(Image: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)
My son has progressed from asking questions about why caterpillars have green guts and why dogs sniff each other’s butts to deep, existential musings. Question of the day –
Are the people on Earth closer to Heaven or to Hell?
At first I thought this question would be easily answered. My son loved a book as a toddler about a little girl who wants her Daddy to get the moon for her. Her Dad builds an enormous ladder and climbs up it to get the moon. It is a magical story by Eric Carle.
I thought about describing heaven in terms of space travel and light years from Earth but my son was having none of it. “I don’t mean how far away we are from it in distance, I mean how far away from heaven or hell are we in terms of how we act.”
That threw me. I hadn’t had time to buy a bottle of wine on the way home and such philosophical ruminations required a slightly numb sensation at the very least. But my son was persistent; strong coffee would have to do.
At first glance, it would seem that our actions as the human race on the whole seem more inclined to the hellish than the heavenly. Acts involving lying, cheating, stealing, violence, fill our news bulletins every day. The grim reality of existence can turn a blue sky grey, can pluck hope from a charitable heart. Yet as my son pointed out, for every bad act there must be a good one, otherwise the world would crumble. It’s the passive principle of the Universe, the Yin and the Yang; the way of nature, the Tao.
So we noted, resolutely, the acts of humanity that bring us both closer to heaven and closer to hell.
* abusing children
* children dying of water-borne illnesses
* ethnic cleansing in places like Darfur
* polar bears being unable to hunt because there are no icebergs
* being cruel to animals
* not standing up for what you believe in
* lying to your friends and family
* lying to yourself
* people who have the money to change things but spend it on themselves
* being unable to see beauty in small things
* believing dreams are unimportant
* saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’
* not being able to walk in someone else’s shoes
* politicians who believe nuclear power is the answer to the oil crisis
* the open-mouthed kiss of a baby (lots of drool)
* appreciating the colours in a sunrise
* good music
* good food
* movies that make you cry
* people who believe they can change the world
* sponsoring children in places like Africa and South America
* coming out of a long depression
* never giving up
* having people in your life you can rely on
* pets that seem like people
* people who love you as you are
* writers who make you think
* scientists who come up with cures for terrible illnesses
* people with a good sense of humour
* real people who are angels
* people who always find time to dream
* people who are doing something about global warming
* being true to yourself
(And my personal hell – Paris Hilton releasing another album.
What about my personal heaven – Christian Bale, Christian Bale and Christian Bale. No contest.)
So are we closer to heaven or hell? I’d like to think that our heavenly acts come out ahead of our hellish ones. I’d like to think that the parable of the stranded starfish on the beach is how most people would choose to act.
A man encounters a woman on a beach full of stranded or dying starfish. She is throwing them back into the sea one by one. The man asks her why she is bothering, there are so many of them and the beach goes on for miles. She cannot throw them all back so what does it matter. She has one in her hand which she throws back into the ocean. “It matters completely to this one and it matters to every starfish I am able to return to the water. So that’s what counts.”
I can’t think of a better way to look at life.