Falling flat

“North and South?” the people of Lineland said to our hero. “That’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as North and South, only East and West.”

Our hero is the main character in Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland. He is a square — a literal square, a four-sided, geometric figure in the two-dimensional world of Abbot’s transcendently weird mathematical parable. And there I was, telling this story again because an honest question deserves the most honest answer we can give, particularly when the people asking it are in pain.

The girls spent last Tuesday getting the house ready for PopPop, who was coming home for hospice care. We talked about what that meant and I relayed, as gently and frankly as possible, what the doctors had told us. A few days. Maybe more, maybe less. But we would make them good days.

And so we cleaned and rearranged furniture and got things ready. We set up Pop’s bed in the family room, where he’d be able to look out the sliding doors to see the back yard and where there would be room enough for all the visitors we expected to come that night and the next few days. The girls arranged pictures around the room and flowers from the garden. They did a great job. It was lovely.

But Pop didn’t make it home. At some point during the ambulance ride home he fell asleep and then he died.

So the past week has been full of questions. PopPop was with Grandma now, the girls were told, and they’re both looking down, free of pain and disability and dialysis, watching your swimming and softball, happier than ever in heavenly bliss.

Really? The girls, to their credit, are skeptical. What do these people mean when they say Pop is with Grandma? And do I really think he somehow saw the bed and the pictures and flowers, that he somehow knows how lovely the room was? Where is he now? What happened to him? In that sleep, what dreams may come?

These are questions I can’t answer. None of us can. And so I tell what truth I have.

“I don’t know.”

Not good enough, of course, for them or for me. And so the children demand to know what I think — what I believe or guess or hope. And not just the children.

Here I can do only slightly better. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,” St. Paul wrote in response to just these questions, and God help me the best story I know about such unseeable and unhearable things is Flatland.

So one day our hero, the square, comes across the kingdom of Lineland, which is just what it sounds like — a straight line where all the people are just dots, little points on an East-West axis. To them the square looks like another dot, because that’s all they can see of where he intersects their world.The square tries to explain to them that he’s more than that, that he’s a two-dimensional shape consisting of lines that go North and South as well as East and West, but this just blows their little Linelander minds.

“North and South?” the people of Lineland said to our hero. “That’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as North and South, only East and West.”

Try as he might, he couldn’t get them to understand.

A few days later, the square meets another Flatlander, a circle who can do an amazing trick — growing bigger and shrinking smaller. The circle explains to our hero that he isn’t actually changing size, but that he’s really a sphere — a three-dimensional globe who only appears to change size to the square because he is rising Up and Down above and below Flatland itself.

“Up and Down?” says our hero. “That’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as Up and Down, only North, South, East and West.”

His little Flatlander brain can’t conceive of a sphere or comprehend what this sphere is trying to tell him. And so the sphere does something extraordinary — it lifts our hero Up, taking him above and out of Flatland to behold the incomprehensible. The square is caught up to the third heaven, into the unknown and unknowable realm of Up and Down from which he can see all of Flatland laid out below. There he can see inside the houses, see through and into the Flatlanders themselves. This epiphany overwhelms him.

“I understand,” he cries. “Three dimensions! Now let’s keep going — further up and further in! Let’s go beyond your world too, to see the fourth and fifth and sixth dimensions!”

“Four dimensions?” the sphere says. “That’s nonsense. There’s no such thing, only Up, Down, North, South, East and West.”

And he dumps the poor square back in Flatland, convinced the fellow has gone mad.

And but so anyway, I told them, that is what I think happened to Pop. That is what I think will happen to us all. One day you and I will be out of time and we cannot conceive or comprehend what that means any more than the poor Linelanders can understand North and South or the poor Flatlanders can understand Up and Down.

And so there I was, awkwardly trying to convey why I find this reassuring, why I find “We can’t know” so much more pregnant with hope than “We don’t know,” when I suddenly realized that I hadn’t yet named the reason or the source for that hopefulness, and that trying to do so might sound like nothing more than one more hollow, funeral-week platitude.

Flatland is a fine little parable as far as it goes, an invaluable illustration of geometry and physics and of finite creatures’ inability to grasp the infinities that surround them, but it has little to say about love. And while there is much that we do not and cannot know, if you want to know what I think or guess or believe or hope, it is this: The universe is governed by love.

“Love?” the tesseract says. “That’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as love, only …”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

P.S. Thank you, everyone, for your kind words and condolences. After a long week, I’m looking forward to getting back to regular, irregular posting here.

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  • Michael Llaneza

    Excellent answers to the hardest questions any parent ever has to deal with.

  • That was beautiful. The world makes so little sends without love. We’re small thins, but at least there’s hope.

  • random atheist

    Fred, that is beautiful.

  • Brenda

    Amen, Fred. And welcome back.

  • Raj

    Welcome back, Fred!

  • Liz212

    Really lovely. We should all be hopeful skeptics.

  • LL

    There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know.” We can’t know everything. And we shouldn’t want to, anyway. Acknowledging that you don’t know everything demonstrates humility. Among the most insufferable people on earth are those who have an answer for everything.

  • Bruce in South Florida

    Years ago Billy Joel was asked by his young daughter “Where do we go when we die?” After much thought, his answer was, of course, a song:
    Good night my angel time to close you eyes
    And save these questions for another day
    I think I know what you’ve been asking me
    I think you know what I’ve been trying to say
    I promised I would never leave you
    And you should always know
    Where ever you may go
    No matter where you are
    I never will be far away
    Good night my angel now it’s time to sleep
    And still so many things I want to say
    Remember all the songs you sang for me
    When we went sailing on an emerald bay
    And like a boat out on the ocean
    I’m rocking you to sleep
    The water’s dark and deep
    Inside this ancient heart
    You’ll always be a part of me
    Goodnight my angel now it’s time to dream
    And dream how wonderful your life will be
    Someday your child will cry and if you sing this lullaby
    Then in your heart there will always be a part of me
    Someday we’ll all be gone
    But lullabies go on and on
    They never die that’s how you and I will be

  • Jessica

    Awwww geez Fred. You’re going to make me cry at work. =)
    That was really nice.

  • “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
    -Julian of Norwich

  • Froborr

    Flatland has always been one of my favorite books, since I was about 10 or so and my dad gave it to me. Never thought of it as a religious allegory, though now that you mention it, it is pretty much the Allegory of the Cave with one beautiful twist: The man who leaves the cave isn’t accused of being mad when he tries to enlighten his fellow cave-dwellers, he’s accused of madness by the people outside the cave for suggesting there is something even higher.
    Thank you for, once again, conveying so eloquently how it feels to be religious, something with which I (obviously) have no personal experience.

  • lonespark

    “The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.”
    – Fred Small, Everything Possible

  • Caravelle

    That was lovely. I love thinking about dimensions, and like Froborr I hadn’t really thought of religion in those terms before.

  • Condolences to you and your family and yes, that’s one of the better ways of explaining What’s Beyond.
    Is that what Joel was writing about? I thought he was writing about the then impending divorce of him and Christy Brinkley.

  • Tehanu

    Lovely. If writing like that and feeling like that come from your faith, Fred, they’re a much better argument for religion and God than 99.99% of the “religious” stuff in the media. Best to you and your family.

  • Leum

    Welcome back Fred!
    And death shall have no dominion.
    Dead men naked they shall be one
    With the man in the wind and the west moon;
    When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
    They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
    Though they go mad they shall be sane,
    Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
    Though lovers be lost love shall not;
    And death shall have no dominion.
    And death shall have no dominion.
    Under the windings of the sea
    They lying long shall not die windily;
    Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
    Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
    Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
    And the unicorn evils run them through;
    Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
    And death shall have no dominion.
    And death shall have no dominion.
    No more may gulls cry at their ears
    Or waves break loud on the seashores;
    Where blew a flower may a flower no more
    Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
    Though they be mad and dead as nails,
    Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
    Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
    And death shall have no dominion.
    –Dylan Thomas

  • “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only though love.” — Carl Sagan

  • Emcee

    Have missed you so, and been thinking of you and your family. And this post is beautiful. Bless you and yours.

  • Thanks, Fred. My young cousin died this morning after a long, violently painful struggle with cancer. She is/was a mother of two small children. I find it hard to know how to honestly reply to things like this, while holding onto faith, without resorting to comforting platitudes that don’t mean anything to me, personally. Love (which, as a painter, I tend to link inextricably with creativity) is that missing connection.
    I will linkback to your response on my blog.
    Thanks for that insight. I know it’s hard to know what to write, as well as say.

  • Welcome back, Fred.

  • Hobbes

    Welcome back, Fred! I hope all went well with your wife’s father and such. You and your family are still in my prayers! That was a beautiful post. I hope your children got something out of the explanation…
    When I first read Flatland, I definitely imposed the religious meaning on it. (Wikipedia says that it was intended as a religious allegory.) Have you heard of Flatterland?

  • Hobbes

    @Cactus Wren: The Carl Sagan quote is from Contact, right?

  • emjaybee

    My mother died only a few months ago, in April. I am still frozen with it, and don’t have my faith anymore to speak of, as a comfort. I would like to believe but don’t seem to have the ability. Still, it was a kind answer you gave, and if there is something beyond this, I would like it to be that kind of truth. And “I don’t know” is a perfectly good answer no matter what.

  • Leum


  • Selaris

    What a beautiful way to look at it, Frank. I’m glad you’re finding comfort in it. You and yours are still in my prayers.

  • Karen

    That was lovely Fred. Bless you and yours.

  • Comrade Rutherford

    What a way for him to go…
    Good way to put it, too, the Mystery of Life.

  • Sylocat

    I read something like this in Martin Gardner’s The Unexpected Hanging and Other Mathematical Conundrums.
    In one chapter, entitled “The Church of the Fourth Dimension,” the author writes a cute little tale about a mathematician on a visit to London, who stumbles upon a church built in the shape of an unfolded hypercube (you’ll have to read it to understand), and has a conversation with their pastor, who explains that they believe that our physical bodies are merely three-dimensional projections of our four-dimensional selves. The bodies we have these experiences in are merely the cross sections penetrating this plane, like the sphere visiting Flatland.
    Which would mean that this life is just one part of our true journey.

  • I must confess, I first saw the title and thought it was one of the playlist posts.
    All children should be exposed to Flatland. It’s a brilliant book.

  • Technocracygirl

    Thank you, you astounding poet.

  • Jeff

    Thanks, Fred. Love is the answer to sooooo many things, isn’t it?
    [[the author writes a cute little tale about a mathematician on a visit to London, who stumbles upon a church built in the shape of an unfolded hypercube (you’ll have to read it to understand)]]
    Was this written before or after Heinlein’s short story “He Built A Crooked House”?

  • Ruby

    Love keeps her flying.
    Welcome back, Fred.

  • He sounds like a wonderful and beloved man. In the end, we remember the love more than the grief – I hope that day comes for you sooner rather than later.

  • Death and I are not on speaking terms. It is an unsightly and disrespectful relative. I am aware of its presence, but it only makes itself known for family gatherings and similar situations. It reminds me it exists, and has done nothing I approve of. Overall, Death has been one big disappointment.
    Death has, as I understand it, been embarrassing himself for years. I am aware that this caused a rather noted schism in my family within my first year, when he made a fool of himself during a visit to my Grandmother. This was the second time. He had similarly alienated my Grandfather years earlier. I was not yet old enough to grasp the nature of the events, what with being an infant, but I do understand it was generally disapproved of. My own first encounter was, childishly enough, with a pet guinea pig. I was old enough to understand and be upset, but really, I was mostly angry with myself for allowing him the opportunity. This later repeated with other guinea pigs, then a cat.
    Then my father.
    This was the last straw as far as I am concerned. I am not comforted by visions of better places. If such a thing exists, that is wonderful, but if it does not, it does my father no harm. My father was a religious man, an ordained rabbi, though also a man of science and learning. I am sure he believed in some sublimity beyond. But whether that is a pleasant experience for a singular soul, some manner of identity-subsuming unity, or even the terrifyingly sublime vision that is true apathetic oblivion, I couldn’t really say. Even regardless of his belief, faith does not change reality, and I am in no condition to predict his current disposition. My father was a good man. He knew I loved him. As young as I was, I have no regrets. But this does not change the insult. Death came to my home and took, without asking. It was a slap in the face, and we are left with no real way to answer the insult in kind. So I am left with little but my own decree.
    Death is dead to me. I live. I live without regret or sorrow, leaving nothing for the rude interloper to stumble over in a faux pas. I will encourage others to do the same. Shun him with vigor, and perhaps he will come to understand he isn’t wanted here.
    The alternative is we discuss it like rational adults, god forbid. That’s not how this family solves problems.
    Sorry, just thinking aloud, I suppose. as prose. I am moved, and your girls sound at terms with it. We should all be so lucky.

  • Dorothy

    That was beautiful, Fred. He must have been truly special, to have been so well loved.

  • Lila

    Fred, it seems to be characteristic of you that in your pain and uncertainty you manage to help others. God bless you & yours.

  • Ms. Anon E. Mouse, Esq.

    Flatland was always an important book for me, but your post is even more important, because you’ve eloquently hit the crux of it. Beyond space and time, there’s love. I’m sure your father-in-law is immersed in love right now, and I pray that your family will be as well.

  • Ms. Anon E. Mouse, Esq.

    Flatland was always an important book for me, but your post is even more important, because you’ve eloquently hit the crux of it. Beyond space and time, there’s love. I’m sure your father-in-law is immersed in love right now, and I pray that your family will be as well.

  • Spalanzani

    An amazing piece, Fred. I wish the best for you and your family.
    Here’s the words from a Calvin and Hobbes strip about death that I’ve always loved. Though you really have to see the actual comic to get the full effect.

    *detailed close-up of a dead bird lying on the ground*
    Calvin: Look, a dead bird!
    Hobbes: It must’ve hit a window.
    Calvin: Isn’t it beautiful? It’s so delicate. Sighhh… once it’s too late, you appreciate what a miracle life is. You realize that nature is ruthless and our existence is very fragile, temporary, and precious. But to go on with your daily affairs, you can’t really think about that…which is probably why everyone takes the world for granted and why we act so thoughtlessly. It’s very confusing. I suppose it will all make sense when we grow up.
    Hobbes: No doubt.
    *Calvin and Hobbes sit under a tree, watching the birds fly by*

    Another, more light-hearted one:

    Calvin: “I wonder where we go when we die?”
    Hobbes: “…Pittsburgh?”
    Calvin: “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”

  • Raj

    I don’t subscribe to any specific religious doctrine about mortality, but I do think that we are ultimately immortal beings, and that biological life as we are now experiencing it is but an infinitesimal portion of an infinite life experience. Even so, like karpad, I tend to see the way death enters the picture as being quite rude when the deceased is a loved one.

  • Eric the Red

    Excellent post, Fred. Belated condolences and ongoing blessings to you and yours as well.

  • Raj

    I still haven’t quite forgiven Abbott. When I was sixteen, I came up with an idea for a story about a 2-D universe populated by 2-D beings, and their contact with a creature called Human; a creature claiming to be from a 3-D universe.
    I’ve been trying for years to explain to Mom the concept of greater-than-three-dimensional space. The discussion invariably comes around to, “But I thought time was the fourth dimension.” I then patiently tell her that it is possible to construct a 4-D geometry consisting of our familiar three spatial dimensions plus time as a fourth dimension, but there’s no law that says that time is the fourth dimension, and theoretically, there can be a space with several dimensions that have nothing to do with time blah, blah, blah…

  • bluefrog

    Raj, I’m with your mom. I have tried to wrap my mind around greater-than-three-dimensional space in which the fourth dimension is not time, and invariably develop a violent headache.
    Blessings to you and yours, Fred, and welcome back.

  • As I grew older, I realized all the afterlives I’d ever heard of sounded more like wish-fulfillment fantasies, or carrot-and-stick inventions meant to keep the crowds in line. So I pretty much stopped believing any of them.
    The idea of an afterlife that, by its very nature, we living are not equipped to understand is an idea that’s much more plausible to me. In an odd way, it’s almost exciting – like a whole new adventure.
    You and yours have my sincere condolences.

  • Erl

    Fred, that was beautiful. Thank you :)

  • Thanks Fred. Someone close to me just came home for hospice care…for something he did to himself. As I tried to type this, I just got the call informing me he had passed. It…really sucks.
    It’s stupid, but this post helps somewhat.
    Love. Peace. Metallica.

  • Leum

    My experience with death has been, if not exactly positive, not as negative as it could have been. My experience has mainly been with people, and animals, dieing after long-suffering illnesses, and so I can view death as an end to pain. One that leaves me sad and lost, yes, but also grateful for having known the person (or animal), and glad that their illness is ended. I suspect this will change sharply once someone I know well dies suddenly and unexpectedly.

  • Abelardus

    A very lovely thought, Fred; glad to have you back.

  • Fred… that was wonderful, and thank you for it.
    I am overwhelmed, not with sympathy, nor regrets, nor even attenuated sadness at your loss, but with affection; for you and yours, that you can share this with us.
    My deepest condolence, and there is nothing more I can think to say, offer up, or share.
    Thank you, and my the peace of all the world be yours.

  • Mau de Katt

    Thank you, Fred. And my deepest condolences and empathy to you and your family.
    I was just going through my own blog last night, doing some tagging and other maintenance, and ran across my entries about my mom’s battle with cardiac amyloidosis; I’d posted from her diagnosis to her eventual death a couple years later, four Aprils ago.
    I don’t have the sureness about Matters Other that I used to have back in my own fundagelical days, but I’ve never been able to accept atheism as the result. This post of yours explains better than I ever have been able to why I couldn’t.
    Again, thank you.