I felt hurt when my childhood friends laughed at me for devoutly believing in Santa Claus, and foolish, when they later scorned me for doubting the existence of my childhood fairytale-God….
All my omnipotent, omniscient household deities such as Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy–all solemnly attested to by the otherwise scrupulously honest adults in my life–later turned out to be a childish embarrassment, mere games and illusions swallowed only by simpletons. On the other hand, unraveling the mysteries of religion increasingly was deemed a difficult and profound thing, to be accepted now on faith, and puzzled out rationally only by hoarier heads than mine, or perhaps in far off adulthood….
The teachers in my elementary schools poked fun and laughed merrily at all the many varieties of “primitive” religious beliefs (i.e., any religion outside of mainstream American Judeo-Christianity) such as the early Greek and Roman myths, American Indian spirituality (in those days, I thought “native” meant “naked,”) ancestor “worship,” many-armed “goddesses,” etc. My classmates and I learned to confidently pooh-pooh photos displaying what we were told were radically important differences in 'foreign” (i.e., “weird”) religious practices and dress and customs, and of course we concluded that western civilization and enlightened religious rationales and practices, such as credentialed religious leaders saying magic words that turned lifeless-looking wafers and water into the actual body and blood of an historical crucified spiritual leader, and then drinking and eating it, were somehow less weird, somehow intellectually superior. Ick.
I remember asking my Sunday School teacher about the confusing song, “Yes, Jesus loves me: the Bible tells me so.”
“So how does the Bible know?”
“It just does. God wrote the Bible. Everything in it is true.”
“Oh.” That was the end of my questioning on that subject for about twenty years….
One of my (quite religious) sisters, who was a Mormon convert, admitted at age fifty that she had never even considered questioning that particular teaching (the inerrancy and source/s of the Bible), although she had pored over The Good Book daily for enlightenment and wisdom all her life.
Little kids are so innocent, and their minds so susceptible to cultural influences; they swallow whole all that their cultures teach them, including its radically peculiar particularities.
I'm reading lately where horror movies are coming back now, bigger and scarier than ever, sort of…terror-porn…in all its sadistic gore, reflecting, some enthusiastic critics say, what is really happening in “the real world.” Oh, really? Of all that is happening in the world, this is what we're noticing? This is what we want our children to focus on? This is “the way of the world” that we want to teach our children all about? As if violence and fear and terror were inevitable, and not primarily a matter of what and how we are taught, and later, how we choose to see and traverse this life?
If all the world could be raised by enlightened Quakers or Buddhists or Jesuits, in just two generations, all mankind would live in peace.
(To be sure, all animals experience conflict. Some even feed upon each other. Yet warfare is a uniquely human, cultural invention. The biological connection to war is our very human language-making ability, which makes possible cultural learning and the invention and coordination of ideas, groups, and technnologies. Biology doesn't condemn humanity to war. Just as wars begin in the minds of men, peace also begins in our minds. We who were capable of inventing war are capable of inventing peace. The responsiblity and capability lie in each of us.)
In my girlhood, I worked hard to puzzle out,with my parents, exactly which movie and storybook monsters and dangers might be real; i.e., which were the ones I'd have to look out for and steer clear of? And which were the “made-up” ones I didn't have to worry about?
Grizzlies? Yes. Very real. Very scary.
Ghosts? Well…. Hmmm. Let me think about that one.
Angels? Hmmmm, again.
Bad angels? Hmmm.
Dragons? Oh, no! Silly girl! Imagine, dragons! No of course they're not real. Whatever gave you that idea?
Dinosaurs? No! Or, well, yes. Or, well, maybe. Sort of, but not, like, you know, any more. (Thanks a lot for clearing that one up!)
The Snow White witch and the Wizard of Oz witch? No. Except of course, the movie star. She's real. (Hmmm.)
Robbers? Well, uh, maybe. They're real, but we don't have to worry about them. (And why was/is that?)
War? Well, maybe there are wars in some other countries, but we never have to fight them in the
Death? Yes, death is real. Uh, well, and … well, no. Death is…uh…only sort of real. Don't forget about heaven. Hmmm.
Earthquakes? Oh yes, very real. Where do they happen? Only in
My military family soon got our orders to spend a year in
The only earthquakes I knew about were the ones I'd seen in a movie, in which huge, mile-wide-deep chasms opened up and swallowed down whole screaming villages of people, houses, and cattle, all of which went sliding and scrabbling down into the closing gulf to disappear forever….
And that was where we were going to live?
My parents dismissed my alarmed, “but…but…but…” with a condescending wave of their hands. “Foolish child. Be a brave little patriot and stop complaining. After all, there are only six or eight real earthquakes in Japan a year. Military brats have to bravely go where they're sent! Now run along …. We're going to get in nine holes of golf before dark….”
Fortunately, the many many earthquakes I soon experienced served mostly just to rattle the tableware.
Although once I crawled across a parade ground nearly all the way to my elementary school, thinking my legs had stopped working. And another time my mother whisked me out of a wildly splashing bathtub and wrapped me in a towel to join the families (and staring friends!) standing outside.
What's really funny is that by the time I had crawled most of the way to school, my legs had “started working again,” so I had already forgotten my troubles (ah, youth!)–when all the teachers rushed up to me, worried about me, and I said, “What earthquake? I didn't feel any earthquake.” I was actually feeling a little aggrieved that I'd missed all the excitement, until I figured out..that…I hadn't.
And sitting in the bathtub during the other big earthquake, silent and still as a stone while the water roiled and sloshed over the sides, all I could think of was how much trouble I'd be in, for making all that water illegally splash so hard and so much with my boisterous bathtub play that it couldn't stop splashing.
Kids have a hard enough time figuring out what's real from what isn't without their parents making their jobs that much more difficult. That is why we parents must often reassure our kids that, “There are no stupid questions” and give them time to follow up on their confusions. I didn't do this very well with my kids–I thought they did have a lot of stupid questions, and felt embarrassed for myself, that I hadn't already taught my very bright children much better long ago…. I'm sure I was worse even than my parents in this…. Consequently, both my children and I often thought many of our questions were too stupid to ask. Now why was that?
Wouldn't it be nice if children everywhere could get their examples and habits and attitudes and transcendent truths and values and realities from loving adults who held to their highest ideals and principles and didn't meanwhile pollute little minds with opportunistic fables and vague shadowy threatening omniscient eminences and all the terrifying blockbuster media horrors it does no good to think about (which is not to say we cannot add all our loving energy and creativity to the world, and thus help solve many its many problems….)
If I ever have grandchildren, I pray I will teach them all about the highest and best things in life, about goodness and kindness and love. I'm going to equate all that goodness with God/reverence. I'll try to show them how the human need for God and ideals and a spiritual life and a path to God can be found in all the highest forms of all the great religions. I'm not going to be complicit in teaching them distortions and fairy tales about imaginary cultural deities and hobgoblins. The magic and wonder of science and the humanities, indeed, all the wonders of life on earth, will offer them plenty of food for their imaginations, more than enough challenges for their creativity and intellects. Nor will I diss any alternative philosophical or religious expressions, but instead, hope to seek to understand and embrace their highest human and spiritual commonalities.
I will be sorely challenged, though, in this free-for-all world, to protect children from a steady diet of fear–whether political, cultural, media, storybook, or any other kind. But protect them we must–or lose them to a fear-based, instead of a love-based, sense of reality.
Perhaps what we can do best is to help them grow up positively and powerfully, so they can act on every good impulse and shine their lovely lights onto all the dark places in the world.
Perhaps someday, we can together lift ourselves and our loved ones (and that is, everyone) over life's heartaches and losses and disappointments–life's rough and lonely places–and never let anyone fall into feeling lost and separated for very long.
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