When a person is at the end of the world, do they disappear?

Il·lustració. © Sandra Rilova

Beyond the current trend of spirituality, profound issues need to be present in the education of the new generations. The key to spirituality in schools is enabling each child to develop a meaning of life. Communing with nature, trying out silence or imagining are creating ways to reflect on the meaning of existence from childhood on.

For some, education is usually a mixed bag that sees many fashions come and go that seek to meet the demands of each era. Times of uncertainty, pandemics, crises, or wars often spawn spiritual needs. For others the question is: is this good or not? To think about it, perhaps you have to consider what Abraham Maslow said, “If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

The title of this article is a question posed by Pedro, a five-year-old boy,[1] a question that continues to throw adults off: “When a person is at the end of the world, do they disappear?” This brings us to ask ourselves: are the end of the world and people’s death spiritual issues? How does secular education deal with childhood’s spiritual doubts? We must be open to their doubts, although they do not necessarily have to be answered. Questions are powerful tools for reflection, they are not nails for our hammer... They can be used as a basis for research, because dialogue is a value and it is a method conducive to critical, creative and ethical education.[2] To continue the conversation with Pedro, we could explore and recount myths from different cultures,[3] since mythology has a cosmological function: it orders chaos, gives meaning to reality and addresses eschatology (the afterlife). And this coincides with the intention of ensuring spirituality’s presence in education.

Why nurture the spirituality of the new generations

The consumerist, materialistic and individualistic society leads people to a sterile and meaningless loneliness, which translates into malaise. For this reason, a safe environment is necessary to channel angst, pain and uncertainties. Epicurus, Lucretius and Seneca used to affirm that fear created the gods and made us fear death. The pandemic, which has brought this fear and other existential challenges to light, has caused different kinds of disorientation and disorders. In its document Salud mental e infancia en el escenario de la COVID-19 [Mental Health and Childhood in the COVID-19 Scenario], UNICEF Spain states that one in four children have symptoms of depression and anxiety. The need for spiritual comfort has come to pique the interest of secular education. The rise of an open spirituality, not necessarily regulated, which does not demand blind or uncritical obedience, has been promoting educational actions. The key to this spirituality is that each child can develop a meaning of life. It is common to see meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and philosophy lessons in schools today. This type of practice reveals an interest in a spirituality understood as awareness of oneself and of the other. This open spirituality is not religion, because it has neither god nor dogma.

[1] The names of the children are fictional to protect the anonymity of the real children.

[2] Fun philosophy uses the methodology of dialogue to stimulate the development of critical, creative and ethical thinking in young people. It is a movement within the international project Philosophy for Children (P4wC), created by Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp.

[3] The Noria project (www.octaedro.com/noria) proposes philosophical literature for young people, which addresses different themes of human experience. In addition, there are guides for educators who accompany children in play thinking.

Il·lustració. © Sandra Rilova © Sandra Rilova

Religion (which is a family option) is a set of beliefs that deals with the sacred and the need for transcendence; it is a hierarchical institution with a sense of moral and socio-political control. The spirituality present in educational spaces, on the other hand, should not be linked to any religion or to faith in a god, a goddess or several gods. It is a type of ethics that asserts human transcendence as an evolutionary process. It seeks the sacred in humanity itself, in the experience of mutual caring and bonding, assuming the mystery of life in its possibility.

This spirituality is a mindset that engages in a constant search for meaning: who am I? Who I want to be? What is the world? What world do I want to help build? It is a spirituality that helps people to take care of themselves, of the other human, of the shared public space, of other living beings, of nature, of the planet. Can there be some sort of proper education that is against this?

A spiritual approach to science

The teacher Mar Santiago carries out the project El jardín de Juanita[1] with four-year-old children, and tells us:

Today we looked at the flowers in the garden, “some had died and others hadn’t; their flowers had just dried out. The ones that had completely dried out can’t be fixed, even if you water them, they die... just like life!” “What is life like?”, I asked, interested. “Life is like that, someone dies and then there is another person; because if people don’t die, then where do they live? Do they have to build another house? We are born to our mothers, we grow up and when we die others are born. And they die and are born, it goes on like this all life long, because the world doesn’t end”. “In the garden we can plant seeds and water them a little, not much because they will grow faster and die sooner. We take care of the other flowers and when they die, we will take care of other ones! Life includes dying, then others are born and when we are older we’ll have children”. So we planted new bulbs, and when we made a hole to put them in, we were amazed to discover that some of the ones we planted last year were sprouting under the soil. It was clear that life was taking its course even though the garden seemed to be dying.

[1] This project is part of Filosofía Lúdica’s approach, applied since 2018 in various countries. Its references include the book for adults Ciudadanía creativa en el jardín de Juanita [Creative Citizenship in Juanita’s Garden] (Octaedro, 2018) and philosophical literature for children El jardín de Juanita [Juanita’s Garden] (Octaedro, 2017) and La mariquita Juanita [Juanita the Ladybird] (Octaedro, 2017).

What are these four-year-olds doing? Looking for the meaning of life in their direct experience of communing with nature. From creating and tending to a garden, they come up with ideas that the physicist Fritjof Capra has been broaching since the 1970s in books such as The Tao of Physics (Shambhala Publications, 1975) or The Web of Life (Anchor, 1997). Starting with modern science, Capra delves into its philosophical consequences by linking it to ancient mysticism; it is a spiritual approach to science. In his book, life is interconnected and nothing can be understood in isolation. This is present in the conversation held by the four-year-olds. Could we assert that this experience is an example of spiritual education? Children lend a coherent and effective meaning to life, without a need for the supernatural. They create a story based on their experience, without a god or a dogma to justify it. Communing with nature is a tool for spirituality education that helps to overcome the clash between individualistic/materialistic culture and dogmatic and doctrinal religions.

Faced with the death of their great-grandmother, two siblings talked to one another: “But if she is dead, how is she going to talk to God? There are no more words in her mouth…”, commented six-year-old Ana. “She’ll talk inside her head”, replied five-year-old Jon. The two emerged holding hands and with a blank look on their faces. Jon turned around, took another look at the body surrounded by flowers and declared, “When I die I want to turn into a spirit straight away, without being buried or cremated”. The words god, spirit, buried and cremated crop up in the children’s conversation, which point to a religious education. The totalitarianisms that endeavoured to wipe out religions have failed, because they are still embedded in the diversity of cultures. Humans need to believe in something to give meaning to their lives, hence the existence of religious systems or an ethical education for those who prefer to meet this need in a more open and flexible manner.[1]

[1] I share with Joan-Carles Mèlich: “Being ethical is not responding well, it is knowing that we will never respond well enough”. (Contra los absolutos [Against Absolutes], Fragmenta, 2018; p. 120).

Silence and imagination as tools for spirituality

Experiencing silence and imagining can be two different resources for dealing with spiritual issues that arise in childhood. Jon gave us a hint: there are times when you have to talk inside your own head. Thought is an internal dialogue, and we can learn to think better by voicing our ideas and conversing. Doing the opposite can also be interesting: keeping quiet, meditating and paying attention to the here and now via tools for introspection and well-being. Seven-year-old Alexia drew a picture and explained, “It’s an eye that burst with so many ideas!” Another girl, amazed by the picture, asked, “How do you rest from your ideas?” “I listen to meditation, I sleep, I play, I rest, I even forget them”, she answered without batting an eyelid. The voice of childhood makes us see that not everything is a nail, because there are other tools other than our hammer...

Beyond the current trend of spirituality, profound issues need to be present in education. There are essential matters to explore: peace, mysteries, rites and rituals, the role of beliefs in invisible and supernatural forces, and so forth. There are spiritual emotions that deserve reflection: gratitude, compassion, happiness and love. As the biologist Humberto Maturana used to say, “to love is to let the other appear”. The education we propose is loving, and it is important to let these issues emerge in educational arenas.

As this is an open-ended text, we conclude with a question that (five-year-old) Antonio asked at bedtime: “Mum, what is the number before infinity?” We could go on thinking: how can we grapple with the infinite that challenges us in our finitude?


Bibliographic references

Background reading helps gain an insight into how to listen and reflect on children’s profound questions. The following references were consulted for the subject of this text:

Arendt, H. The Human Condition (2nd edition). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998.
Arendt, H. The Life of the Mind. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1978.
Bergson, H. Matter and Memory: A Philosophical Essay on the Relation of Body and Spirit, and the Psychology of Religion in Recall. Zone Books, New York, 1990.
D’Ansembourg, T. and Reybrouck, D. La paz se aprende. Comunicación no violenta, mindfulness y compasión: prácticas para el desarrollo de una cultura de paz. Arpa Bienestar, Barcelona, 2017.
Freud, S. Civilisation and Its Disconents. Harper and Row, New York, 1994.
Gadamer, H. Dolor. Paradiso, Mexico, 2020.
Han, B. The Palliative Society: Pain Today. Polity Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2021.
Lipman, M. Thinking in Education (2nd revised edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2009.
Mèlich, J. C. La fragilidad del mundo. Ensayo sobre un tiempo precario. Tusquets, Barcelona, 2021.
Mèlich, J. C. Contra los absolutos. Fragmenta, Barcelona, 2018.
Mèlich, J. C. La religión del ateo. Fragmenta, Barcelona, 2019.
Mèlich, J. C. L’experiència de la pèrdua. Arcàdia, Barcelona, 2017.
Nussbaum, M. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2003.
Sátiro, A. Filosofía mínima. Octaedro, Barcelona, 2016.
Sátiro, A. and Tschimmel, K. Pensar crea(c)tivamente. Mindshake, Oporto, 2020.
Zambrano, M. Filosofía y poesía. Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, 2017 (reed.).

Recommended publications

  • Filosofía mínimaAngélica Sátiro. Octaedro, 2016

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