I try not to tell my children that everything will be all right.
If they are hurt, I tell them that they are OK if they are OK, and that a doctor will fix them up if a doctor needs to fix them up. If they are scared, I tell them that they are safe if they are safe, and that I am here for them and with them no matter what. If they are anxious, I ask them what they are anxious about, and we talk through their feelings and reality, including the reality of their feelings.
But I don’t want to get into the habit of saying, “Everything will be all right.” Because everything will not always be all right.
A friend’s boy fell out of a tree. This was a couple of years ago. His skull cracked on an exposed root, and he went still. My family was driving home from visiting relatives out of state; we told our kids that their friend had had a serious accident, and we prayed and waited through Virginia and Maryland, and into Pennsylvania.
It was important to us that our children, though young (the oldest was about six), knew who and what they were praying for; it increased the emotional burden, yes, but it also enhanced the spiritual communion we all experienced with the stricken family. This was more than a “teachable moment” about tree climbing, though it was that. It was a crash course in reality – the reality that life can change in frightening ways at a moment’s notice; the reality that friendship entails experiencing hardship, without hesitation, with our friends; the reality that prayer really is communion, both with God and the people prayed for and with.
Another friend’s boy, just this year, was hit by a car. He was being chased by his brother and, in that careless six-year-old way, bolted into the street. The car tossed him far into the air and his head hit the pavement. The family called the parish priest as the ambulance careened to the hospital.
I found out about the accident an hour after it happened, but before anyone knew a prognosis. A mutual friend – the man whose son fell out of the tree – called me as I left the office; as soon as I heard his tone of voice, I knew it was one of those calls, one of those hard days we all dread but anticipate and prepare for. About thirty minutes later, as I prayed on the bus, I checked my phone. A message: the boy had multiple fractures and a concussion, but would be OK.
When I got home, another family was visiting for dinner. We talked about how we knew these days would come, and how relieved we were that this wasn’t the big one. We told the assembled children what had happened; my son, the boy’s friend and classmate, took it hardest. In that six-year-old way, he couldn’t understand and express his feelings, but he was lethargic and short-tempered all evening.
I knelt down and held him by his little shoulders – touch is important in these moments, I’ve found – and I told him that it was OK, no, right to be worried about his friend. I told him that he could pray especially hard for his friend, as the family prayed for him that evening. I told him that the news from the hospital was good – but I did not tell him everything would be all right.
Thus far, we have experienced the most serious traumas in our community only vicariously. But we are intentional about bringing those moments, with discretion, to the entire family. It’s part of the communion of community to share the burden of these moments, even with young children.
These moments of uncertainty between normalcy and the resolution of a sudden trauma are the little apocalypses that punctuate every life. They look toward the final apocalypse, the complete unveiling of God’s plan for his creation. They’re unpredictable. They’re uncontrollable. We have to be ready.
Society is manically anti-apocalyptic these days: driven to avoid or minimize these moments of apocalypse, when a more powerful force of control and causation than ourselves makes Himself apparent. While Americans continue to valorize economic risk-taking in the form of entrepreneurship, risks that more directly implicate day-to-day autonomy are increasingly stigmatized: injury, illness, pregnancy.
This is most clearly true when it comes to children. Challenging, creative play outdoors is discouraged; schools are stupefyingly regimented; fertility is treated like a threat to control rather than a gift to embrace.
It is an indisputable improvement that most people no longer have to suffer the loss of a sibling in childhood. Child mortality, just under 50 percent of all live births by age five in 1800, in 2020 hit one seventh of one percent in the United States. But that blessed improvement has led to an obsessive impulse to shield children completely from the reality of mortality, from suffering, from all the persistent unpleasantness of being human.
The high child mortality of earlier years was not some aberrant condition. It was not unnatural. There is no violation of some primordial innocence in experiencing the apocalypse of loss or the suffering of a loved one at a young age. It hurts, in every era of human history. It leaves scars. To be sure, it is an evil for children to experience pain in their souls, just as it is for them to experience pain in their bodies. But there are greater evils: the kind of avoidance and sanitization that instills a false security and a false sense of control, both of which are eventually, inevitably, traumatically destroyed.
When Margaret, our third child and second daughter, was three and a half years old, she drove her face into the sharp corner of a windowsill. The wound next to her left eye was deep but smooth, and only required surgical glue at the emergency room. When we went to our pediatrician for a follow-up visit, he said that if a scar formed and remained in twelve months, we could pursue plastic surgery.
Maybe, if the scar persists, someday Margaret will insist it be repaired. But for now, who cares? A scar is a story, a mark left by life. Of course, some scars of both the body and mind involve lasting pain or serious disability, and are rightly addressed, but there’s no need to hide all the evidence of our mortal nature, the evidence of living as a human being – embodied, imperfect, frail.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It’s not in pretending that everything will be all right that we encounter the Lord and his grace; it’s precisely in admitting that the trauma of apocalypse is beyond our ability to predict, to control, and to manage that we open ourselves up to him.
The grace of apocalypse is most apparent, and I believe most effectual, when we strip away the veil of euphemism, and regard the life and death offered us and those around us with clear eyes. If an apocalypse is an “unveiling,” as the Greek connotes, then at the very least we should hesitate before replacing that veil with one of our own fashioning.
The goal we aim for in our family is to bear everyday apocalypses not with flinty stoicism but with the faithful confidence that every revelation of God’s will, in our time and at the end of time, is also a revelation of God’s grace. This is because beyond the greatest trauma in history was the greatest triumph; beyond the cross is the resurrection.
The resilience of the Christian, especially the Christian child, therefore, is not the resilience of the violent who ache to be goaded into conflict, or the suspicious who avoid relationships to insulate themselves from betrayal, or the doomsday preppers who try desperately to game out every scenario. The resilience of the Christian is the knowledge that, in the Lord, everything is always all right – perfectly, serenely, eternally all right – even if here, in the City of Man, it rarely is, and is getting worse.
The global order built by frail human beings is showing its frailty. The self-reinforcing sinews of liberalism and international markets are, it turns out, no match for sin and madness. Conflict hasn’t been, and cannot be, completely sublimated to the abstract order of ideology and economics. War is back. It is likely that today’s children will inherit a world more violent and more precarious in every way than the one experienced by post–Cold war generations. The belief that everything will be all right was always a recipe for fragility; now it is simply a fantasy.
One of the blessings of living in friendly proximity to dozens of families with dozens of children is that it makes the frictionless, Panglossian view untenable. For all the joy and beauty of the fun days – the impromptu playdates and cookouts, the public and private communal prayer – it’s the tearful and frightening days, the apocalyptic days, that teach the most valuable lessons.
We tell our children the truth on those days. We don’t worry too much about overwhelming their emotions because the context of these conversations is almost always prayer. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Children don’t have to be the impossibly fragile abstractions of our cultural imagination. They can understand hard things from a young age; they can gaze upon Christ crucified and understand, even if only very dimly, that he shares their burdens; and they can be strengthened by him, even if they can’t yet describe what that means.
While children mature at different paces in different ways, usually they can handle reality, including the reality of death, more resolutely than we suppose. Generally it is in treating children as emotionally – and spiritually – brittle that they become so.
During former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns, an old story often bubbled to the surface: when his little boy Gabriel was stillborn at twenty weeks, Mr. and Mrs. Santorum spent the night with him in the hospital bed, then took him home so their other children could see their brother. Commentators would then imply or say outright that this was unsettling, macabre, creepy.
I wasn’t sure that the critics weren’t right until I had children of my own. Now I know that, like the Santorums, in that situation we would do everything possible to introduce our children to their brother or sister. The family is the place where we experience the reality of human life, beginning most intimately with cooperating with the Lord in bringing a new person into being. Being open to life means – necessarily, unavoidably, irreducibly – being open to death. It means accepting apocalypse.
When our friends suffered a relatively late miscarriage, they worked with the hospital, parish, and undertaker to hold a proper funeral. At the gravesite, all the neighborhood children tossed earth on the tiny casket. The child was, in a sense, their cousin: Why shouldn’t they say hello and goodbye, and participate in the rite dedicating the baby’s soul to the Lord?
Even in death, there is grace. That’s why we don’t feel compelled to say that everything will be all right: Our world doesn’t shatter if it isn’t. We believe it’s held together by sterner stuff than our plans and expectations, and even our hopes and dreams. The Psalmist sings, “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a contrite and humbled heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
The apocalypses of everyday life, little and big, might break bones and spirits. But that’s precisely the point. And beyond them the Lord beckons us. He is here, with us; he is there, in the place where everything is unveiled, and everything is healed.
Photos used in this article are from: Potential Space: A Serious Look at Child’s Play by Nancy Richards Farese. This photobook documents children’s play across fourteen countries, including Haiti, Cuba, Burkina Faso, Jordan, and the United States. Farese invites us to consider how this universal activity is threatened by the unrelenting forces of technology, consumerism, and overparenting.