Night Terrors

by David Holzel

It’s a joy to watch your kid learn. But sometimes bliss is preferable.

We were reading probably our 10th book in a row about the solar system. The visuals were riveting and the text was succinct, enough to capture the imagination of both a 6-year-old and his father, who reveled in the solar system at nearly the same age.

Then we turned the page, and I committed one of the Top 10 Parental Bedtime Misdemeanors. I began to read aloud before I thought about what I was reading: “The death of the solar system...”

Before I wised up and we went to something blander – like the atmospheric pressure on Venus, which is so intense it can crush any spaceship we land there – Elie had absorbed the fact that in 5 billion years, as the sun begins to run out of hydrogen, it will likely balloon into a “red giant,” larger than the orbits of Mercury, Venus and Earth. Our supersized sun will then destroy our world and end all life here.

You can imagine that I had some ‘splaining to do. Will the earth really be destroyed? Will all the people really die? It didn’t help to remind him that there have been people for less than a million years, and who knows who – or what – will be walking around in 5 billion.

Since he was 3, Elie has been sitting with the fact that people, particularly those closest to him, will die someday. He seems to have made his peace with that. Perhaps because in the three years since, no one has died.

And then I had to let it slip that we’re all going to be vaporized in 5 billion years. And in the months since that bedtime from hell, Elie’s existential nausea, as Sartre would put it, keeps bubbling up in new forms. All of them unanswerable.

The questions always come at night, when the mind clears of the distractions of the day that drown out the static of our existential terrors. At night, with only the restless, relentless mind for company, the terrors return.

Alvy Singer's dilemma


Alvy as young boy sits on a sofa with his mother in an old-fashioned,
cluttered doctor's office. The doctor stands near the sofa, holding a
cigarette and listening.

(To the doctor)
He's been depressed. All off a sudden,
he can't do anything.

Why are you depressed, Alvy?

(Nudging Alvy)
Tell Dr. Flicker.
(Young Alvy sits, his head down. His
mother answers for him)
It's something he read.

(Puffing on his cigarette and
Something he read, huh?

(His head still down)
The universe is expanding.

The universe is expanding?

(Looking up at the doctor)
Well, the universe is everything, and if
it's expanding, someday it will break apart
and that would be the end of everything!

Disgusted, his mother looks at him.

What is that your business?
(she turns back to the doctor)
He stopped doing his homework.

What's the point?

(Excited, gesturing with her hands)
What has the universe got to do with it?
You're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not

(Heartily, looking down at Alvy)
It won't be expanding for billions of years
yet, Alvy. And we've gotta try to enjoy
ourselves while we're here. Uh?

He laughs

This scene from "Annie Hall" stays with me. Alvy is paralyzed by the knowledge that everything will end in 5 billion years – so what’s the point of doing anything?

The doctor comes off as a jerk, even though he tries the truth – anything can happen in 5 billion years. We don’t even know what the weather will be next week.

Clutching his cigarette – he won’t be around in 5 billion years if he doesn’t give up smoking – Dr. Flicker gives the answer we all come to eventually: All we can do about it is life to the fullest today.

But he’s a shmuck because in patronizing Alvy, he misses the point: We are, all of us, terrified that the end is ahead for each one of us, and there is nothing we can do to change that fact.

My own enduring night terror is the knowledge that, were the sun to suddenly flicker out, you, me, and all life on Earth – particularly me – would end in eight minutes, the time it takes for the sun’s life-giving rays to reach us.

Eight minutes. The closest I can come to comprehending this is trying to imagine holding my breath for all eternity.

What gets me up in the morning is that I have to get Elie to school, I need to meet a deadline, I’m curious to see what new emails I’ve received. As time goes on, we push the existential dread farther from the center of our consciousness to deal with more quotidian worries.


Where was God?

Oh, my socialist and secular forbears are not turning in their graves, but they’re probably having a good chuckle at my expense.

My path of life has led me and my family to a Conservative synagogue where they teach children about, of all things, God.

Until my mother died, she maintained that religion was the opiate of the masses. And my father never got over his ambivalence of abandoning the stifling, parochial Judaism of his birthplace in Poland, even as he abandoned Eastern Europe for America and that stifling, parochial world was ushered into the gas chambers.

With that as a starting point, I have, during the course of my own wanderings, come to a point of deep agnosticism and skepticism when it comes to questions of Deity.

I also believe in giving straight answers to my kid.

So when the 5-billion-year issue came up most recently, Elie had a more sophisticated question to ask:

When the Earth is about to be destroyed, will God stop it?

Damn good question, bubba. Judaism has a wonderfully ornate eschatology of the End of Days. The messiah will come, the souls will rise from their graves, and we’ll all dwell in a paradise on Earth. That’s the idea in a nutshell.

So, OK, say the world has been redeemed. God has delivered. Now it’s 5 billion years. The sun, that tired old workhorse, is ballooning just as the laws of physics predict. What happens to paradise?

Will a God who didn’t stop the Holocaust stop a red giant? Will a God who would not intervene in the deadliest exercises of his creations’ free will intervene in the natural destruction dictated by the laws of physics that were established In The Beginning?

Is God that kind of God? Is it possible that minutiae like making sure we remove all the chametz from our homes before Pesach is just there to distract us from the 5-billion-year question?

The other night, as we were getting out of the car at home after Shabbat services, Elie suggested that maybe when the end came, God would start a new world. In that way, the end wouldn’t be the end.

I’d like to think so. 

Except for transcription from "Annie Hall," copyright © 2006 by David Holzel

"Red Giant"  courtesy of Bob Eggleton


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