(Randomly during bedtime snuggles)
4 yo: Everything dies. Nothing lasts forever.
Me: That's true, baby.
4 yo: Why everything die?
Me: Well, that's just the way it works, baby. Death is a part of life.
4 yo: Yeah but why God not want us to live forever?
Me: Well God does want us to live forever in heaven with God and Jesus.
4 yo: Yeah but why God not want us to live forever on planet earth? He being mean?
Me: Oh, no, I don't think God was being mean. It's just how it is.
4 yo: But why?
Me: Well, there is that story in the Bible about Adam and Eve, The story says they were supposed to live on Earth forever. But then they ate the fruit that God told them not to and the consequence was that they would die and that all people would someday die.
4 yo: Why them do that?
Me: Ate the fruit? Well, they thought the could be super smart like God.
4 yo: But why people have to die?
Me: Ah, well, maybe another idea is that if we all lived forever, then planet Earth would be too full. We wouldn't all fit.
4 yo: But people could have less babies? And there could be less houses and animals. Then we could fit.
Me; Well, that is a good point.
4 yo: (Silence). I don't want to die.
The 4-year-old's latest quest is finding something that lasts forever. We've had several conversations about how all living things die, and all material things return to the earth, eventually. Nothing lasts forever, except God and love and maybe hope, too.
How about rocks, the 4-year-old asked the other day. Diamonds? Glass? Water? I informed him it's a good thing we recycle glass, since it takes about a million years to decompose. The 6-year-old smartly added that water kind of lasts forever as it moves through the cycle of rain, evaporation, clouds and rain again. We all agreed that rocks don't last forever; we dip our toes into the sand at a nearby beach and see hundreds of former rocks, beaten fine by the waves.
Some of this inquiry is, no doubt, scientific curiosity about the how the world works. My children are finding more complex ways to ask why. But I wonder if some of the fixation on permanence stems from the chaos and uncertainty of living through a pandemic, even though we find ourselves housed and fed and fortunate. The anxiety is ostensibly buried deeper here, but children can sense these things.
My children's questions about death tug at my heartstrings; I can hardly bear, at times, their sadness as they consider their own mortality. But I don't want to lose the other ethical insight my child shared above: if earth wasn't so crowded, maybe more of us would fit.
I can't remember the course, but I clearly recall a moment in college or seminary when a professor introduced the concept of population vs. consumption. We read and discussed an article which argued that it is too simplistic for folks in more developed nations to blame developing nations for taxing planet Earth by having a lot of babies. We'd do better, said the article, to look at our outrageous levels of consumption in the developed world. I can't remember the statistic exactly, but it takes about 50 people in Bangladesh to equal my sole carbon footprint. Yikes.
I had a book as a child called "50 Ways to Save the Earth," and made it a personal quest to complete as many of the points as I could. As an adult, I'm constantly turning out the lights and like my mom, I now wash out Ziplock bags (yes I could get reusable) until their demise. I connect my sense of conservation to my faith: God loves the earth, we tend and keep it.
But my child's insight reminds me that it's as much about each other than the planet. We (of the developed world) could have a bit less, so that we'd all fit. We could take up a little less space, use a lot less resources, for the sake of the neighbor as much as the Earth.
Come to think of it, that's one thing that is permanent: the kind and compassionate choices we make do last forever as they ripple along from one generation to another, expanding and landing on shores we'll never see.