a mark of shame. Guillemette was sentenced to wear the cross.

Jacques Fournier went on to become Pope Benedict XII.

Time to get your ween on


“JesusWeen is a God-given vision which was born as an answer to the cry of many every October 31st. The dictionary meaning of Ween is to expect, believe or think. We therefore see October 31st as a day to expect a gift of salvation and re-think receiving Jesus.

“Every year, the world and its system have a day set aside (October 31st) to celebrate ungodly images and evil characters while Christians all over the world participate, hide or just stay quiet on Halloween day. Being a day that is widely acceptable to solicit and knock on doors, God inspired us to encourage Christians to use this day as an opportunity to spread the gospel. The days of hiding are over and we choose to take a stand for Jesus. ‘Evil prevails when good people do nothing.’ JesusWeen is expected to become the most effective Christian outreach day ever, and that is why we also call it ‘World Evangelism Day.'” — From JesusWeen.com

Well alrighty then.

Most Christians roll their eyes at the fearful response to Hallowe’en, but there are always some who consider tonight’s goings-on to be an embodiment or celebration of evil. It’s even been called the birthday of Satan—a particularly weird idea, since the biblical Satan/Lucifer was originally an angel and therefore created, not born.

Also common among evangelicals is the idea that Hallowe’en was born in the worship of “Samhain, the Celtic God of Death.”  Among the many problems with this idea: there is no Celtic god named Samhain.

Celts recognized only two seasons: summer (life) and winter (death).  Samhain (usually pronounced ‘sow-en’ and meaning “summer’s end”) is the name of a month corresponding to November. The “feast of Samhain” on October 31 marks the end of summer and the last harvest of the year. It was symbolized in Celtic mythology as the death of the god (possibly Cernunnos), who would then be resurrected six months later at the feast of Beltane (April 30-May 1). As the website Religious Tolerance puts it pretty neatly, Samhain is not about the God of Death, but the death of a god. In this way, Hallowe’en is rooted in the same mythic impulse as the Christian Easter.

Like the Mexican Day of the Dead, Samhain is a recognition of the relationship between life and death. By equating death with evil, conservative Christianity recoils from and fears it.

Parents who instead recognize death as a natural part of the cycle of life can enjoy digging into the holiday’s origins. At Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was said to become thinner, and the ancient Celts believed the spirits of beloved ancestors could cross that boundary and walk among the living. Food would be set at the threshold for the departed spirits.1

So before the kids head out tonight, tell them how the tradition of dressing as spirits and going from door to door for treats grew out of this old Celtic idea of caring for and remembering loved ones who had died. A very cool bit of context.
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1Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs (Mercier, 1972); O’Driscoll, Robert (ed.), The Celtic Consciousness (Braziller, 1981).

Consolation (without religion) for a grieving child

Guest post by Wendy Thomas Russell. Author of the forthcoming book Relax, It’s Just God, Wendy is a strong, funny, articulate new voice in secular parenting. Reposted from WendyThomasRussell.com.

Consolation (without religion) for a grieving child

by Wendy Thomas Russell

Last week, an 8-year-old boy in Seal Beach, Calif., was orphaned in one of the worst ways I can imagine: His mother was shot to death and his father charged with capital murder.

In a case that has gained national attention, Scott Dekraai is accused of killing his ex-wife in a murderous rampage — fueled, at least in part, by a custody dispute over their son. As police tell it, Dekraai armed himself with guns and stormed the salon where his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, worked as a stylist. He allegedly shot her, then turned the gun on eight other people. All but one died.

The rampage occurred less than a mile from McGaugh Elementary School, where Dekraai’s son was a second-grader. At the time of Dekraai’s arrest, the boy was sitting in his principal’s office, waiting for one of his parents to take him home.

The tragedy struck a personal chord for me. McGaugh is one of the six elementary schools in my daughter’s school district, which means the 8-year-old might very well attend middle school with my daughter someday. I suppose that’s why I can’t stop thinking about how hard it can be to explain death to a child, and how much harder it must be to explain this particular death to this particular child.

On Tuesday, I wrote a pitch to a website that matches writers with experts in various fields. I explained that I was working on a book for nonreligious parents and wanted advice on consoling grieving children without religion. I got dozens of responses. I’ll share what I’ve learned in a future post, but I can tell you that most of the respondents said consoling kids without invoking religious imagery is not only possible — it’s preferable.

The one respondent who disagreed had this to say: “What a truly sad idea. It would be far better to write a book about how to help parents find Christ and tap into the healing power of His love during difficult times. Positively In Christ!”

I don’t know what “Positively in Christ” is supposed to mean, but I do wonder whether religion — the foundation of so many heartfelt condolences throughout the world — can absorb a bit of the sadness suffered by children.

Some children, maybe. But the Seal Beach boy? Unlikely. After all, would picturing your mom alongside God in heaven offer any solace if it meant you then had to picture your father burning in hell? Would it ease your mind to be told that your mom’s murder during a custody battle was part of “God’s plan,” or would such a revelation serve only as a bizarre side note to your real-life horror?

I don’t claim to know.

But I do know this: Whether this boy is surrounded by religious or nonreligious messages, there is hope. Lots of it.

An Orphan Who Overcame the Odds

One of the most remarkable people I ever met was a boy named Charlie Schockner, whose mother was slashed to death in 2004 by a hitman hired by his father.

I met Charlie in 2007 while covering Manfred Schockner’s murder trial for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. By then, Charlie was 17 and had developed a justifiable hatred for his dad, who had abused him and his mom both physically and emotionally for years before the murder. When the judge sentenced Manfred to life in prison without parole, Charlie bucked back in his seat and pumped his fist. He was grateful to have justice for his mother and relieved to be forever free of his father’s grasp.

Charlie had the support of an amazing extended family, who scooped him into their lives without missing a beat. Less than a year after he’d moved to Georgia, I got word from his uncle that Charlie was doing wonderfully both in school and in life. Today, he is a strikingly handsome college student with, according to his Facebook page, more than 700 friends. He speaks four languages, works at a tea shop, and describes himself as always having a smile on his face.

When I think of Dekraai’s son, and the profound sadness and confusion he must be feeling today, I am comforted not by God, not by Jesus, not by Buddha, Allah or Brahman — but by Charlie Schockner, a victim of tragedy who managed to put the past behind him.

As I write this, I do hope the little guy in Seal Beach is doing okay. But more than that, I hope that by the time my daughter meets him, he will have benefited enormously from the love of those around him and, like Charlie, be facing the future with a smile on his face.

To contribute to The “Seal Beach Victims’ Fund,” you may contact the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce or the Seal Beach Bank of America. The Chamber is at 201 Eighth St., Suite 120, Seal Beach. The bank is at 208 Main St., Seal Beach. The ZIP for both is 90740.

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WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL spent the longest stretch of her career as a journalist at the Long Beach Press-Telegram covering criminal justice and special projects. Since leaving newspapers in 2008, most of her work has focused on writing for and about children. She authored three books for the Girl Scouts of the USA – including MEdia and BLISS — which advocate media literacy while keying teenage girls into their own strengths and aspirations. The books were published in December 2010.

Her latest nonfiction project, Relax, It’s Just God, centers on her personal experience as a nonreligious mom trying to introduce her daughter to religion in a healthy, open-minded and honest way.

 

cul de sac

culdesacWhat a few weeks it’s been.

In the midst of the hectic usual, two people my family loved died. One, my wife’s 97-year-old grandmother, was expected. The other, my stepfather — though 84 — was not.

The kids have done really well. Deep sadness, especially at bedtime, but also that lovely working-through, that profound engagement.

Great-Grandma Huey was first, and they stared into her casket with the same combination of grief and wonder I felt when my dad died. She’s clearly not there. So where is she?

The girls had been a blur of questions and commentary since her death days before, including a tangent into reincarnation. I think it was Laney who eventually connected that idea to our natural cycle — that every atom in us has been here since the beginning of time, part of planets and suns and animals and plants and people before coming together to make us. That every bit of us returns to the world to fuel the ongoing story is a gorgeous natural symmetry that never ceases to move and even console me, and my kids have long been enamored of it.

The service was personal and emotional in that Southern Baptist way, including the usual fluster of assurances that she was now in the very Presence.

After all that, I was perplexed to hear the minister read from First Thessalonians at the grave:

We believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

For an hour we’d heard about Grandma’s current seat in heaven. Now Paul tells us she will sleep in the ground until the Second Coming, only then rising to meet the Lord.

It’s the single greatest gap between common belief and actual binding scripture, and the minister had put it right out there. I looked around. No one else was listening for content.

I quietly cursed myself for never being able to do otherwise. Once in a while would be nice.

As the crowd dispersed, Delaney suddenly pointed at the casket and whispered, “What is that thing on the outside?”

I’d been wondering too. The coffin was sitting in what looked to be a solid metal outer box. As Laney spoke, the cemetery workers closed the lid (of what I’ve since learned is called a burial liner, a fairly recent innovation used in the U.S. and apparently nowhere else), cranking down hard on four handles, sealing it tight.

Erin looked at the sealed apparatus, appalled. “So much for returning to the earth,” she said. “She’s never gettin’ out of there.”

After all of our talk about the beauty of going back into the system, of being a link in an endless chain, Grandma’s atoms end up bicycling in a cul de sac until the end of time — or until the sun goes nova, I suppose. Until then, the license to dance is revoked. I think it struck us all as just…wrong.

Now all three kids want to be cremated. Laney wants to be scattered from a cliff over the ocean. I’m following other processes with interest. But one way or another, I want my atoms on a through street.

(More later.)