When a 10-Year-Old Asks, “What’s the Point of Living When We’re Just Going to Die?”

Hi Readers — My friend Nancy McDermott, a columnist at  Spiked-Online,  wrote this to me the other day. It was not apropos of the Sandy Hook shooting, just apropos  of being alive, being a parent, and being a realist, which means (believe it or not) being grateful. – L.

My son turned 10 the other day and got out of bed late on the night of his birthday and tearfully asked me what is the point of living if we’re just going to die in the end. (He’s a very old soul.) So I held him and told him because that is the miracle of people, because we know how it’s going to end but we still laugh and love one another and strive for the impossible anyway. We are part of the great thing that is humanity that goes on even when we are gone. We think these thoughts as other people before us have and as other people after us will. And that we don’t have to worry about it for a very long time in any case. That’s the best I could do short of reading him Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. I’m not sure whether that helped or if it was just the hug, but he shrugged and went back to bed. All the big questions and when you least expect them. – Nancy

A shout out to Walt, who was expecting us.

30 Responses to When a 10-Year-Old Asks, “What’s the Point of Living When We’re Just Going to Die?”

  1. mollie December 19, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    You’ve caught me in an odd mood, one that I’ve been in a lot lately, a kind of acceptance mixed with awe, mourning, and, yes, celebration. But it is melancholy too.

    I imagine more and more young people will ask this question, and in a way that has nothing to do with the “normal” existential angst that accompanies the coming of age, the understanding of the finite quality of life, along with the infinite…

    I honestly don’t believe humanity is infinite; I see us as a flash in the pan, and the smoke is, in my view, about to rise. Don’t think this means I’ve given up living; oh no, I go about my life, I love and laugh and care for my children, but with a heavy dose of attachment to the present moment and not the future.

    A lot of what I was sensing intuitively is corroborated and echoed here: http://www.ecoshock.org/audio-on-demand/2012-radio-ecoshock-show/

    I know, I’m a real ray of sunshine, but honestly, there is a kind of peace that comes for me, acknowledging that I might be among the last humans to witness what we’ve done here on Earth. Call me an “end of days” cuckoo nutjob, that’s no problem for me. It’s my journey, seeing what I’m seeing, sensing what I’m sensing.

    The way this all ties into Free Range is this: I can’t honestly imagine what it’s going to be like for this current crop of children, undoubtedly the most affluent, indulged, protected and paid-attention-to group of humans ever… when the inevitable transition from the way we consume and exist now shifts suddenly to the other extreme. And I don’t think it’s going to be gentle, I think it’s going to be the rudest shock ever.

    This is why I encourage my kids to celebrate what matters in life, and to accept that there are many different ways to find the qualities of life you thrive on, like connection, fun, enjoyment, comfort… just yesterday, my 8-year-old pitched an enormous and oddly uncharacteristically materialistic fit about a stuffed creature she just had to have at a store. I turned her down flat. I thought, as she sobbed, “Good training for you, learn about disappointment, learn how you can rise from the ashes of that. This is only the beginning.”

    I know. I know. Who am I to say what will come next? I only know that assuming it will always be this way, and even that humans will always be here, seems like enormous folly, and the sh•t people are tearing their hair out over these days, especially when it comes to kids and safety, simply seems grotesque when compared to rising seas! Jeez Louise! Rising seas!

    Rant over.

  2. Ashley Yakeley December 19, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    If you lived forever, what would you do with your life?

  3. Yan Seiner December 19, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    What a great opportunity to connect with your kids.

    My answer to that:

    That’s a really good question, what do you think?

    then sit down with my kids and really listen to them.

  4. Puzzled December 19, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    Great question. I’ve thought it over myself, as well as the accompanying question – would it be murder to kill someone who is on death row? If not, why is anything murder?

    All I could come up with is – other people. Your purpose is to use your finite time to increase the joy other people have. Why is that beneficial? I don’t know, it seems too obvious to answer.

    Or, the answer I really want to like, because I agree with it, but it doesn’t resonate in my soul – when you make a painting, it won’t last forever, but it is nonetheless a valuable thing while it lasts. The purpose of my life is to make of my life an artwork.

  5. Jane December 20, 2012 at 12:32 am #

    “If you lived forever, what would you do with your life?”

    Give me immortality, and I’ll pass it back when I’m bored with it.

    I’m serious. I’ve been stuck in the terror-of-mortality existential crisis since I was 4 years old and I asked my father if we all turn into skeletons eventually.

  6. LadyTL December 20, 2012 at 1:28 am #

    I came to terms with that though far younger than I really should have due to abuse at the hands of my parents. Ironically it was fantasy and science fiction that gave me the answer rather than anything from reality. Our answers for why we keep living and trying and being here are each different.

    Some of us want to leave a mark on others in what ways we can.
    Some want to experience as much as they can in the life they have.
    Some work towards a sense of inner peace or happiness.

    There are always more answers to that question than any one person can think of. Oddly enough, I think loss of some sort is what propels us to find that answer. It does not have to be a great loss but that first shock to our world to give us perspective on what we want out of life.

    I would say for free range, give them guides to an answer but never try to give them the answer since every person’s answer is different for them at that point in their life. Give them books and movies that you feel they can handle and if they push for more allow it. I would not look to reality though as a guide unfortunately. It carries far too many events such as the past shootings to help someone find who they are except as a adult with years of experiences that people can be better, just not all choose to.

  7. Rachel December 20, 2012 at 1:49 am #

    I work as a hospice chaplain and my kids may be overly-exposed to death and dying as a result of my work. Sometimes our “how was your day” dinner conversation can get a bit heavy.

    On a positive note, they tend to view & talk about life as a precious gift not to be squandered on trivial matters (like middle school girl drama!)

    We also talk about making funny memories, leaving a legacy of love, staying connected to friends and family, and finding small gratitudes in each day.

    Kurt Vonnegut said we are here on Earth to fart around and I wholeheartedly agree with him. He also suggested “to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”

    It’s great to have big dreams and hope to end up in a history book but most of us won’t. It can be liberating to admit that there is no grand “point” – Life just *is* and our part is to be present and participate with intention, humor and compassion.

  8. Vanessa December 20, 2012 at 1:51 am #

    I was a kid who worried about those sorts of questions, too. As an adult I’ve come to believe that everyone’s purpose is to bear witness to what happens in their time – write it down, leave a record of what you thought and felt about your seventy or eighty years on earth. Sooner or later someone will come along and want to know what it was like to be you at this point in history, whether it’s humans of the future or some other form of sentient life.

  9. linvo December 20, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    My 8yo has been asking those questions for a few years too. I remember when she was about 4 she also asked me when the world was going to end and similarly difficult questions.

    I reckon the best way to deal with them is to be honest and then let them process it in their own time. We talk very openly about death at our house. But in a non sentimental way (well, I do. My daughter on the other hand absolutely adores the dramatic, lol). But I must add that I do have a very positive outlook on life, the universe and everything. I didn’t always. Having a child definitely made a much more positive person. I think I owe that to her. Which is also why I get angry with those who always complain about this current generation and keep going on about how we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. Also because my grandparents used to say that about my generation and their grandparents about theirs.

    I raise my child the way I think prepares her best for the challenges ahead of her. But even those kids that are raised in a way I might not agree with at all still have potential to shine when they are presented with challenges as adults. I trust that they will work it out somehow, all of them.

    And ok, my daughter will be a revolutionary leader while the other kind of kids will merely be cannon fodder, but they will all play their part. *

    *Seriously tongue in cheek!

  10. Becky December 20, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    Well, as a behavioral ecologist, my answer to my child would be “genetic representation in the next generation” or to put it more simply “to make grandchildren”. As a student of literature, I’d probably hand her a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. As a psychologist, I’d probably ask her what she thinks the point of it all is. Most importantly, I’d tell her that this is a question that everyone has to face at sometime, and answer for themselves, and that the search for that answer is a purpose in itself.

  11. Brian December 20, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    We can also try to do big things and small things that impact the world and make it better than we found it.

  12. Meagan December 20, 2012 at 8:35 am #

    Why do we build snow men even though we know they’ll melt? Because they bring us joy for the short time they last.

  13. Lollipoplover December 20, 2012 at 9:00 am #

    Sounds to me like your son had an Eeyore morning. Boys can get moody at this age and bring up great questions. All of my kids loved Winnie the Pooh, and when they were grumpy, I’d sympathized because everyone gets the gloomies like Eeyore. I get them too. Sometimes you need a Tiger to pounce on you and get you moving again.

    But back to your son’s question:
    “What is the point of living if we are all going to die in the end?” For my son at 10 (he’s 11 now)-if I had to answer for him, it would have to be:
    10. Rope swings
    9. Skiing at night in fresh power
    8. Fishing in summer when all your friends are catching
    7. Cookies- warm and homemade
    6. The Phillies
    5.Building fires outdoors and cooking entire meals over them
    4. Riding a perfect wave in the ocean with your sisters
    3. Christmas morning
    2. German Shorthaired Pointer puppies
    1. Hitting a homerun during the championship baseball game

    I say the last one because that was the day he looked me in the eye and said “This is the Best day of my life” and I believed him. We can only hope for more best days. If any of my kids asked me this question, I would ask him how he would answer that question and listen. Most kids just want someone to talk to- to know that what they’re feeling is normal.

  14. Warren December 20, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    No offense to the deep thinkers. I understand and respect you feelings and opinions. We are talking about a child, not someone that has lived 40 years and talking abouting ending it.

    My youngest asked why I struggle through life, after there was the Columbine incident. She was nine.
    My answer, included that I would miss family, friends, Christmas’, Halloween, seeing The Leafs win the Stanley Cup, fishing, our dogs and so on.

    Kids that young do not need a deep life changing view of life. They just need to know that the good definitely outweighs the bad.

  15. Sam December 20, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    I’m guessing you don’t believe in God? If you do, however, the explanation can be fairly easy. We are put on this earth for a short period of time (compared with eternity). We are here to learn and grow and experience mortality. Someday, when we die, we can all be together forever as families and life will go on forever. You can even share with your son all the stories of those with near death experiences who all experience approximately the same thing – a beautiful light, a place with loved ones and beauty and colors that is indescribable to anything we have on earth. So it will go on and it will be wonderful. It doesn’t just end.

  16. Jenna K. December 20, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Believing in God makes this an easy question to answer. ^^

  17. Hels December 20, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    I would tell that the point of life is living. Just like a game can be fun to play even if you don’t win – life can be a lot of fun to live even if at the end you die. The goal should be to have no regrets as you are on your last breath…

  18. steve December 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    “Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever.”

    From the book: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis


    “A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.”

    C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man


    “If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy, also we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world.”

    C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


    “Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it.”

    C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity


    “Safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other.”

    C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity


    “Reality, in fact, is always something you couldn’t have guessed. That’s one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It’s a religion you couldn’t have guessed.”

    –The Case for Christianity


    “Now that I am a Christian I do not have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.”

    C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


    “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.”

    C.S. Lewis

  19. Emily December 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    Hey, you guys, I don’t think Lenore intended for this to become a religious debate.

  20. Krista December 20, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    I think a good movie (or book!) at this stage would be “Tuck Everlasting”.

    “Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.”
    ― Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

    “Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is.”
    ― Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

  21. hineata December 20, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    It might seem a little off-topic, but my morning paper has a survey on the world’s happiest/most positive nations, and seven out of ten of them are poor Latin Americn nations, among them El Salvador, which my daughter informs me has an average of eighteen murders a day of just drug dealers. Another two are Thailand and the Phillipines.

    In contrast, I was just like the OP’s son, always questioning the purpose of existence as a young’un.While I agree that Lenore did not intend a religious discussion, I must say that I personally did finally come to terms with the purpose of existence through faith in God.

    So, are we over-educating ourselves? Having too much in the way of expectations? Or do we in the Western world, which exists not exclusively but primarily in the colder regions of the world, simply not getting enough sunshine?!

    It is winter where you live, maybe all those closed-in evenings lead us more to question existence then. In contrast it is summer here, and last night, while I was otherwise occupied, the girls and a friend packed Midge into a suitcase and wheeled her around the neighbourhood! They then let her out, packed daughter no.2 in and left her sitting there on the grass verge, and hid to watch the fun…..She said some poor chap driving by – who’d slowed down, trying to figure out what a suitcase was doing sitting alone on the grass- almost had a heart attack when her head emerged.

    No time for existential thought in the summertime!

  22. Crystal December 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” is a great book about this subject. Maybe a little too heavy for an 8-year-old, but it helped me tremendously in my tween years when I was asking the same question.

  23. Mark Roulo December 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    “Why do we build snow men even though we know they’ll melt? Because they bring us joy for the short time they last.”


    My formulation back to the child (and what I would say to mine, if he was to ask the question) would be: “Why go to a fun party if you know it is going to end?”

  24. pentamom December 20, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    I think I agree with Warren, though like others I’d add a more spiritual dimension. But in general, a pretty simple answer that doesn’t attempt to forestall the deeper questions (i,e, “But WHY do all these good things matter?) is probably sufficient, unless the child takes it farther. For most actual kids, “because we have all these nice things and God loves us” is probably going to be enough answer for the time being. If the child takes it deeper, THEN go deeper.

  25. Jenn December 20, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    My 8 year old overheard on the news about a death (not sure what it was related to as I didn’t catch the story). He was very upset that someone died. I explained to him that we all die and it makes those left behind a little sad but we can’t live our life worrying about when it’s going to be our turn but we can focus on making every minute a celebration. He then said, “Don’t you think it’s a little mean to be celebrating all those dead people every minute?” Missed. The. Point. Completely. (but at least he easily fell asleep).

  26. Warren December 20, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    @sam and jenna

    Actually I do not believe in God. I lean towards the beliefs of my ancestors, in the First Nations.

    I also, am a realist. I do not put my beliefs onto my children as their beliefs should come to them, not issued to them by a parent.

    And oh yes the answer is so much easier if you believe in God. Until you child is crying and wanting to know why a caring loving God took their sister or brother.

    I am not putting down your beliefs, I just have a hard time accepting a God that would allow children around the world to be slaughtered, as part of his/her grand plan.

  27. ad December 21, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    Just because you have to do the washing up is no reason not to enjoy your dinner.

  28. Tim Haynes December 21, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    There’s a time of frustration that every parent feels, when they watch their teen grapple with a challenging problem which the parent has solved a hundred times already. (And I mean “solved” solved, as in, deeply researched, thoroughly understood from all possible angles, as only a well-educated deep thinker can “solve”).

    It’s that time when the teen looks contemptuously at their parent, like they are a simpleton, a moron, and semi-politely (but mostly rudely) eschews all of their offers of help and advice. From the teen’s perspective, obviously, the parent is an idiot who has nothing worthwhile to say. Or, at best, is good for a hug and that’s about it.

    This is exactly the feeling that religious people (at least, those who have extensively studied world religions and settled on the best conclusion that fits the available evidence) have when non-religious people try to answer these questions.

    It’s very, very frustrating to watch. I feel sorry for the 10-year old boy who didn’t get a real answer to his real question, despite Nancy’s well-intentioned efforts. Maybe he’ll find a better one on his own someday.

  29. Trimelda December 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    It may sound stupid to voice this on a website like this one which seems to shy away from such things, but as an African American grandmother raised in a traditional African American home I can say that what got us through the deaths of my parents, Vietnam, sicknesses, struggling with poverty, racism, and often senseless violence is God.

    For folks who don’t have that type of answer, I don’t know how you explain suffering, death and injustice to a child. We all went to college. Some of us have masters degrees, even doctorates. We have lawyers, doctors, teachers, criminals-all sorts. But we all believe in God and that has made all the difference in our lives when it comes to the living of it.

    So as a child I was taught that life is not “fair.” It will never be fair until the Creator of this world is back in charge of the world system. Until then we are to use the sufferings that cruelty causes to build characters that reflect Eternal Goodness and Compassion. Those values got us through a lot of suffering growing up in the middle of a ghetto and continue to guide my family even now. The bottom line for us, even as children is the question: “This day do you choose to be like Jesus or like the people who crucified Him?”

  30. Robin May 30, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    @Trimelda I find it hard to imagine why you would find comfort in the God of the oppressor and slaveowner.