Friday, April 10, 2009

What's Good About It?

I have never understood why, in English, we call today's religious event "Good Friday." It is most counterintuitive. Yes, we know how the Christian story ultimately ends; we know that Easter Sunday is around the corner, and with it new life. But today, Friday, is somber in tone. It commemorates what exactly? Humiliation, pain, death. What's so good about that, other than the fact that it had to happen in order for the rest to follow? In addition to this explanation of why the crucifixion of Christ might be called "good" (his sacrifice being for the greater good of humanity), there are other theories that are less theological or philosophical and more linguistic. I have come across references to the word "good" having archaic meanings of "holy" (giving us Holy Friday, as the day is in fact called in other languages) and also "God," such as in the word "good-bye," which is a way of saying "God be with you" upon a leave-taking. My adult mind finds all these suggestions worthy of consideration. But when I was a child, there was no making sense of it. Linguistics was an unfamiliar discipline, and the idea of death being good, well . . . it didn't seem possible. Today I had a conversation with my son about Easter, and he told me that we celebrate it "to remember dead people," which is in some sense true, despite being a vague and incomplete notion. We do remember dead people, yes, but we remember them living again, resurrected. Specifically, of course, the word "people" really means just one person, Jesus, but he's a stand-in for humanity, if you believe in the Christian principle of life everlasting. Between me and my son, there have not been many conversations about death, but I do remember a series of exchanges back when he was four. By this time, he had already become aware of one death in the family, that of his paternal grandfather. But his "Papy" lived in France; my son met him only once and was less than two years old at the time, so he doesn't remember much of him, sadly. The death that, emotionally speaking, might more properly count as his first grief experience was the death of a beloved preschool figure: Tyrone the security guard. Tyrone was much loved. He was very short, of a dark-skinned black complexion, and his manner was always upbeat, his smile always easy and broad. My son took to him right away and looked forward to saying hello to him (and good-bye) every school day. Tyrone was diabetic, though we didn't know it until it was revealed as the cause of his death. He was young, too young. Maybe in his thirties, maybe not even thirty. One day, he just wasn't there, and another day passed, and then another. And then the parents got the news. The school's policy was to find an age-appropriate way of opening up a dialogue with the kids about Tyrone, and to avoid answering any questions that touched on religious beliefs like, "Where is he now?" But of course I was accountable to my son for those kinds of questions. I did the best I could, trying to walk a fine line: on one side, comfort; on the other, a pitfall of fear. I have always wanted to be honest with my son about the limitations of our human experience; that is, to be clear about the fact that there are things we just don't know for sure. We can believe, can trust, hope, but really we can't answer with any certainty a question like "What happens to you after you die?" Whatever I found to say did seem to be satisfactory to my son at the time. He didn't look worried, didn't have other questions. I thought maybe death did not seem bad to him. Several months later, though, out of the blue, something caught up with him. We were looking at a book together, and the book had some pages devoted to the composer Vivaldi. We were in his room listening to "The Four Seasons" when he asked me "Is he still alive?" and I said he wasn't, he lived a long time ago. Suddenly, my son burst into convulsive sobs and said, "I don't want to die!" A huge leap had been made: if it could happen to Tyrone, if it had happened to Vivaldi, it could happen to him, too. I pulled him onto my lap and said, "Shhh . . . You don't have to worry about that now," then I just hugged him until the tears stopped. I marvel at what it is in us that is so programed to be afraid of death. We are generally afraid of the unknown (a stumbling block, a failure of imagination perhaps) and of course death is the biggest unknown there is. You can comfort yourself with faith-based answers, but you cannot really know, at least not the way you know a fact with your mind. (But yes, I acknowledge there are other ways of knowing, other muscles besides the mind.) Maybe we are wrong to fear death so much. Maybe it doesn't have to be bad. But all the same, it's hard to see, especially in a case of taunting and torture, what's good about it, ever? How do you tell your child it can be good thing, too.

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