What to Believe

The realms of faith and doubt have been colliding in our house lately.

Owen seems to believe that shows he watches, even animated ones, feature “real” characters. He thinks he can visit the Care Bears, or the pteranodon from Dinosaur Train. He asks whether I would like to visit Tidmouth Sheds (from Thomas the Tank Engine), like asking if I would like to visit the grocery store. When I tell him that these are just shows, and that, while animated, they are no more real than the stories in his books, he seems surprised, disbelieving.

At Christmas, like a good lapsed Catholic (fake Catholic? cultural Christian?), I told Owen all about Jesus and Mary and Joseph, and how many people believe that Jesus was the son of God, but that he also had another Daddy, Joseph. “But is it true?” he asked, and I had to say, “I don’t know. Some people believe it, some don’t.” And I talked a bit about the story of Jesus and why people remember him.

He pushed the question. “But God is real?”

“If you believe he is, he’s real. No one sees him, but lots of people believe in him.”

“God is real like Santa Claus is real? Because no one can go to the North Pole? But Santa is real? And no one can go to Heaven? But God is real?”

And what can I say? Yes? Sort of? Change the subject, before it’s too late?

Owen is fascinated with the boundaries of life and death, of the body and the spirit (or ghosts), with heaven, and why we can’t go there until we die. He wants to know what it’s like. “Is heaven nice?” he asked this morning. Then he continued, “But that other place with the fire is bad, right?”

The problem, of course, is that I don’t know what I believe. I believe enough not to say I don’t believe. I want Owen to have the choice to believe if he wants to. I want him to know all the stories and rituals he needs to understand the culture he lives in. I really do want him to associate Christmas with Jesus and Santa Claus (not to conflate them, but still). But just as I can’t explain the rules of most sports, so I feel ill-equipped to talk about religion. For now, I guess I am just trying to foster belief in something, be it fictional or spiritual.




On Not Eating Our Children; Or, The Evolution of Love

“I really like Lucy. Maybe I’ll marry her when I grow up.”

“Oh, yes? And will you have children?”

“Of course” (of course is what he replies to everything, lately. “Would you like a glass of milk?” “Of course.” “Would you like to get into the bath?” “Of course not.”)

“How many children would you like.”

“I think we’ll start with one.”

(Chortles from me).

“But we’ll know not to eat them.”

(At which point I nearly veer off the road).

The other night, Owen and I watched part of a documentary called Walking with Dinosaurs. I think I had underestimated how much its evolutionary perspective made it deal pretty harshly with survival (or its reverse). Owen was initially concerned that he would see all the dinosaurs become extinct, and I assured him that no – that they had millions of years to live and change yet. As to the fate of individual dinosaurs, however, I could not be so certain.

In the episode we watched, a group of Diplodocus burns up in a forest fire because they are too slow to outrun it: they are so heavy that they must always have three legs on the ground. The surviving young Diplodocus join the herd of adults only once they have proved their ability to survive on their own — the adults abandon their eggs but are programmed to respond to juvenile cries of distress.

In the same episode, another pre-mammalian reptile couple (whose babies hatch from eggs but drink from milk glands on the mother’s stomach) eat their own offspring when hunted by a larger reptile (to deny the predator food and to improve its own chances of survival). This was a pretty shocking idea to Owen. Frankly, had I known that this was going to happen, I never would have suggested that we watch this video. He turned to me, eyes wide, half laughing, half fearful.

“But you won’t eat me, will you? . . .  And Daddy won’t eat me?”

“No, of course not. We’re people. We don’t eat other people.” (I elected not to mention cannibalism here).

“And no one I know will eat me?”

“No, honey. No one you know will eat you. Of course not.”

“Of course they won’t eat me.”


We finished watching the video, but we won’t watch any more. Our conversation in the car showed me that he’s still processing the idea.

He was trying to wrap his head around why some animals would eat their young and others wouldn’t.

“You won’t eat me because you love me? Because people love their children?”

“Yes,” I said. “People have to love their children because their children can’t survive without grownups.”

It is strange to me that A) I would actually say this to my four-year-old… but also B) that this would be true: that love is something we have evolved to keep our children safe from harm – so that they can grow into adulthood and make new babies to perpetuate the species. I love that boy with a breathless, clutching hurt. With apologies to Maurice Sandak, I want to eat him up I love him so.  The fact that we have evolved to love (and not eat) our children does not make that love any less real, but it’s jarring to think of love as a survival strategy.