I had lunch with my friend Thor this week. On Thursday, appropriately enough. Of course Thor is not his real name, just the nickname I call him; I like it when my phone tells me I have a text from Thor.
Thor relayed an interesting story. His friend had called him recently to say that his nine-year old son was having “an existential crisis”.
The boy had been told by his cousin that he, or anyone, could create an alternate reality simply by choosing to and believing enough. The boy took this to heart, and that night wrote down what he wanted reality to look like. I don’t recall all the details, but being able to fly and to control time where high on the list. He put the list under his pillow, then drifted off to sleep looking forward the the new reality that the morning would bring.
Except, of course, the morning brought nothing but disappointment.
The kid wept bitter tears, and his father did not know how to respond. Thor took the boy for a ride around town, and tried his best to help the boy process his deep feelings. He suggested that perhaps reality was actually changed, but he just was not able to see it.
I doubted this did much to help the kid. But also doubted I could have been able to come up with a better answer on the spot.
I began reflecting on this later on. What would I tell someone who wanted to create an alternative reality, to change reality?
I think I would tell them this: you cannot choose reality. Reality is given to you, not created by you. But you can choose the meaning of the reality given to you. And that is enough.
Now obviously we do have the power to change some parts of reality. We all have the dignity of causation, and likely in deeper ways and broader realms than we imagine.
But we cannot change most of the reality that happens to us, no matter how desperately we want to.
But I can’t. All I can do is weep like that nine year old boy.
Well, I can do more, actually. I choose how to respond. And the first part of that, the foundational part, is defining the meaning of the reality.
The reality is that Joe is dead. But what is the meaning of that fact?
That I get to choose, at least for me.
I can choose to believe that Joe’s death is evidence of the absence of God, that religion’s cultured despisers are right, that there is no way to reconcile the idea of God with the reality of my pain. That there is no meaning or purpose to this universe or anything within it, for it arose randomly and without plan, and it will end the same. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, for both child and cosmos…and nothing else.
But here is the problem with that for me: it strips Joe’s death of meaning.
Meaning depends on purpose. If the symphony has no sound to aspire to, then it hardly matters what notes the musicians play. If the game has no point, then no play can be called good or bad. We can only describe the action.
I can choose to believe that.
Or I can choose to believe that Joe’s death is full of meaning, even if part of that meaning is tragic for now. That his death is not just a brute fact; that I rightly weep not only over my pain but the utter wrongness of his death. That his death was not just a sad thing but a bad thing; the worst thing I have experienced, by far.
And… I can choose to believe that “the worst thing is not the last thing”. Those were the words Chaplain Mike spoke at Joe’s funeral. About the only words I remember of that day. But they are enough.
“The worst thing is not the last thing.” A sentence that does not minimize the pain or attempt to paper over it. The death of a child is likely the worst thing any of us will ever face. But also a sentence that brings hope.
A hope that the night gives way to morning. That winter is pregnant with spring. That Joe’s life is not a stone crushed into the dirt, but a seed planted in fertile soil.
And I can choose to believe that God weeps as I do. He too longs for the spring.
And this is what I believe.
Can I prove this? No more than someone can prove it wrong. I’ve read the arguments of the new atheists, and remain unimpressed. Proof is hard to come by regarding the big questions. But the heart has its reasons.
The worst thing is not the last thing. Spring, not eternal winter. Seed, not stone. This is what I choose to believe about the reality that has invaded my life.
But I can also choose the meaning of the reality of the less weighty or more pleasant things in my life.
The autumn trees shimmering and shining with color, as if their roots were drinking in rainbows…what does this beauty mean? Does it not mean that “earth’s crammed with heaven and every bush aflame with God”? Does it not mean that even the dying and decaying parts of creation have a beauty that puts Helen of Troy to shame? Does it not mean we can enjoy beauty and pleasure not only as a facts, but as a gifts? Gifts of love?
I choose to believe this interpretation of reality.
This is the power given to me.
And to you.