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.
My son Joe died last year, in a terrible way. I would give anything to change that reality.
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.
18 thoughts on “Interpreting Reality”
I’m sorry that I missed this when you posted it, Daniel, and sorry for the death of your son. May the seed of his life, planted in so many of his friends and his family, bear fruit throughout their lives.
My neighbor lost a son a few months ago, a caring, kind young man that we knew from birth, who grew up with my children, and who wasn’t even 30.I think of the family every day and the reality of the loss. It’s truly every parent’s worst nightmare, one we all hope and pray we will never face. Death and the grief that follow are facts of life but so difficult make peace with. It’s a lonely, curving road to walk.
“The worst thing is not the last thing.” Our hearts break but the light can flow in the crack if we allow it to. May your heart be filled with light.
A large consolation, Mike. I had no idea it affected you this way.
Thanks for caring so deeply.
Blessings, Daniel. Just wanted to acknowledge that I read this.
I wish I had read this earlier today.
I never felt free to talk about this before. Another young friend I knew very well died in a similar way two days before Joe. When I heard of Joe’s death, although he was someone I didn’t know, the shock of the two happening back to back knocked me into a real loop of my own. That was why I stopped writing for Internet Monk for a year. I was in an emotional and mental pretty dark place of my own that took me a long time to recover from.
But Joe and Charlotte (the other young person) have changed me. They have made me realize that I need to be a kinder gentler person, that I don’t know what people are going through, and that I need to respond with kindness to others lashing out. I have also been trying to come along side others who are struggling in similar ways.
I don’t always get it right, but I am doing a lot better now than I was.
A small consolation, I know. But I did want you to know that Joe’s death has helped me become more of the person that God wants me to be.
How terribly heart breaking. I pray that the grace of God will continually wash over your family in your grief. So sad. God bless you brother.
Hi Tom. I think I talked about it briefly once before.
Hi Rick. Thanks for your kind words.
Amy and I have two adult daughters. Joe spent most of the last few years internationally. Nine months in Israel. 6 months in New Zealand. 4 months in Nepal. A couple months in India. As well as time in Thailand, England, France, Morocco, Germany and a couple other countries. The picture in the post is him in Nepal, with Everest in the background. Because of all this Joe and the girls had not seen each other much the last few years. Obviously it was still hard for them, but they have handled it pretty well.
Amy and I have each been profoundly affected, though our grief journeys are different. But we are in a pretty good place emotionally now.
I am just now getting to a place where I can write about it.
Joe had a LOT of friends, as he was very open and gregarious and lived in so many places. He had a very close girlfriend when he lived in Israel. She came to visit us afterwards and we had a good weekend of talking and remembering. She said when she heard the news she did not sleep for several days, and dealt with a lot of depression. She had recently been admitted to medical school, and has decided to specialize eventually in brain chemistry and mental health, to know how to understand and help people like Joe (he developed an intense mental illness the last six months of his life, despite showing no symptoms of that before).
His others friends are affected in diverse ways, of course. More than I can relay here.
You & me both. I try hard every day.
A character in a book I’m writing says this:
“Our people have a proverb: ‘All good things come to an end, but all bad things come to an end as well’.”
Thank you for this. I’ve experienced this tragic death in my family and this gives me a positive way to understand my loved ones’ perspective.
That you can still write with grace and humor after the loss of your son — and fairly recently at that — is a testament to exactly what you’re writing about here.
Just curious, and you certainly don’t have to share… How are your other family members and Joe’s friends doing with his loss?
May God bless you with even more grace and humor, Daniel. And wisdom, too. This is a very wise piece. Almost proverb like. Thanks for sharing this with us today.
our grief that is holy to God is the most difficult expression of love for someone, Daniel, painful and real, but love none the less for someone we love dearly, we love still
““the worst thing is not the last thing” , , , , , thank God for Chaplain Mike’s help
Dear Daniel; you spoke the one dread fear. May Joe always be remembered.
Sometimes I wish someone else would make some of these choices for me. Sometimes I’m not up to making them, or holding them with conviction. Sometimes I’m just a leaf in the wind.
I have no children, but I can imagine how devastating the loss of a child is to parents. My heart goes out to you, Daniel. May the love of God hold you up.
Daniel, is this the first time you have told this community about the death of your son?
I weep with you.