Being ‘realistic’ about life, death and faith

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Beneath the provocative headline “Don’t believe in God? Lie to your children,” the psychoanalyst Erica Komisar encouraged readers of the Wall Street Journal last month to see the benefits of religious faith, especially for young children.

She cited a 2018 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology showing that children who regularly attend religious services scored higher on psychological well-being measurements and had lower risks of mental illness.

An observant Jew, Komisar noted that weekly religious observance was associated with higher rates of volunteering, “a sense of mission,” forgiveness, and lower rates of drug use and early sexual initiation. Moreover, she added, the communal experience of prayer and song is “a buffer against the emptiness of modern culture.”

When atheistic parents ask her how to talk to their children about death, she wrote, “My answer is always the same: ‘Lie.’ The idea that you simply die and turn to dust may work for some adults, but it doesn’t help children.”

Even some believers might have reservations about Komisar urging parents simply to lie about their own convictions. Yet, her argument that “being ‘realistic’ is overrated” with children raises ancient, persistent and very adult questions about the nature of reality itself.

As the author suggests, a “realistic” view — focusing solely on the physical — can be devastating to young people, but it can also leave even the most educated and accomplished adults as helpless as little children.

Margaret Edson deals with this irony in her Pulitzer prize-winning play “Wit.” It tells the fictional story of Vivian Bearing, 50, a professor of 17th century poetry, who is dying of ovarian cancer. One of her doctors is a fellow at a research hospital who, in attempt to appear well rounded on his application to medical school, took her class as an undergraduate. (Addressing the audience, Professor Bearing says, “Yes, having a former student give me a pelvic exam was thoroughly degrading — and I use the term deliberately.”)

Both the doctor of medicine and the doctor of philosophy are individuals of formidable intelligence and ambition. But each one — Dr. Bearing observed in flashback, and the physician while treating her — lacks values that the therapist Komisar argues are fostered by religion: “empathy, gratitude and real connection.”

As Professor Bearing’s condition becomes dire, she speaks directly to the audience about herself and her doctor: “So. The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity. At the same time the senior scholar, in her pathetic state as a simpering victim, wishes the young doctor would take more interest in personal contact.”

Late in the play, Professor Bearing, near death and in pain, is visited by E.M. Ashford, her mentor. The older professor gets on the hospital bed with her former protégé as a mother would with a sick child. She offers to recite the verse of John Donne, the challenging poet they had each devoted much of their professional lives to studying, but Professor Bearing is capable of saying little more than “I feel so bad.”

So the retired professor fumbles in her bag and takes out a book she just purchased for her 5-year-old great-grandson, “The Runaway Bunny,” the story of a young rabbit who tells his mother he plans to run away. She reads it to the sick woman.

“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

The old teacher stops reading momentarily and says, addressing her former student by her first name, “Look at that. A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?”

With Professor Bearing asleep, Professor Ashford kisses her and recites a line from “Hamlet” as she leaves: “It’s time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Belief in God can be, paradoxically, as simple as a children’s story and as challenging as Shakespeare’s most complex works. Individuals dismiss religion for reasons usually rooted in physical realities such as personal tragedy, the failures of religious leaders and scientific advances. Still, Saint Augustine’s observation about human existence remains as realistic as it was centuries ago: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Or, in a child’s terms, until a rebellious young rabbit realizes that his very existence is inseparable from an everlasting, inexplicable love.

Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.