Ceci n'est pas une «raison d'être»

(Not) an introduction

In my very first blog post on uwsdad.com , you might guess I’d set the stage: devote some words to who I am, what this blog is all about, and so forth. You’d be wrong. I don’t have the time for that, and besides, I’m not sure I know all that clearly who I am or what this blog is supposed to be about.

And I kind of like it that way. I’m figuring a lot out as I go these days, and I’m enjoying building things from the ground up. My only hope is that six months from now, this blog is very different from where it’s about to begin.

I can say that I plan to use this blog to write about stuff that interests me. Topics may include: music, piano, teaching, math, problem solving, raising kids, backgammon, cryptic crosswords, calisthenics, meditation, and barbershop. But the raison d’être of this or any expression of the soul is not in the content but in how the content is dealt with — the ‘how’, rather than the ‘what’. And it’s that ‘how’ I’m not sure about yet.


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On stories

Today Oliver and I read Up & Down by Wenjia Tang, a gorgeous book that introduces kids to vocabulary from complementary scenes: in the city & at the (subway) station; at the castle & in the dungeon, etc. Here’s the last page of the book:


(The caption for the heaven page in my edition reads: “What song do you think the angels are playing?” .)

When Michelle first saw this page a few weeks ago, she was taken aback, particularly by the presence (and probably depiction) of “God”. Like: What is this doing in a kids’ book? Is there some sort of agenda here? (Disclaimer: She didn’t actually say any of those things.)

Maybe this is a good time to digress and talk about my relationship to the concept of “belief”. Simply put, I don’t have one. I’m agnostic at the deepest level of my being. Maybe I’m even meta-agnostic? I don’t make any presuppositions about the existence of absolute truth. My life is structured around interfaces, worldviews, and process — the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’.

I think most people go through the world with an implicit belief that there’s a layer of truth, a “God’s book” of sorts that can tell us whether any given notion is true or false. People differ in their beliefs on how much of this layer they confidently claim to understand, but few are “agnostic” about the notion of truth altogether. For example, one person might say, “There is no God.”, while another might say, “I don’t have any way of knowing whether there is a God or not.”. But this ‘nother person believes that there is an answer — they just don’t know it.

I step away from the notion of truth altogether. How I structure my life instead is a longer story I should save for another time, but suffice to say it was inspired by my work in mathematics and cognitive science, and has landed me very close to what I practice through meditation.

Back to Oliver. So I wasn’t as bothered by the Heaven/Hell pages as Michelle was. And as I have hopefully made clear, it’s definitely not because I believe in these depictions or in anything remotely like that. The reason it didn’t bother me is because everything is a story and we can’t escape or deny stories. We can only ask whether we like the stories and question the extent to which they help us understand.

Let’s back up and get a little context. On an earlier page we have “in the City & at the Station” , where we have things like clock tower , bus stop , escalator , and train . Simple enough. But a few pages later we have “at the Castle & in the Dungeon” , where now we have witch , broomstick , dragon , and the like. What are these doing in the same book? Clearly the first scene reflects “reality”, while the second is just “fantasy”, right?

But what does it matter to Oliver? (And what should it matter to us?) Unless I want to keep Oliver from every story, picture, toy, and movie about witches and dragons, he needs to know about these things as much as he needs to know about a bus stop. Arguably the fantasy world might even be more important to him at this age, because he’s years away from riding a bus on his own, but he sits with his own thoughts all the time! But an explorer finding the courage to venture into a dark dungeon to fight a dragon and discover treasure? These emotions and stories are the very stuff his emotional world is made of.

So I’d argue these fantasy concepts are just as if not more important than real-world “facts” about bus stops and the like, which are unavoidable and much more likely to enter his consciousness through osmosis. Stories, drama, play, music, art… this is the stuff that reminds us that our experience with the world is more than what we directly see and give names to. The stuff we see, that’s the past: that’s what we already know (or think we know). Our imagination, our emotion, our fantasy, that’s what drives us to learn and explore more, to wonder and create.

I’m not saying that Oliver should believe dragons and God are real, but I do think he needs to know these stories (not the Bible, mind you), he needs to know what these concepts are and how they work.

“Who’s that?”, Oliver asked about God. That’s not a hard question to answer. “That’s God.”, I said. It’s not as if he doesn’t know the word after all:

I just needed to explain why this word he knows is supposed to be the name of a person:

Everybody needs help sometimes, right? Like, if you drop a toy and it breaks, you say, “Daddy, Mommy, come help me!” . But what if someone needs something and their mommy or daddy can’t help? God is supposed to be someone who can help everyone with everything, so when things go wrong people can say, “Oh God, help me!” . But even if no one is going to come help, we can yell out, “Oh, god!” when something goes wrong because it’s funny and makes us feel better.

Seemed like a pretty reasonable explanation. As I said, figuring it out on the fly.

I asked Oliver if he thought there was actually a person like that. He said no. I said it didn’t really matter because it’s fun to yell out “Oh, god!” or “Goddammit!” anyway.

Then we looked at the hell page. I don’t know about you but these ‘monsters’ seemed downright cuddly. And Cerberus? The three-headed dog who guards the gates of hell? Looks like a sweetheart to me. Then Oliver asked me about the Devil:

You know how sometimes I say, “Oliver, if you misbehave, I’m going to throw you into a wall!” ? Well, people like to say, “If you do something bad, you’re going to go to hell, and get tickled by these cute monsters apparently, and licked in this face by this adorable three-headed dog. And the devil will… throw you into a wall!” .

which sounded about as silly as the actual story. I asked him if he thought there was a person like that and he said no, and I said I didn’t know but it’s something people say so people will behave.

My story ends with a pretty powerful reminder of the power of stories, a little glimpse into the connection between imagination, religion, and innate fear.

Oliver asked to see a picture of the devil (who is creepily facing away in the book), so I did a Google image search for ‘devil’ . After flicking through a few pictures, I looked over and noticed Oliver was closing his eyes. I put my phone away and asked him if the pictures were scary, and with a trembling voice he said they were. I looked at a few more on my own and realized they were indeed quite frightening:


Then I looked back at Oliver and noticed he was literally shaking and on the verge of tears. I gave him a big hug and apologized for showing him such scary pictures. I asked him if he’d like to see pictures of ‘funny devil’ instead:


But he was so shaken and fearful, even these silly pictures made his lips start to quiver. I put the phone away again and we just hugged for a long time. After a while, I said:

I guess these stories work.

They do indeed.


Later that evening during my meditation, fiery eyes kept flashing in my mind and giving me goosebumps.