I love dinosaurs and have ever since I can remember. Adults would get a kick out of three year old me answering “paleontologist” when they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. My license plate currently reads “TREXRAWR.” My younger brothers and I wore out our VHS copy of “Jurassic Park.” I was once caught stalking around the house like a velociraptor when I was ten. Okay, eleven. Okay, sixteen. The highlight for me of every family trip to New York City was the Museum of Natural History and the dinosaurs. I also really liked ghosts, thanks to “Ghostbusters.” Actually, if ghost busting was a career choice, it might have moved me off of paleontologist as a kid. I would read books about ghosts, pretend I was catching ghosts, try and conjure ghosts and try and scare my little brother Gus by doing a “ghost voice.” I still like a good ghost story and, on occasion, a scary movie.
The difference of course between liking dinosaurs and ghosts is that dinosaurs are real (the events depicted in Jurassic Park aside), while ghosts are not. Before I get into that though, a little background and a word on guardian angels….
In recent weeks I’ve gotten myself in trouble by aggressively swatting down what I view as silly beliefs (unfounded may be more charitable), in things like guardian angels. I challenged not only the existence of guardian angels, but the logic of guardian angels. Someone is in a car accident. They walk away unhurt. Another suffers a terrible injury, but survives. Another doesn’t walk away at all. Now if you tell me that the first person must have had a guardian angel, I have to ask “Why didn’t the second? Or did they have one, theirs just wasn’t as good or fast to act? How about the person who didn’t survive their accident? Did they not have a guardian angel? If not, what about them and their life was different from the people who survived?” Now, you can try and explain this- maybe it’s a part of a divine plan, maybe one person had stronger faith, etc. But maybe it’s explained by the fact that each person was driving a different car, at a different speed, in different conditions. Some cars can withstand crashes at certain speeds. Sometimes a car that otherwise would have withstood a broad swipe couldn’t take on a more direct, concentrated impact from a tree or a telephone pole. With an abundance of direct, observable evidence for why the results of each accident are what they are, there is no need for the guardian angel as an explanation.
“Aha!” you say, thinking of course that the guardian angel doesn’t exist to EXPLAIN how or why someone survived the accident and that there is no logical basis for the literal existence of the angel, but that in our minds we use the angel as a way to make ourselves feel better. This argument I’ll grant you. It can be comforting and emotionally satisfying to tell ourselves that we are special and we survived because we are special.
We are special of course- to our family and our friends, particularly compared to a stranger. But out of billions of people, we are, in fact, not special or even particularly unique, but we’re so convinced of how special we are that even if our loved one is the third person in the scenario above we like to underline how special they are by saying things like “God must have needed her more in Heaven.” It helps us to deal with death (and close brushes with death) to try and explain it and give it meaning. Our big evolved brains like to know how things work and the reason A causes B, etc. Because if we can understand how and why something works we can take advantage of it. So while the guardian angel isn’t real, the emotional connection and need that people have for it is very real.
That was where I fell short earlier this month in an interaction swatting down the belief in guardian angels and attempting to inject reality into the conversation- a failure to respect not the belief, but the comfort that the belief gave to people.
So back to the things I like- dinosaurs and ghosts. Both are sources of fascination and wonder. But dinosaurs are (were) real. We have their bones. We can tell a lot about how they lived, what they ate, even how they raised their young. They are pieces of a larger puzzle about life on earth that we’re putting together to increase our understanding of biology, genetics and environmental science. By understanding these things we can understand more about ourselves and the world we live in. Dinosaurs are great because they are both fantastic creatures of wonder but they can actually help us understand things.
Ghosts only inhabit one realm, and it isn’t reality, but the realm of fiction and fantasy. The writers behind some of the best ghost stories can manipulate our emotions, often to great effect. They create works of art (think of the role of ghosts throughout the plays of Shakespeare). Ghosts, like guardian angels, exist as a way to help us understand and process the complicated emotions we have surrounding death.
But imagine someone who not only really likes ghosts as an idea, as I do and as you might, but who literally believes in ghosts and that they talk to ghosts. Let’s say it’s the ghost of Fiorello LaGuardia. I don’t have to believe that they’re literally talking to the former mayor of New York City, and unless they insist that I talk to the ghost of Fiorello LaGuardia, it doesn’t impact me. Let them talk to Fiorello LaGuardia if it makes them happy. In fact, particularly if it makes them happy, I should not interfere with that happiness no matter how little sense it makes. But what if that person insisted that the existence of the spectral Fiorello LaGuardia be taught in schools, or that we base our political systems around the pronouncements of the phantom mayor? This is where you can say, I’m sorry, I’m happy to have you talk to the ghost of Fiorello LaGuardia but you cannot compel the rest of us to do so while being taken seriously.
When I feel passionately about an issue, like religion, I sometimes find it difficult to bite my tongue. It was something I discussed with my therapist in the context of speaking before thinking, about how doing that can create situations full of tension and anxiety, and how I don’t need to bring those on myself (or anyone else) unnecessarily. So as an exercise to help myself be mindful of that, whenever I encounter a situation where someone is talking about their religion, about their literal belief in the unbelievable, I’m going to call a timeout in my mind before I respond. I’m going to think of ghosts and dinosaurs. Are they talking about their belief as if it were real, and insisting that it can help us understand the world we live in? Are they talking about their religion in a way to try and compel me and others to fall in line, or to threaten us? Or are they talking about their religion within the context of making themselves feel better, as a way to process complicated feelings? Because if that’s the case, while I may not respect the belief, I can do a better job of respecting what the belief means to the believer.