Thursday, July 29, 2004


Death, lies, and forum threads

Rosencrantz: „Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occured to you that you don't go on forever. It must have been shattering, stamped into one's memory. And yet, I can't remember it.”

--Tom Stoppard, ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’

Well, I’ve been trying to suss out what I’m going to do with this space, and given time limitations, I think I’m going to work with it as a straight ahead online journal, basically posting writing I’d be doing anyway on the web, for anyone who’s interested to come and see. Not very flash, I know, but perhaps it will work in that direction.

So yesterday, after posting my introduction, I was knocking about the Deviantart space to see what was on, and came across this discussion. I didn’t contribute, and in fact grew bored with the discussion less than half-way through because I didn’t think it was hitting on any of the really important issues involved—in fact, I got the sense that those contributing were, by and large, not parents. I am a parent, and having been both not a parent and a parent, I suppose my first temptation, for about one millisecond, was to hop on and warn all the youngsters that perhaps they should be cautious about what vows they take in regards to what they’re planning on telling their hypothetical children should they ever be in a position to do so. Reason, however, prevailed, and I left well enough alone. Part of being a parent is to allow children to make mistakes, the better to learn, and that basic principle seemed a good one to apply in this situation.

Now, if I’ve misjudged the nature of the discussion (and I have already confessed to only reading about half of it), and there were in fact contributors to it that do have children, I will be the first to apologize. In fact, consider that last sentence my apology. My biggest concern with the whole discussion lay much deeper than just poking fun at people who don’t have a whole lot of practical experience relating to children on a day-to-day basis, and had much more to do with the concept of ‘the truth,’ something that many contributors to that thread appear to believe they have a real grasp on. I think it more elusive than the first third of the discussion seemed to suggest, and I marvel at anyone who suggests that they have possession of the truth (in fact, I’m a little frightened by such people—they tend to back up their ‘truth’ with fists, when push comes to shove). Moreover, I must confess to a bit of difficulty with the idea of doing away with fairy tales altogether, something that some of the contributors seemed to think, at the onset, anyway, a good idea. I suppose that’s just the poet in me…I think truth can be arrived at through illusion. It’s one of my jobs to do just that.

These are basic, foundational concerns when reading threads like this, but even more important to me is the question of when ‘simplification’ becomes ‘lies’. Even conceding such a thing as ‘objective truth’—that truth that lies outside of our own minds—I don’t really think we access that truth as readily as many on this thread have suggested. Part of the reason for this is because truth is a pretty grand thing—there’s lots of things to know out there, we’re finite creatures, we have a limited amount of time given us as living human beings, and simply put, we don’t have enough time to fully learn everything there is to learn about the world we live in, much less the universe that surrounds that world. And it gets heavy very, very quickly. So we tend to make some basic assumptions and work from there. This is a survival technique—it allows us to make the most of that time we do have, and still ‘move forward’ in a way that allows us to claim ‘progress’ in learning. Now, when teaching a five year old about the English language, to take but one example that I am somewhat familiar with, one does not sit down and start to explain the logic of the conditional mood, or subject/predicate relationships and the manner in which the human mind comes to make connections between the two. What one does do is to play games, to speak simple sentences, and to speak those sentences often, and to make constant reference to those objects and actions that are relevant to the life of a five year old. Is such an approach the ‘truth’?

I’m going to posit that it is not, because it is not complete. There is so much to learn about the language, and so much of it is far too abstract for the average 5-year-old to grasp, that one works instead on those aspects of language that are most likely to both relate the basic concepts and entertain the child. I don’t think concepts like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy are all that different in this respect, and I certainly do not think fairy tales are very different—in fact, fairy tales are a means by which certain life lessons are conveyed to both relate to children and to entertain them. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no fan of Santa Claus, and he doesn’t make a yearly visit to our house—we celebrate Solstice instead of Christmas, and the bringer of gifts is the Solstice Fairy, though her bringing of gifts is not at all related to how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ my daughter is (that would be useless anyway—my daughter is my daughter, her actions are appropriate or inappropriate, but she is not, personally, appropriate or inappropriate, much less good or bad). And I have surprisingly strong issues with the whole Santa Claus mythology—but it isn’t because it’s a mythology, it’s because of the specific content of that mythology. I think it potentially damaging to a child.

So why isn’t the Solstice Fairy equally damaging? Well, I think she brings a more positive message to my daughter, first off, but that’s my own ideology at work. In regards to the questions raised by the above discussion, I simply think that there is a sense of wonder, in childhood, that deserves to be preserved for however long the child feels it should be preserved. Not sheltering, by any means, just not thrusting the young pup too deeply into the ugly truth before they’ve managed to learn some basic strokes in order to swim. Pacing the release of knowledge is probably a good thing, with children, and if, sometimes, the child shows a preference for a less ‘objective’ view of how things work, using that preference to nurture a child’s imagination is, at the very worst, a harmless manoeuvre. Does it result in disillusion? Well, that probably has to do more with how well they are prepared for finding out that there are certain stories they shouldn’t put too much faith in—and if they learn that lesson for the first time at the hands of their parents, then perhaps that has a certain value, too. A gentle lie, told to you by people who can generally be relied upon to see to your best interests, is probably a better first disillusion to undergo than would be a harsh lie at the hands of a clearly adversarial other. So maybe Santa and the Solstice Fairy are our first exercises at critical thinking, at looking closely at that information we are given, and assessing its value in determining the ‘truth.’

Just thoughts, but where all of this gets somewhat interesting is in what happened immediately after I read the thread in question. My daughter has two mice, their names are Victoria and Mathilda, and part of their upkeep consists of cleaning their cage once a week. Yesterday happened to be the day upon which we were to do this, and so, after culling and dismissing a rather lengthy thread regarding parental lies, I dutifully disconnected from the web and gathered what supplies I needed to see to the job. Upon clearing out the newspaper scraps that line their cage, I discovered that Victoria, the smaller of the two, had died. My daughter, who helps me with this task, happened to be in the kitchen at the time, retrieving the broom and dustpan, and when she came back into the living room, I tried to break the news to her—only she was hopping around and had to go to the toilet immediately. So I scooted her off and gave myself a couple of minutes to prepare for the big moment. When she came back, I told her, rather bluntly, what had happened, but she had a rather odd reaction. Still smiling, she busied herself with the task of opening the mice’s water bottle. When I repeated the sentence twice (‘Victoria has died’), it still didn’t seem to have registered, but my facial expression gradually sank in, and hers began to adjust to mine. With a puzzled look (she still had not seen the dead mouse) she asked, ‘Why is that so important?’ I then repeated the statement, at which point the content reached my daughter, and her face literally fell, each feature visibly lowering, and she reached out to me, climbed into my lap, and had a good hard cry. I did nothing for a time, but then began to ask her how she felt, where she hurt (she could not identify this, and I made the passing observation that it was kind of funny that we could hurt and not know where we hurt), the whole finally resolving itself in a planned funeral (we have had one other mouse die already, though the last one occurred while my daughter and I were out of town, and my wife broke the news to me over the phone, at which point I had to break the same news to her, only from a very distant place), and my daughter’s asking me if, perhaps, next time, we could get a pet that would live longer.

Well, there are many nuances to this situation, and I won’t dwell upon them too much right at the moment (the allotted writing time is rapidly running out for today’s entry)—but the main one is this: one of the functions served, sometimes quite consciously, in a parent’s decision to allow a child to have a pet, is to not only nurture their quite natural wonder at the existence of life, but to provide them with the opportunity to confront mortality on a less threatening basis than would be if they were called upon to deal with that issue in regards to human beings. There is a controlled situation, in which the question of grief may be explored from a somewhat rational point of view, and one’s own feelings can be assessed and dealt with in an effective way. If one is lucky enough to have the pet die before some creature who is more important to the child’s sense of self—a parent, for example—then, when that more central living being does die, the child has been given the resources necessary to deal with the larger hurt on a more effective basis than they might if they had to deal with that situation first. As this relates to the question in the thread, not telling lies is one thing, but not thrusting a young human being face first into the very worst truths the world has to offer right at the onset is another. Lies are measured by their potential for harm and good, and the ‘truth’ is not an entirely unmitigated ‘good’, even among adults.

Time, is, unfortunately up for today’s writing (a strict 1 hour limit)-but, come to think of it, that’s not a bad metaphor…because, I’d hoped to center all these thoughts around mortality and finiteness, and it turns out it’s a preliminary draft of something that justifies lying. Ha! But you know, when your time runs out before you manage to make the point you meant to make, you run the risk of being defined in a way other than the one you’d wished.

So also for this journal entry. And so be it.

--bis bald,



I definitely think there's a place - dare I say, even a need - for fantasy in child development. Creativity, imagination, and a capacity for abstract thought may just *depend* on play, and the sense of fantasy that most play is based on. And without a sufficient familiarity with fantasy, how then is one to learn to differentiate fact from fancy?

And I definitely agree with your thesis that gentle disillusionment at the hands of one's caregivers is a lesson well learned, and a step toward developing critical thinking skills. Americans have become overly concerned in the last 20 years or so with the idea that all childhood "trauma" is inherently a bad thing, forgetting that pain - including that pain we can't identify - is the basis for much of our most important early learning, and later, is responsible for much of the world's most treasured art. This isn’t to say anyone but a monster would wish pain on their children, but simply that we do our children no favors by attempting to permanently anesthetize them.

The greatest gift of childhood is a sense of wonder. What a crime it would be to waste.

"If reality is largely fluid and half-paradoxical, steel
nets are not the best instruments for taking samples of it."
-- Philip Wheelwright

"...things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot."

-- Neil Gaiman, "Dream Country"
Thanks for the comments and quotes, guys. Yeah, the whole confluence of events rather struck me, and although I don't think I've fully managed to delineate my thoughts on this did give me a chance to get a sketch draft of them.

Tone--yeah, I was kinda allowing the proposition of a reality made up entirely of hard and sure facts to be a given, for the sake of argument. Otherwise I'd just end up in the same place I usually end up, and wanted to explore --why-- it is we foster these little illusions in children. Currently, we're fielding lots of questions on this front, because one of Che's friends has offered some skepticism on the matter of the case for the existence of fairies.

I'm gonna sit back, make some observations about belief vs. knowledge, and let the brunt of the work fall to my HARD CORE EMPIRICIST WIFE who saw fit to nurture this by WRITING LETTERS BACK TO MY DAUGHTER when my daughter started writing letters to the fairies.

Go figure. I'm the poet...and I'm the more literal of the two parents. Who'da thunk?
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