Sunday, July 30, 2017

Childhood is the time when we learn death

So thanks to this great article by Philip Yancey I asked my husband to alter the blocking program on my computer and cut my internet completely off in the evenings (because even using it till 9:10 was causing me to waste the rest of the evening) so I can read instead. What I picked up to read was this book, by a German psychologist named Alice Miller, which argues (among other things) that Hitler's actions stemmed from his horribly abusive childhood. Lots of thoughts. That's what's supposed to happen when you read, right? As advertised.

I remember reading an off-hand comment about this sort of thesis (the Hitler thing I mean), in an article in Books and Culture about 60's radicals in America. The author tossed off the fact that (I paraphrase) “There were people who truly believed that the cruelty of Nazi concentration camp guards stemmed from how they were potty-trained.”

That comment always gave me pause. It was given as if it was abundantly clear that such a belief was laughable—no counterargument needed. And I'm not saying the belief was true, or true in its entirety, but please, someone tell me—how were they potty-trained? Were these 60's snowflakes proclaiming that a mother's insistence on bowel control is inherently traumatizing—or were these children perhaps beaten or systematically deprived of food? If the methods used on them could be accurately called cruelty—is the notion still laughable then? Just because it contains the word “potty?”

Alice Miller argues that we are blind to the suffering of children, that we don't take it seriously, that we can't because we don't want to seriously recall, and thus relive, our own childhood suffering. Now when she says “we” she means Germans of her generation; I think the blindness has lessened since then. But I run across signs of it all the time—that comment not the least.

Childhood is an extraordinary time. Do you remember? The world so fresh and huge, painted in colors more brillliant than we can even imagine in our sane lives now. Joy massive as a mountain, and also terrible, suffocating despair. We were learning what the world was, this place full of glory and death—no wonder we were a little bipolar. We were learning what the world was, and one of the things we understood very early was that we had no power in it. The joy and despair all depended on someone else's decisions. I thank God that that someone else, in my case, was two good people.

“Children are resilient,” people say. They are. They know they have to be. Their aim is to survive. It doesn't mean that they don't feel it.

One morning when he was two, the Boy went out with his father and found a chipmunk our cat had killed—a chipmunk we had enjoyed watching run around the porch all spring. “Da was sad about the chipmunk,” he informed us every now and then for the next month. He didn't cry. The repetition was how we knew it mattered. He repeated that more than almost anything else—as well he might. He had learned death.

What was that like for him, inside the mystery, deep inside the shifting, colored bubble of childhood? Till then, for all he knew, he might have been born into a world where everything lives forever. No war, no parting, every tear wiped from our eyes. Sorry, kid. You're on Earth. What does the stoic, expressionless little face mean? The same thing it means on an adult in those circumstances. It means the emotion is deeper than tears.

A few months after that, my father-in-law passed away. We explained it to the Boy. He took it stoically again, didn't cry. He asked us questions about it. Again and again and again. “Papa died,” he used to tell us, out of the blue.

Within the next year, three more people that he knew died—three community members here, whom he interacted with often. All of them were expected—more or less. “Why did Jim die?” he used to ask. “Because he was very old,” we told him. He began to inform us that when he got old he would die.

I remember, too, the day he found out about slaughtering. We live on a farm. He was two years old, and I'd been taking him down often to what we call the Valley, to see the newborn piglets, see them nursing and getting bigger; he loved them, and called them the “piggies.” One day late in the season I saw the blue cattle trailer backed up to the pig barn, its doors open, likely to get the pigs used to it for a day or two before they were loaded in. The Boy asked me why it was there. I swallowed and said, “Well, they're going to put some of the pigs in there and attach it to the farm truck and take them away, to a place where people will kill them and turn them into meat.”

He looked at the trailer, expressionless, for a long moment. Then he said, “Will they kill the little piggies?”

“No,” I said. “They let them grow up. They only kill the big ones.”

He said, “Oh.”

What, inside the mystery of childhood, happened inside him that moment—the moment he first learned that not only do we die, but our lives depend on death? I doubt it was nothing. I really, really doubt it.

I have a notion of what might have happened, actually. When I first moved to the country, I learned to butcher deer. My first couple of times were not fun. Guts, bones, the smell of blood, the dead eyes looking at you, the tongue hanging out. But then you learn. You learn to shut something off inside of you. You learn not to look at the deer as a living creature that has died; you “turn it into meat.” It's easy then. I can skin a deer now without turning a hair.

It's easier when it's a deer that's been hit by a car, when it's not your own hand that brought about the change. But I'm positive this shutting-off is part of hunting too. Of any killing.

When I'm feeling sensitive, alive to the highly-colored world as a child is, I remember that moment looking at the trailer as a moment of violence. I told my son that we killed pigs—that Matthew, the farmer he idolizes, sent them off to be killed. I told him to shut off his empathy for them if he ever wanted to pretend to be Matthew driving the tractor again. And he did it. All he asked of me was to let him, if possible, retain his love for the little piggies. I said yes. If it hadn't been the truth—about this farm, at least—I wouldn't have said it.

You could say it wasn't necessary, this moment of violence. You could say that we could become vegetarians. But I've farmed. There is absolutely violence done in crop farming. To plants, to the land, to animals. (What do you do when they start eating your crops?) To limit that violence is the thing; to do it gently, to give back. If you do it by not eating meat, and can stay healthy that way, that is good. But our lives depend upon death. I couldn't lie to my son about that.

This shutting off, we learn it as we grow. We have to. Wide-open to the world, wide-eyed as a child, we cannot possibly do the work we must do to survive. (I've read that babies see everything in their field of vision with equal intensity. That's part of why they sleep so much—exhausted. When the Boy had only just learned to talk, I took him on my back into the woods and he instantly said “Water!” Down at the far, far edge of the woods was the tiniest glint of a stream.) And we have to shut out our children's wide-eyed, dramatic world as well, have to say Please, just cool it a minute, I am trying not to burn supper here, or Listen, I get it, but other people have feelings too, and it is her turn now. But there's more that we do, sometimes. This shutting-off, sometimes it's hard—but sometimes, when it's become a habit, it is easier.

Alice Miller is right: sometimes we shut out the child's world completely. We do not take children seriously. We know—accurately—how badly they misunderstand the world sometimes, and we feel this gives us a right not to respect them or their feelings at all. We see that expressionless little face and because it suits us, we choose to interpret it as indifference. Could she be right that we do it because we think this, too, is necessary for survival? Because we are afraid to remember our own childhoods as they really were—for all of us—the flip side of all that wide-eyed wonder in the sunlit world?

Remember the time when your peers weren't yet afraid to insult and degrade you to your face? Remember when your flaws could be discoursed upon at length in public, with both flight and protest forbidden? Remember when a blow to your body that you were not allowed to defend against or return was a thing that could happen in your life? When is the last time those things happened to you? When is the last time someone threw a rock at you, or called you insulting names in front of a watching crowd? Most likely—during the time when your soul was most sensitive and unprotected, your eyes still wide open to the world.

(Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe you are a black person living in America. I don't know what to say, except: I'm sorry.)

It is not possible to live inside our children's worlds with them. But when they bring news of those worlds, let us listen. Their world is huge and weighty, and no less real for their ignorance. Childhood is the time when we learn pain. Childhood is the time when we learn glory. Childhood is the time when we learn death. It doesn't get more real than that. Let us listen to the children we were and to the children we love, and give them our respect.


  1. These questions took me back: "Remember when your flaws could be discoursed upon at length in public, with both flight and protest forbidden? Remember when a blow to your body that you were not allowed to defend against or return was a thing that could happen in your life?" Both things happened to me with some regularity when I was an adolescent. I've written about it some in recent years. Writing about my past has become a way for me to remain tender when I encounter a painful, wide-eyed reality in my life or my family's. I appreciate how you took care to invite us readers into the risky world--full of life, full of weight--and even our own feelings (especially around death and suffering). I pray for the grace to listen attentively to the children in our life. Amen

    1. I'm so glad you liked this, Jason. It's such a personal thing, isn't it? It touches the tender spots of your life. It's good to remember and write about it. I'm sure it makes you a better parent.

  2. I don't remember much about how I felt as a young child. One thing, perhaps: I was the black sheep, always to blame when we kids squabbled. I was threatened with being sent to borstal (do you know what that is?) if I didn't behave better. I vowed to myself, in that case they would never see me alive again. I was also once beaten for something I didn't do (but also for things I did do). My older brother (10) and I (9) were sent to a foster family for a year to learn German. We were taught to suppress emotions and tears. When I broke my arm for the 5th time at age 11, my mother threatened not to take me to the hospital if it ever happened again. (It did, and she did.) All this coloured my life but I don't want to suggest I was miserable. I coped. I grew up healthy. And survived.
    But I tended to be strict with my own kids, including corporal punishment at times. I'm so glad to see that my son brings his two kids up very differently: lovingly, with much more freedom, encouragement and empathy, not squeezing them into a standard mould. [Shaya was three before she stopped using nappies (diapers), which I'm sure we would not have tolerated.] But they thrive on it.
    Kids can be nasty to each other – and they are – but we adults should by now know better. And teach them to be tolerant and forgiving.

    1. It's like that, isn't it? There's the good and the bad and it's all mixed together, just like all of life only more so. Yeah, I've heard of borstal from books. That kind of thing, and being the black sheep, sounds hard—not just an incident but an assumption about you, that would color your life all right.
      It's so good that your son has such a happy relationship with his kids. They really are wide open, including to what we tell them… Once when my boy was two, I took a toy away from him at bedtime because he refused to give it up ("no hard toys in the bed at night" is one of our rules) and he started to cry and I said “Oh, I don't like taking things away from you” and he said “You don't?” (The look of surprise!) I talked to him on and on about how it's for his sake, how he needs sleep, how hard toys can wake him up, how painful insomnia is (I should know), and he listened completely. He's never disputed that rule from that day to this.
      But what still gets me is that he was surprised...