I realize that I have to be careful how I say this, but I never liked children very much. Children in general, I mean.
But don’t misunderstand me. I like, and love, specific children, particular children, and some of them very much; just like I like, and love, specific, particular, adults. But in general, no. I’m afraid not.
I’m talking about the dark side: their cruelty, their deception, their cowardice, their lies, their oozing orifices, their grime. In this aspect children are, in general (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes), solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. If there were any proof of original sin and our fallen nature, it would be children. If you don’t believe me, watch them when they don’t know that they are being watched. It doesn’t take too long before their interaction begins to resemble something out of Lord of the Flies. Or, if you are up for a real test, just try honestly remembering these aspects of your own childhood. If you can stand it, that is.
One of the nastier periods of childhood is when children become fixated on, frightened of, and fascinated with pain and death. It’s one of those “normal” phases. They can’t wrap their mind around it, and yet they feel they must. I remember when Erika became deeply afraid of her birthday. We couldn’t figure out why, until it came to light that everyone kept telling her that she was getting older and, well, you know what happens when you get older. Just what happened to Great-Grandma, that’s what. There isn’t much distance in a six year-old’s mind between “You’re getting older” and “She just got old” no matter how many years really separate the two.
To try to take charge over what they fear, many children spend part of their innocent little lives torturing helpless wee things like ants, crabs, salimandars, flies, or frogs. (This is something boys tend to do more than girls, who seem, on balance, to prefer to torture each other or their younger siblings.) They smash them. Stone them. Burn them. Blow them up with firecrackers. Crash them them into things. Drown them. Shoot them with arrows, darts, stingshots, and BB guns. Chop them in half. Stomp them into the ground. Throw them from heights. I probably don’t need to elaborate. You remember. And, as I watch my grandkids chainsaw their way through hordes of zombies on the X-Box, or battle cute but deadly monsters on the WII, I sometimes wonder how many tiny lives are spared a horrifying death by video games.
I, for example, innocently killed probably hundreds of rock crabs. We would peel back the rocks from two spots on the beach to expose the crabs, and then throw rocks at them in a mock battle as they scurried around until all that was left was a mass of yellow guts, broken wine-red shells, and a few legs flailing in the gravel. We never thought twice about it, or at least I never did. I was completely removed from their situation. It didn’t involve me.
Fortunately, this phase generally passes. I don’t mean the “liking to blow things up” phase — that really never passes, at least for males — I mean the “liking to torture and kill things” phase. If it doesn’t, or if children move on to larger creatures, we (and psychologists) get very worried. Children are supposed to develop into being able to cope with their vulnerability without projecting it onto and destroying it in other things. We hope that they become emotionally engaged and empathetic adults rather than abusive or psychotic sadists.
The other big death mocudrama in my day was “playing war.” We were surrounded by war: WWII and Korea stories from our uncles, Vietnam stories from slightly younger members and Dan Rather on the TV, and by black and while movies in which everyone, including Elvis and Frank Senatra, was in the army. This was, of course, back in the days of sanitized TV and movie killing, where someone who was shot clutched their chest, stumbled a bit, rolled their eyes, and fell gracefully to the ground. We grabbed sticks like rifles and shot each other, storming each other’s forts on the beach and killing each other over and over again. We argued over who shot whom first, and who was dead and who was alive. But it really didn’t matter much to us whether the person you were aiming at agreed; what mattered was that you were in control. You decided whom you had shot. You decided if you were dead, how you died, and, most important, when you got up again.
The same kind of banter goes on between my grandkids as they fight on distant worlds. They insult each other, take advantage of the rules, invade each other’s turf, and betray one another even when on the same team, all as they keep up a seamless banter that swings between howls of indignation and blatant Shadenfreude. They mow each other down and wait to “spawn” again.
And for many of us, death remains a looming but largely intangible reality, like Voldemort in Harry Potter or Sauron in Lord of the Rings, for a long time. Things will work out somehow — just like they do on Star Trek, Star Wars, and Twighlight — if only we have the right spell, weapon, technology, belief, lifestyle, or diet. Of course, death isn’t like that. There is no control. No one gets up. There is no Philosopher’s Stone. If we’re fortunate, we learn this when we’re adults. But for some children, like Susan or my grandmother, the reality of death crashes in and brings the pretense and the play to an abrupt, and tragic, end. My own personal theory, from a very limited sample, is that ten is about the worst time for this to happen.
Yes, I know, many people believe that we do get up again. But I’m not talking about an afterlife, which comes, after all, “after” life. I’m talking about the brutal reality, inevitability, and finality of death in this life — the life we’ve got — that no amount of fantasy or faith can charm away. I’m talking about the often capricious, tragic, ill-timed, and absurd ways that it comes about. I know that some people believe that everything — even the gratuitously cruel and horrific — is all a part of a great big plan. I hope not. If it is, we are living universe created by a child.
I hope that, if actually out there, g_d is better than a child, even if not as all-powerful, all-benificent, all-knowing, and all-present as many would like and I once believed. And I hope that we will really again be with those we love. For, as much as dreams, rituals, and strange occurrences seem to bring them back to us in memory — if not in spirit — at times, it is their absence that is most present in everything we do from the dreadful day of their death forward.