Monday, December 26, 2016

Cooler than Magic

Our four-year old daughter doesn't believe in Santa Claus. We didn't push the Santa story, nor did we discourage it: we just let Santa be one of the many enjoyable cultural figures whose stories she knows, along with such other luminaries as Elsa and Anna, Durga, Peppa Pig, Jesus, Cinderella, Shiva, and Team Umizoomi. We've got a "no lies" policy in our parenting, though, so when some time ago she asked straight up if Santa Claus was real, the answer was simple: Santa is not real, but is a game that grownups and kids play, and once she knows the truth, she's playing on the grownup side and it would be very rude to spoil the game for other kids.

I'm certain that some people would say that we have done a terrible thing, stealing one of the pieces of magic from her life and shortening her childhood's period of innocence and wonder. I believe, however, that such concerns stem from a misunderstanding of what is so special about innocence and wonder. The innocence and wonder of children is tied up in many ways with their ignorance: you cannot experience wonder in exploring the geometry of a cardboard tube, for example, unless you are largely ignorant of geometry and cardboard tubes. I find that many people seem to confuse the ignorance, which is anything but valuable, with the innocence and wonder that happen to be associated with it in time.

As a parent, observing my child and other children, my current best understanding is that the importance of innocence is thinking and acting without feeling hemmed in and constrained by fears, and that the importance of wonder is the experience of how remarkable and marvelous our lives can be. It is much easier to achieve these states when we are ignorant, but we need not give them up merely because we become experienced. Rather, I think they are a critically important part of what makes life worth living.

Nor does knowing a truth prevent you from enjoying fiction. In my own experience, holding a very clear understanding of the distinction between fact and fiction can let you enjoy the fiction all the more because there is less need to be worried about whether it is true or how it may be affecting things. I even find it to be a good way to disempowering things that I am concerned about as a parent, like the Disney princess culture. If we try to hide from it or focus on criticism, that just gives it power as something that grownups are worried about. But if we embrace it, and acknowledge how fun the story is, but also help to remind and remember how it's just stories, and that stories are different from the real world, then it can draw the power out and turn literary criticism into a game that we can play together. Elsa is still an awesome queen with seriously cool ice magic, even if she'd be really sick if she was a real person with a waist that is so tiny.

The biggest difference, I find, in talking about fiction versus reality is that the "Why?" questions for fiction quickly ground out in questions of narrative structure. "In 'Moana', why did Te Fiti have her heart on the outside where Maui could steal it?" "They didn't give a reason. We can try to make up some reasons, but mostly it needed to be somewhere that he could steal it so that the story could happen." With reality, however, there is always something more, something outside, and ultimately things always ground out in an answer, and opportunity to look things up and learn, or, eventually, "That's a really good question, and we don't know the answer yet!"  And then maybe we can talk about how we might try to find out.

The reality of the world is so intricate, and its systematicity so remarkable that I find wonder is never very far from the surface. Driving through the fields a couple of days ago, I noticed a microwave relay tower and pointed it out, and we talked about communication. I love the great big scoops, posed on top of their rectangular spike of concrete, I love that microwaves interact with metal in such a way that their circuitry often ends up looking more like plumbing than wiring. I love that the waves themselves are inches wide, while an FM radio wave is about three times my daughter's height, and the light that I see is a bit less than a millimeter. I love that our civilization has erected concrete towers standing high across the plains like a high-tech semaphore network, relaying messages in a network little different in principle than moving goods in trucks or messengers riding horses in centuries past. There are thousands and thousands of such edifices out there, and many people have been involving in building them, bringing together on each of those thousands of sites a whole assemblage of heavy machinery, cranes, truckloads of electronic equipment, and so on. The more I think about it, the more wondrous that grey square lump of concrete with the funny metal scoops becomes.

Some of my wonder and joy, I think, comes from the training that I have received as a scientist. Most, however, does not need much specialization or knowledge to appreciate, just an open mind and a willingness to experience one's ignorance and look for answers. I would not say to embrace or celebrate ignorance, but to simply recognize it as a state of knowledge that one can choose what one wants to do with. A lot of people write themselves off from knowledge, saying that they just don't have the right head or the right training. I think that often this may come from a discomfort at being ignorant, and I am saddened by it. I think that we will all be better off, both as individuals and as citizens of our civilization, the more that we are able to embrace our innocence as seekers of knowledge and connoisseurs of the wonder of the world.

Later on Christmas day, as we looked through the window at the rain coming down outside, my daughter mentioned that her teacher had said that it would rain on Christmas. I asked her how she thought her teacher had known, and she told me her teacher must have read a weather forecast. And then we all talked as a family about how weather forecasts use satellites to look down from way above the Earth so that they can see what's going on over a very big distance, and see what weather is coming towards us over the next few days.

My daughter's eyes grew wide with wonder, and she said:  "That's even cooler than magic!"

I agree with her most strongly.