This I Believe

T.A. - Boulder, Colorado
Entered on August 25, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: children, nature

How old are the stars? I’ve always thought that question belonged to astronomers and science fiction writers. Now I know otherwise—thanks to a family river trip down the Grand Canyon, where the rocks are over two billion years old. And also thanks to my youngest daughter, Larkin, who is only nine years old.

You see, one night as we fluffed out our sleeping bags on the sand by the river, this young girl asked me a question—a question that changed forever what I believe. About time—and also about life.

Just before we hiked down the Bright Angel trail into the Grand Canyon, to meet our river boats, we heard the news of yet another terrorist attack. As usual, the plot involved killing innocent people, all to serve the cause of a group whose name means literally “The Word of God.” I shuddered at this news. How can any group of people, mortal and fallible as all humans are, claim to know the true word of God? None of us will ever be that old, or that wise.

Even as we climbed into our boats to start our journey down the Colorado, that news haunted me. I felt the same gut-churning sadness that fills me whenever I think of the Holocaust—that dark time when millions, including my own ancestors, died in a plague of horrible brutality. And I also felt a touch of despair, as a parent: How do I explain this kind of thing to my children? How do I describe it honestly, yet still leave them with hope for humanity’s future? Their future?

Several days later, we had traveled through miles of river canyon—and through eons of geologic time. But those questions still tugged on me. On the night my daughter and I set our sleeping bags by the river, a constant crash of rapids resounded; a whiff of wild mint spiced the air. Stars flashed overhead—as bright as our memories of luminous red cliffs, water so cold it slapped our skin, and mist-shrouded waterfalls.

Just then a shooting star flamed overhead. And Larkin asked her question.

“Daddy,” she said quietly, still looking up at the place where the meteor had suddenly blazed—and then just as suddenly vanished. “Daddy, how old are the stars?”

“Ancient,” I replied. “Even older than me.”

“No, really,” she went on. “This canyon is so old. The stars are even older. But people—we die so soon. So why does anybody’s life even matter?” Her voice fell to a whisper. “Why does my life matter?”

“Well,” I replied—unsure whether we were talking about her questions, or my own—“life isn’t very long. But it is our chance to be a kind of light. To shine, even briefly, even in a dark time. And maybe, just maybe … to make the world a little brighter.”

She nodded, peering up at the sky. “Like that star?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Like that star.”