Thursday, November 1, 2012

In the end, we're all just children afraid of the dark

The other day I was watching MI-05 while ironing my work shirts. Since discovering it on Netflix a while back, I've been hooked. I suppose the thrill of watching sharp, adrenaline-junkie spies acting out legends in various high-stakes encounters holds a certain appeal for a father and civil servant. Wait, spies are civil servants, aren't the? For Queen and country! It's also a great distraction. And the British are brutal for killing off your favourite characters in ruthless fashion. I love it.

Chloe came down, looked at what I was watching, and became immediately fascinated. Wow, maybe I'd found an action show buddy!  Normally Julie just falls asleep.

But considering that MI-05 must be rated for well above her age, I grudgingly decided it was probably time to turn it off and head upstairs. My shirts were done anyhow. I reached to turn off the TV, she said, "no Daddy, don't turn it off. I want to watch it."

     Me: Chloe, this is an adult show. 

     Chloe: But it's my new favourite show

     Me: Favourite show. You've never even seen it! It's too old for you. Now come on. Let's go upstairs.

     Chloe: Some day, when you die and I'm an adult, I'll get your house. Then I'll be able watch my favourite

I stood there stunned for a moment before laughing out loud. "O.k. Chloe,"  I said. "But I hope that when you're an adult I'll still be alive."

Putting aside Chloe's unsettling cost-benefit analysis, I can't help but wonder sometimes if she's a little too concerned about death. She's a very sensitive little girl, but could she be suffering already from existential angst?  Probably not. But she is quite concerned with the cold reality that we won't always be around to protect her (or lord it over her).

Or maybe she's actually quite overwhelmed from time to time with a sense of angst, even if she's not old enough to put a philosophy to it. Are any of us ever truly free of angst?

When a 4 year old girl needs a flashlight to go to bed, what does that say? Why is she so afraid of the dark? Why were any of us?

When the lights are out, our parents are in the other room, and we can't go to sleep without a night-lite; when we move away from home for the first time and crave the noise we used to put up with at home - no matter how much it drove us crazy; when our wives and children spend a weekend away, and instead of celebrating our new-found freedom, we feel lonely, isolated; these are the times we face the truth. And it terrifies us.

And the truth is... we're alone. We live alone and we die alone. Everything else is, if not simply a distraction, then only a partial understanding. No one ever truly knows us. How could they? We don't know ourselves. And we don't really want to spend the time getting acquainted.

In Wuthering Heights, the story of Heathclif and Catherine is  forever popular because the two lovers understand each other in a way that real people don't. As anyone who's read the book knows, they aren't even likeable characters. But that doesn't matter because they've done something we cannot. They've transcended life on earth and they've transcended their physical limitations. More importantly, they've transcended individuality and thus the prison of loneliness - the state of being alone in this world. They are one - metaphysically joined at the hip.

But if we're so afraid of being alone, it begs the question, what's so wrong with being alone with ourselves?  What makes it so terrifying? Well, death for one thing, I'm sure. But also the search for meaning. But while we can't do anything about death, we can do something about meaning - and here's where those morbid existentialists actually come to our rescue.

Meaning in our lives is what we make it. But we can't find meaning when we're constantly distracting ourselves with the barrage of stimuli out there created to lure us in by distracting us from what matters; namely facing our fears and facing ourselves. Karl Marx used to call religion opium for the masses. Boy if he could only see today's opium - televisions, iphones, video games. We have more ways than ever to avoid facing our biggest fears - and avoid finding our deepest meaning. They go hand in hand, unfortunately - fear, meaning. We're afraid of dying, yes. But we're even more afraid of living an unfulfilled life and then dying. So we distract ourselves and put the whole thing off. We run until we can't run no more. But running headlong through life right into death because we're scared to stop and take stock.... well, that's no way to live.

My mother once told me something her mother told her. "Most people can't spend time with themselves. You watch. They have to find ways to constantly distract themselves. But it's important to be comfortable being in your own company."

My grandfather told me something else - he was probably 90 at the time... and it's one of the most profound things I've ever heard. When asked if childhood seemed that long ago, did he feel it was far away, he answered, "No. It never does." All those years fall past and you don't know what happened to them. Inside you feel you're still the young man you were way back when. It seems as though it's the world that's changed over the years, not you.

I don't doubt him. I can't believe I'm thirty-five and I don't think I'll believe I'm 45 either.

It's never your time, he might as well have said, and yet your time will come anyway. My grandfather's now 95, and he's told me on several occasions that he has no interest in dying. He likes living too much. Besides, I think to myself, if he still feels like he's 20, why would he want to die? But he's not afraid of death - or so he says. He's lived a life of thoughtfulness, reflection. I think he's generally o.k. in his skin and content with the choices he's made. And just as running from yourself your whole life is absurd, so too is not accepting death when the time comes. I wish I had his wisdom. I've got a long way to go.

In Mansfield Park, Jane Austin shows us the importance of giving our children the time and the space for self-reflection. In fact, it may be, for Austin, the most important critical skill you can teach a child. I think Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Emile, agreed. Doting on children isn't always in their best interest. Neither is giving them everything they think their hearts desire. Pay them a little less attention, and provide them with a few less distractions, and they'll have to look inward more often. But don't worry. Looking inward might be one of the few places that's less scary for children than it is for the rest of us.