Sunday, March 21, 2010

Keeping the Wild Things at Bay


A couple of weeks ago, as I was out taking photographs in our garden, I heard my son tap on the glass of our living room window. I turned around to find him with his arms resting on the lower sash, face up against the glass, looking out into the world with a contemplative look. I don't know what was on his mind at that moment, but I instinctively raised my camera to capture the image.

The photograph of my son behind a pane of glass reminds me of how much our children rely on us to protect them. We help them to navigate the complexities of their burgeoning social relationships, guard them from dangers in the world of which they are blissfully unaware, and help them achieve the independence and resilience they will someday need to live on their own.

Last night, my wife and I watched Where the Wild Things Are, the movie based on the book by Maurice Sendak that was one of my childhood favorites. I have been wanting to see the movie since seeing the first trailer for it, but after reading some reviews and feedback from friends, my wife wanted to preview the movie before showing it to our son.

Without spoiling the film, the wild things represent many of the fears that our children face as they grow into adults. The de facto leader of the wild things, Carol, turns to Max, who is the actual child in the story, to make things be exactly how everyone wants them to be. Carol wants Max to provide the wild things with all the answers. In one scene, Carol and Max are walking along a giant sand dune on the island where the wild things live. Carol talks about how the rock turns into sand, and the sand turns into dust, and then he doesn't know what happens after dust.

I pictured my son reciting Carol's lines, not talking about some island but our own human lives, leaving the conversation with the open ended question of what happens after dust. As a parent, there's the temptation to say something that will calm my son's fears, even though I don't know the answer myself. In fact, despite the numerous allegories of life and death that have been passed through our religious and spiritual traditions, none of us truly knows the answer to Carol's wistful wondering.

My son and I have already had conversations about life and death, and in these I have admitted my ignorance about what happens after dust. We've discussed it from a scientific standpoint, about what happens as the atoms that make up our bodies are recycled into the world. But at the end of the conversation, I am always sure to emphasize that I don't know what happens to the essence of who we are. I don't know what happens after dust.

As I look back at the photo of my son looking out at me through the living room window, I would rather help him develop his own way of dealing with the unknowns and fears of life by shining light on them, rather than creating an imaginary pane of glass that shatters when he discovers his own truth on his life's adventure. By facing his fears with a light of honesty and discovery, he can create his own way of keeping the wild things at bay.

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