Someone once said that the single most significant and profound thing about our existence is that it ends, rivaled only by the fact that it begins.4 One of my objections to the idea of an afterlife is that it deflects our attention from the deep and honest consideration of mortality by pretending that, what do you know, we aren't really mortal after all.
Nonreligious parents are in a unique position to help their children begin a lifetime of powerful reflection on death and life, dipping their minds into the deepest and richest streams of thought. It's not always easy to be mortal, but do we really want to limit our children's experience of the world to those things that are "always easy"? Haven't we discovered by now that the most meaningful engagement in life includes challenges?
Michel de Montaigne, my favorite philosopher, said that "to philosophize is to learn how to die." And Montaigne wasn't the only one to put the contemplation of death at the center of our intellectual universe. As parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a healthy start on the honest engagement with the biggest idea they will ever confront. The choice, after all, isn't between helping them confront death and helping them avoid it. They will encounter it. And just as with sexuality, alcohol, religion, drugs, and all sorts of other things they will eventually encounter, the worst thing we can do is strive to keep them as ignorant as possible of the subject. The longer they are kept from thinking about these things, the more dysfunctionally they will confront them once they finally do. That doesn't remotely imply a "deal-with-it" approach to death. On the contrary: Talking openly, honestly, and compassionately about mortality is the best way to protect our children from being painfully blindsided by it later in life.
Parenting Beyond Belief laid the foundation for a healthy consideration of death and the way it frames and makes precious our life. In this chapter we hope to translate that philosophy into practical, concrete ideas for approaching and embracing the stunning fact that one day we will cease to be—and the equally stunning fact that we first have the opportunity to be.
tt We pause to ask ourselves the questions that human beings have always asked, questions that help to define what a human being is: "Why am I here?" "What is death?" "How should I be living now?" These are not morbid reflections; they throw life into perspective. If we had a thousand years to live, such questions would lack urgency. It is death, ironically, that prompts us to learn how to live.
—Eknath Easwaran, Hindu author and professor of English Literature
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Although nobody gets a parenting manual or bible in the delivery room, it is our duty as parents to try to make our kids as well rounded, happy and confident as possible. It is a lot easier to bring up great kids than it is to try and fix problems caused by bad parenting, when our kids have become adults. Our children are all individuals - they are not our property but people in their own right.