Last night before bed I sat with the younger two of my three kids and we watched an episode of Futurama together. It was my particular misfortune, after several emotionally rough days in a row, that the new episode is about Fry finding the fossilized form of his dog, Seymour. When it comes to animals, I am a softy. When it comes to stories about a boy or girl and their dog, I will easily turn into a blubbering mess. This particular episode consists mostly of flashbacks of Fry and Seymour as the Futurama crew prepare to extract the dog’s DNA from the fossil so he can be cloned. In the end, Fry decided against cloning the dog because Seymour lived a long life and undoubtedly forgot all about Fry in the 12 years that the dog lived after they were separated. The episode ends with a flashback of Seymour, sitting in the spot where Fry left him last. Seymour waited there every day for those 12 years until he died of old age.
Of course, I blubbered like a little fucking baby. Which in turn made my kids cry.
“Is the whole world going to die?” asked the 6 year old.
My kids and I have talked about the cycle of life and death and they are aware that all living things, including humans (including our family members) will one day die, so I was a bit confused by his question. “Do you mean humans or the Earth?”
“I mean Earth,” he replied.
This lead to a discussion of how stars live and die, how our star would one day die, and that would also mean the death of Earth and our solar system.
I could see the panic and sadness manifesting on his face. This reality that the entirety of Earth would one day cease to exist was hitting him much worse than when I gave him the news that he would eventually die. I felt panic rising in my gut.
“But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that humans and all the other animals have to die,” I said, keeping my voice calm and assuring. The pain in his face is what I imagine lead to the invention of the Heaven or afterlife myths to begin with, that need to reassure children, the ill and dying, and our own aging selves, that even though we have to give up this life that *something* will continue in the future. That it is not all for naught.
“Even though, one day a long time from now, the Earth will no longer exist that does not mean that the human species will not exist. But there are things that we have to do to make sure that humans can continue to survive,” I explained.
His sadness turned to curiosity, I have never seen him so attentive to my words before. “What? What do we have to do?”.
“Humans need to learn how to cooperate with each other and how to communicate better. We need to learn how to be better listeners to each other. And we need to love science and learn as much as we can about chemistry, and physics, and biology. Then we teach those things to kids, and those kids will grow up and learn even more about science then we ever knew. They will teach all that new stuff to the next generation of kids. And those kids will grow up and learn even more new things. And it keeps going, on and on, to every new generation of kids. Until one day, we are able to leave the Earth for a new planet where humans can continue to live”. It was a stretch. I presented my kids with science fiction to end the painful reality that humanity will mostly likely one day cease to exist.
My 6 year old transformed in that moment. I saw the hope on his face. It seemed like more than hope, he also seemed determined. “I’m going to build a vortex to take all the humans and all the animals and all the plants and shoot us away from the Sun before it can explode us,” said my 4 year old. “Science,” he whispered. The 4 year old is already a mad scientist in the making. He spends his days sneaking into the kitchen, stealing spices and flour and whatever else he can get his hands on, and mixing them together with water to make “experiments”. He stacks toys and boxes and furniture to create elaborate structures – some days they are robots, other days it is a laboratory. It always just looks like a huge mess to me, but in his imagination it is real. The prospect of using science to save humankind was exciting for both of them. The 6 year old is also a maker, but he also has a deep sense of empathy and compassion that pushes him to want to help.
The two of them woke up this morning with our discussion from the night before still fresh on their minds. They have been more kind to each other than normal, with the older one reminding the younger that they need to work together so humans can survive. I am glad that our talk might have given them yet another boost in their love of science, and I am proud at how compassionate they are becoming. But part of me is worried that I did not take the right approach in dealing with their questions. There are so many more likely fates awaiting humanity and all life on Earth, the odds of us having a Star Trek-like future awaiting us is so slim. But I fed them that possibility any way. I cannot shake this thought that I have given them an atheistic, science fiction version of Heaven. As unlikely as it might be that we will survive all that time, through natural disasters, disease, and our current path towards self-destruction, I still hope for this imagined future that I presented to my children. The belief that humanity will survive to explore space and continue to survive extinction by living on other planets makes the reality of my death and the death of my children easier to bear.