A Materialist Peers into the Void: “Mo Willem’s Meditation on Death”

A Materialist Peers into the Void: “Mo Willem’s Meditation on Death”

I stumbled upon this essay at Slate today: Elephant and Piggie Peer Into the Void: Mo Willem’s Meditation on Death and it’s been haunting me ever since especially these paragaphs: 

Yet We Are in a Book! is far more moving—and terrifying—than you might expect a children’s book to be. It is genuinely freaky in its simple, direct depiction of death. What defines the human consciousness of death? It is not the fear of pain: Animals certainly can fear pain. It is our fear of the void—the idea of nothingness. I recently watched my middle child awaken to the realization that death is the void, and it was awful and disturbing to see his world rocked. One major benefit of religion is that it offers an alternative to the void, something rather than nothing. But those of us who live without the solace of belief in the afterlife (and who don’t offer our children that solace, either) instead find ourselves eyes wide open in bed, imagining … nothing. We Are in a Book! (the title’s jaunty exclamation point comes to seem like a taunt) smacks kids right in the face with that nothingness, shows them grotesquely—in the desperate prayers and mad gesticulations of a cartoon elephant—that death is to be feared because the void awaits us all. Yes, Gerald, all books end.

We Are in a Book! is for children, so it must rescue our heroes by Page 57, right? As the final page approaches, Gerald and Piggie hatch a plan, about which they are very happy: They ask us to read the book again! But isn’t this conclusion terribly grim? In essence, Gerald and Piggie are begging to be condemned to Groundhog Day: forced to re-enact the same banana joke endlessly, and, in Gerald’s case, forced to relive the mortal panic of realizing the book is going to end, over and over again. A world of endless reincarnation and constant recapitulation—that’s the only prospect worse than the void. All books do end, thank goodness.

We’ve checked We Are in a Book our from the library many times and my kids love it as they love all the Elephant and Piggie books. But then we are the kind of family who do offer our children “the solace of belief in the afterlife.” The idea of withholding from your children the solace of belief in the afterlife seems intolerably cruel. It is one thing for an adult to peer into the void; but children are not nihilists by nature. I believe all children are born with an intuition of God and that to convince them that He doesn’t exist takes a concerted effort. This just makes me unbelievably sad. And I’m not sure why I felt the need to pass it along except that perhaps someone will say something in the comments that will help me understand why this is haunting me.



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  • Just a quick one—have you thought about doing I’ve gotten rid of close to 200 books that way. I still have several boxes that have to go, and I have to admit I’ve mooched 175, so it’s been a wash for me personally, but you might find takers. There’s also, and second-hand shops take books too.

  • I think your rice bowl idea is a wonderful one.  I’m going to steal it for myself, as I’m also prone to losing my temper with David.  And maybe it will help him cope with the consequence of naughtiness, if he sees me applying consequences to myself.

    I’ve been doing much better with LotH this Lent than I have in any of my previous attempts.  We moved our oratory downstairs to the living room, and this helped.  It gives me somewhere to pray in the morning where I won’t disturb Mike if he’s still asleep.  For some reason, having a place for the LotH helps me focus.  Although six reasonably steady months of sung Compline have also helped.

    The giving up sweets (we appear to accidentally in sync) is harder than I anticipated, and I haven’t faced Donut Sunday yet, but I’m coping.  I accidentally ate a chocolate croissant this past week and only later realized it counted as a sweet.  Grr I’m trying not to be too scrupulous about it.  I’m really looking forward to the Easter bread though!

    David doesn’t get Lent, no matter how I explain it.  No breakfast meats, extra fish, fewer sweets, more prayers…  At this point I think I’m just going to let him experience things in order, so he can add them to his knowledge of how the world works, and next year he’ll remember.

    His godmother has come up with the spectacular idea of labeling her chutes and ladder spinner with different devotional practices, and her daughter spins it every day to choose a new Lenten devotion for the day.  I’m going to try that next year with my son, but his attention span is too short and his orneriness is too long for this year.

    And that’s Lent so far.

  • This Lent has been…interesting. It’s my first married Lent, and my first Lent away from my super-Catholic college, so it’s just so very different. I should write about it sometime.

    I hear you on the Confession. In college there were confessions during the week. One semester in particular I did very well because I would stop by Confession on my way back from class Thursday afternoon. I ended up going about every other week that way.

    I think I’ve only been to Confession about 3 times in the 10 months since I graduated, though, and one of those was the day before my wedding when the pastor specifically said, “Okay, now I’m going to hear your Confessions” so there was no excuse for my husband and I not to go.

    My brain is too scattered right now to make sure my comment is coherent, so I hope it is.

  • Katherine, Oh yes the interruptions are killer! They are the worst trial to my patience. As far as getting things done, I think the fact that Anthony is finally starting to sleep through the night has been key to my being as put together as I am. Not having him nursing every couple of hours makes a huge difference in my mental acuity. Also, though Sophie wakes up a couple of times most nights she almost always let Dom tuck her back in and goes right back to sleep. That means I’m only having to deal with Ben’s occasional night fusses. And with Ben half the time he wants my sister instead of me. In other words, although they are not all sleeping through the night by any means, things have let up a bit in the last week or two so that I do feel that little edge of sanity returning. I just wish I could grow in virtue to the point where nightly wake ups do not turn me into a raving anger cloud with a hair trigger. But that probably won’t happen any time soon. I get so frustrated with how slowly such things progress.

    Geek Lady, a good point about it helping kids to see that we have consequences too. I know that it has helped my girls to have me talk about my own triggers to anger and temper tantrums. We talk about how we are all more prone to losing it when we are tired or hungry or even have to use the bathroom. To see that I have to apologize too, to hear that I have similar triggers, to see me working on it and praying about it. To have Bella pray for me in my struggles while I pray for her… it’s all been a great blessing. But yes, I expect this extra level of accountability and consequences will help.

    I think a huge part of my struggle with LOTH has been a lack of a specific place to go. Since Anthony is sleeping in our room still, I don’t have a place to retreat in the evening or a quiet place to linger in the morning and and that has been wearing at me. The divine office podcast is certainly better than no prayer and in some ways the audio does linger as I’ said but I’ve been missing the silence and longing for a way to restore it. (And praying that God can find a way for me to have my silence that doesn’t require night time waking.)

    It’s funny but in the past couple of years doing without sweets doesn’t even feel like something I’m giving up so much as just a standard part of Lent, if that distinction makes any sense. I think a part of it is reading various Orthodox and Eastern rite Catholic blogs and seeing the extreme fast from meat, dairy, oil they undergo. By comparison it seems a small thing to forgo sweet treats. Also, I think somewhere lingers the influence of the movie Chocolat, which although is on the surface a rather anti-Catholic film, still did introduce me to the idea that abstaining from sweets during Lent used to be a universal practice and not an individual choice. Anyway, I tend to think of no sweets as a background thing. It isn’t something I work on or struggle with. It’s just a fact of Lent. Also, because it isn’t my primary Lenten observance I do make a personal exception that I’ll have chocolate chip pancakes with everyone on Sundays and will eat a moderate serving of birthday treats at family celebrations.

    David is what? Three? I don’t think Bella really started to get Lent until last year and even then it was just something she was sort of feeling her way into.

    I agree with just letting Lent be an experience that children observe at first from the outside and grow into taking on as they become interested. This year is the first time Bella seems interested in taking on any Lenten observations. Sophie at four is still quite an outsider and doesn’t seem to pay much attention at all. But I think she’ll start to figure out the rhythm. If not next year then the next. I suspect Bella is rather precocious and expect that Sophie will pick things up more slowly. Sometimes I worry about whether I do enough specifically for Sophie and Ben and whether it will trickle down from Bella; but then I remind myself that just living the liturgical year in the domestic church is really the best school for little ones. As fascinated as I am with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd approach, I’m beginning to think of it as really supplemental and perhaps not necessary if the home is really functioning as a domestic church and if the liturgical year is really lived.

    I like the Chutes and Ladders idea. I’ve seen people put ideas into a jar as well. Maybe next year Bella might be interested in something like that.

    Thanks for sharing about your Lent. It is good to not feel alone, isn’t it?

  • Well, for what it is worth, you are doing better than I am. I can’t even remember everything I said I was going to do for Lent.

    Honestly, I’m amazed at the effect all those little interruptions of demanding needs has. I’m not complaining – kids are kids. If adults were interrupting me or asking me for something every 3 minutes, that would be one thing, but kids do need help and do have questions they want answers, etc. But it still amazes me just how difficult it has become for me to get things done. Sometimes I will start something and, a dozen interruptions and a dozen diversions later, I can’t even remember what I was doing. It is a little frustrating how difficult it has become for me to bounce back into whatever I was doing. I don’t know if my memory has gotten worse of it is just the constant interruptions and diversions. I mean, if I was watching a movie and there was a commercial every 3 minutes and an hour into the film I couldn’t remember how it began, is that because of the interruptions or because my memory has gotten worse?

    Honestly, I’d love directional correction but between Teresa’s nightly wakings and Elizabeth’s new nightly wakings and the busyness of the day, I can have a really hard time finding a large enough chunk of time to really devote to it. There are things I’ve wanted to change in our overall household but it is always “after this illness” or “after I get Teresa sleeping and get a good night’s sleep” or something or other.

    It is wonderful you are so on top of things – even if you don’t find everything going perfectly, It is great that you’ve been able to do so well and assess how you are doing.

    Gotta go try to get Teresa asleep again…

  • It is good not to feel alone!  David is three and a half, but he’s precocious and wants a reason for everything.  He hasn’t had to give up anything personally, but the environment of the home has changed, and he doesn’t get it.

    The ‘letting the see we have to face consequences too’ thing grew out of an incident from last summer’s camping trip.  My mother got really angry and accusative toward me about something trivial, due to a mistake on her part.  There was an unpleasant row, and from it all I realized that I have no memory of her ever admitting a wrong and asking my forgiveness.  And I didn’t want this to poison my relationship with him, so I started asking his forgiveness when I wronged him.  And it helped a lot.

    I should blog about our oratory for you.  Moving it down to the living room means I occasionally get rear ended by a garbage truck during Lauds, but I do get to say Lauds, and this is an improvement.

  • Hi!  Miss you on Facebook, and I have limited my time on the computer and only get to blogs now and again.  I am so glad to have checked in today!

    My Lent.  Well, I have gotten rid of quite a bit of stuff, though not in a “bag a day”, but more like 5 bags one day, and then a lull for a while.  I have gone to church instead of the thrift store when I feel the urge to flee my domicile.  I need to get to confession, and I can’t tell you how it helps me to hear you have the same difficulty I do.  It gives me courage for some reason. 

    I have an “Alms for the Poor” jar in the kitchen, and people put money in it whenever they think of it.  If I give the kids money for something, I have them put the change in the jar.  If I buy something purely impulsive and indulgent, I put the equal amount it cost in the jar. 

    I also gave up alcohol, which isn’t that hard since I didn’t drink during the pregnancy much (a Guinness here and there is all).  I have gone back to my pregnancy diet rather than following the Eastern Fast.  I need protein, and Theo is sensitive to beans, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as more than a handful of nuts, and more than a bite or two of hummus.  That is standard fare during lent, usually, so now I am just doing the same diet I did while pregnant, and I have to say, I do feel better, and it is a challenge. 

    The most difficult is my daily prayer life.  I had an ambitious plan of Psalm reading and spiritual reading, but I pretty much am only doing the random Jesus Prayers I always do. 

    So, Mid lent was this week, and I am going to add it a walk a day, even if its only 10 minutes, and maybe the recollection and ability to think straight will help me.  As an introvert, my full house rattles my brains like crazy. 

    Prayers for you, friend, and hope you get some sleep!