“Dad,” my son Thatcher asked, “What is the soul?” It is not a question that I expected as we drove away from his elementary school. “Where, I mean, why…what?” I asked. “What is the soul?” he repeated. “I was just thinking about it earlier. What is it?”
I did not want to make too much or too little of his question. After all, as a parent my great hope is that my sons will be thoughtful. From Thatcher’s question, it is clear that he is headed in that direction (credit goes to his mom). And yet, as I tried to frame my response to him, I was proud and stuck. I was proud that he asked the question and stuck when it came to an answer.
He is nine. It isn’t like I could talk to him about Plato’s three distinct components, nor Descartes’ notion of immaterial substance. And, I really didn’t want to talk about the soul as simply something that needs saving. He was asking a great question; it is a question deserving a helpful, truthful and instructive answer.
I thought, suppose that I answer by saying, “A soul is part of what it takes to make a person. It is that part of everyone that makes us real, helps us to think, believe, love and hope. It seems to be the part of every person that goes on for a very long time. And it seems to me that, every person is far more than what you simply see.”
I wondered how that sort of answer might shape the way he looks at another child – even one he doesn’t like, or one that doesn’t like him. Will he look beyond the physical – and search for the way their soul shows up? After all, soul-searching is hard work; it is no easy chore to look beyond the physical and recognize the value of a person because of the soul.
Then I wondered what would happen if I went the opposite direction. Suppose I said, “There is no such thing as the soul. All a person is – is what you see. You and I and everyone else, we are nothing more than cells, or atoms or dust. A bag of neurons responding to a stimulus.”
What would that do to the way he sees his friends, his teachers? How would he understand himself? Would an answer like that help him or harm him? Is it true that there is not such thing as a soul?
He patiently sat in the back seat awaiting an answer. I looked at his reflection in the rear-view mirror; I realized what a wonderful and profound moment it was. I wanted to give him an answer that was helpful and instructive, an answer that would help him for the rest of his life. I gave him the truest answer possible. I simply said, “Ask your mother. She is much smarter than I am.”