Friday, October 30, 2009

Born to Die

The other day, I had a glimpse of myself as a 19 year old--and this glimpse was through the eyes of the adults who would have surrounded me when I was 19--in other words, those adults who were in their 40's and 50's when I was 19.

Yes, it was bound to happen; I'm not that 19 year old girl anymore.

One of my friends has a teenage daughter who asks me deep questions when I'm over at their house; my friend tells me that she only asks those kinds of questions when I'm over. Hey, how did this happen? I'm the cool, grown-up friend!

The other morning, my friend and I were having a quilting morning, when her daughter came out and asked if we ever thought about what happens when we die. We talked about some of the options, and I asked, "So, if death means that your essential nature is gone forever and there's no life afterwards, how would that make you feel?"

She said, "It scares the crap out of me. How can we be born just to die? And what if something happens and the whole human race dies out? Will we ever come back?"

I said, "Well, in all of the history of species die off, no species has ever come back."

She seemed a bit close to hysteria about all the ways that humans might die. I've noticed that she's a bit obsessed over the idea of a meteor crashing into the earth. I told her a fact that I'd learned on NPR's Science Friday: "Four of the last 5 die offs have involved microbes."

That's not much comfort of course. We talked--oh so briefly--about the course of human history. I'm always going to argue on the side of hope, even though when I look at the sobering global warming statistics, I'm not sure I think humans have much more time on this planet, and I have doubts that we can do much about it; it's too late. But I did point out that we were having this discussion on a day when the President would sign into law the first hate crimes act that treated transgendered people seriously. I threw out the Martin Luther King quote that I use every time I can get, about human history arcing towards justice.

We talked about how important it is for humans to do something. We talked about how we must not just sink into despair. I suggested that she go to an elementary school and read to children once a week--that's 30 lives or so touched right there. She's become fascinated with the idea of designing and building houses, so we might go to a Habitat for Humanity build. I suspect that once she actually slings a hammer around and tries to control power tools, she'll be more interested in design.

In fact, I suggested that she actually start designing now--draw some pictures, make some models. At that point, she got frustrated with the conversation and went back to her room.

I had this memory of myself as a teenager, a teenager who similarly frustrated with my parents' generation's inability to end the nuclear arms race. I suddenly understood why they looked at me as if I'd lost my mind--why get so upset over global issues over which we have no control? At the same time, I felt somewhat envious. I remember feeling so passionately that I burst into tears. Now I'm just in desperate need of sleep.

At the same time, I said a little prayer of thanks for my parents, who took me to church, where I learned a set of coping skills for these existential crises. It's not the only set of skills, to be sure, and we can argue over whether or not they're the best ones. Certainly my friend's daughter, who doesn't go to church, doesn't seem to have any other tools in her tool box to help her with these questions. Popular culture is great at showing us worst case scenarios, but not great at giving us ways of coping.

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