Passing for Normal A sad little symphony for children
Ideas, New in Ceasefire, Passing for Normal, Short Stories - Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2011 15:56 - 3 Comments
By Dave Prescott
Maybe what parents say to small children to try and make them feel better is one of the primary shaping forces behind human society. I mean, you just say anything to stop the tears. You have to be pretty bloody sure of yourself to stick to your guns in the face of your own sobbing child, with their thin shoulders and decorative pyjamas.
You may have very closely thought-out theories of death and mortality, calmly composed by the sea or up a hill, but try conveying your particular Weltanschauung while a person for whom you would gladly lay down your life is undergoing profound physical or existential pain right in front of you.
I suppose it is possible, in theory, to present a coherent thesis in this situation but I certainly don’t have the required gumption. And there’s at least one other person I can think of similarly lacking in access to clear articulation at times of stress, though that person is admittedly fictional.
Joyce’s Ulysses is overshadowed by the guilt that Stephen Dedalus feels on praying to a God he didn’t believe in just because his dying mother begged him to do so. Is he a weak man? Or is he just like everyone else? Who wouldn’t get down on their knees in that situation? Doesn’t love trump principles?
Desperate to console my sobbing daughter last night, who was suddenly aware of her own mortality, I attempted to convey my views on the topic but the conversation quickly descended into farce.
To start off with I said that when people died they went into the ground, and their bodies turned to soil, and maybe eventually the soil nourished trees and plants. None of this helped, it only scared her even more. She was now horrified about the thought of being trapped inside a tree after she died.
You could almost see the psychic wounds being inflicted on her precious mind, you could imagine the whole series of disastrous consequences the years of therapy and forest-avoidance traced back to this inadvertent scarring. She may now associate trees with death, see dead people in all of them, interpret the moaning of the wind as the moaning of people trapped inside the branches and leaves.
For a while I thought: what’s going on here? Does she have some sense that her spirit lives on while her body is decaying? Or does she think that she will physically end up inside a tree trunk? Is this the time to try and explain that the physical body decomposes but some people believe that the spirit lives on? I didn’t want to go down that road because I couldn’t explain it, and finally because (quite unbelievably, but truly) I didn’t want to perpetuate the sense of Cartesian dualism, the mind/body split which has led to so many problems in contemporary culture. Not for my daughter a mechanistic reality! Not for her the solipsism of scientific rationalism! No, she was going to have a much more holistic relationship with the world around her.
That is, providing I could just try and speak to her in terms that 1) I could defend to a man on the Clapham omnibus and 2) that she would have a chance of understanding. All this went through my head in a few panicked seconds because her sobbing was getting worse, the wounds were becoming deeper with every passing second.
Before I conclude the downward spiral of that shameful exchange let me digress slightly.
Imagine a tremendous friend of yours is on trial, it could be a friend or a beloved family member, and your high-falutin’ character statement about them (written in the calm of night) is presented back to you, horribly distorted by the mouth of a lawyer, in a terrifying courtroom entirely reminiscent of Kafka.
It’s not that you don’t believe in the words you wrote on that quiet evening while gazing out of the window onto the smoky street outside. It’s just that you lack the psychic wherewithal to defend the words in this particular situation. So you get embarrassed and you smile a bit, and eventually come out with the verbal equivalent of ‘…’ and hope that the judge can somehow interpret the worlds of meaning in your awkward shrug of a commentary.
This doesn’t really work so you take drastic action. ‘Hold that question,’ you shout. ‘I’ll be right back.’ Time freezes and off you scoot to assemble a crack team of graphic designers, communication specialists, composers and filmmakers, and together you create a stunning multimedia experience for the courtroom which, somehow, in an almost telepathic way, recreates in the heart of the judge the precise palette of emotion and thought currently surging around your troubled consciousness.
Finally, he takes off his wig (unprecedented in modern law), shakes his head, sighs and says, ‘Yes yes, I understand.’
Back in the hot bedroom, my other daughter beginning to stir in all the commotion, I groped in desperation for the nearest cliché to hand, the battered old cultural safety net of Christian mythology that I thought I’d rejected years ago. I asked if she’d heard of Heaven. She said she had, but she didn’t want to go there either. She just wanted to stay in our house.
And this was good, in a sense, because perhaps it meant that she wasn’t into the whole notion of Heaven. Perhaps she would be an independent thinker after all. Perhaps there was still a chance that I would not raise a daughter steeped in the mainstream nonsense of our time. But it still left me with the thorny problem of describing to a four-year-old girl what happened when people died.
I was about to re-embark on the tree theme in a more circumspect way and describe the importance of cycles in nature and in life, comparing the human life to the water cycle which she recently learned about in pre-school. Luckily, she was saved from this quarter-arsed drivel when my wife came to the rescue and offered our daughter a ‘giant crisp’ (a poppadom from our takeaway) and this calmed her down immediately.
Of course, this was only a short-term reprieve, and it’s only a matter of time before she starts sobbing at night again, unsatisfied with the answers from her father, and meanwhile I have to try and work out how much my beliefs are worth in the face of my children’s happiness. And how much they are worth compared to the mainstream nonsense I’m dismissing if I can’t even explain my beliefs properly.
And if I fail so completely on such a fundamental question – introducing your child in a healthy way to the notion of death – then it really doesn’t bode well for my future career as a father. Maybe next time I will just hold her when she’s sobbing and say, “I don’t know, darling, I don’t know, I don’t know”, hoping that she doesn’t raise the subject of soil again.
Don’t get me wrong, I think I do OK as a father, relatively speaking. It’s not that I am deliberately seeking to self-flagellate. The reason I go into this anecdote in such detail is because the same thing must be happening constantly, all around the world, every day, as children are inadvertently terrified, lied to and confused by their parents.
And this is just the children in happy families. So here’s my claim, extrapolated wildly on the basis of one small anecdote: many of the world’s problems can probably be traced to a tired parent, in a bedroom, trying to console sobbing children with inadequate words.
Dave Prescott is a writer and consultant. He lives in the countryside.