Existentialism for Nine Year Olds
I was sitting at the table with my son as he explained to me that he was stupid and didn’t understand the lessons at school. His teacher said he would never pass grade four and he was sure she was right.
“So, you’re not a very good monkey, aye!”
“What? I don’t get it,” he said.
“Get a piece of paper and a pencil I want to show you something. Write down a single word that you choose each time I tell you to.”
I proceeded to describe the steps involved in changing a timing belt on a Pontiac Acadian. With each step I paused and asked him to choose a word and write it down. When I was finished I asked him to count the words. His total was 23.
“Now use each word as a guide, tell me how to change a timing belt.”
He repeated the steps perfectly.
“How many kids your age do you think know how to change a timing belt?”
“None,” he said.
“Do you feel stupid?”
He smiled and said no.
“Do you feel smart?”
“Yes,” he said.
“So you’re a good monkey.”
“I’m not a monkey dad, what do you mean?”
“Well Zach, what I did was train you how to repeat some steps. That’s what monkeys do. Following directions has nothing to do with being smart or stupid. Do you think animals at the circus are smart, or well trained?”
“Probably well trained,” he said.
“Do you think if I got a whip and a poker I could make you smarter”
“Do you think I could train you to be a good monkey?”
“If you’re going to use a whip I’ll be anything you want.”
“Zach why would you believe you are stupid?”
“Actually, Dad, the teacher said I was stupid.”
“Did it hurt when she said that?”
“Yes, but not like a whip.”
“Really….how long would it hurt if I hit you with a whip, Zach?”
“I dunno, maybe five or ten minutes. If you made me bleed it would probably hurt for a couple of days.”
“Zach when did your teacher tell you that you were stupid?”
“A couple of weeks ago,” he said.
“Does it still hurt?”
“Well not now, but I was afraid to talk to you cause I thought she must be right. All I’ve been thinking since she said that was that I must be stupid.”
“Did it hurt to think you are stupid?”
“For two weeks?”
“Do you think your teacher is really a teacher, or just a monkey trainer?”
“Dad, sometimes when you talk to me I don’t understand and I get confused and I thought that maybe that’s what stupid is.”
“Really? Go get another piece of paper. I want to show you something else. OK Zach, pretend this paper is your brain actually we’ll draw something that looks like a brain. Now put a dot inside the brain and imagine that dot is one piece of information. Is that brain smart?”
“Where did that information come from?”
“Well, I drew it there.”
“OK, pretend it’s a real brain. Where would the information come from? Would it come from your eyes, your ears?”
“Both I guess.”
“Well, yes, and more; you’re nose, mouth, all your senses touch, smell, taste. Everything that happens to you turns into a piece of information in your brain. Did you notice that my foot is on your toes?”
“No, but I do now.”
“Your brain did. It just decided that it wasn’t important enough to tell you. Your brain is getting information even when you don’t know it. When you want to know something you have to remember it.”
“Now I’m really confused, Dad.”
“Everything you know comes from your brain. It’s like a library, but before you can know something your brain has to get the information, it has to put books on its shelves. Your brain collects information your whole life and stores it in your library, in your brain. Just like a library you can’t read all the books at the same time, so when you wonder about something or become curious your brain will check to see if it has information that it can give you. It doesn’t matter whether you understand something and it doesn’t matter to your brain, it just collects information. When you need it it’s there, if it isn’t your brain will help you to get it.”
“Look come with me outside let me show you something. Look up, what do you see?”
“Stars and the moon.”
“OK, look over there see those stars in a row? See the two stars below that line of stars, that’s called the big dipper. Connect the stars with imaginary lines. There’s the handle and there’s the cup. Together it’s a cup with a long handle. There are no visible lines you can see but if you imagine the lines are there you will see the big dipper.”
“Yeah, OK,” he said.
“Now, if you take the paper where we drew the brain and continue to add dots, each being a piece of information, it’s just like the stars. The only time that information in your brain matters is when you connect the dots, when you imagine. It’s not possible to be smart or to be stupid, it’s only possible to imagine. When you imagine, information recorded in your brain starts to connect and you interpret it. How you interpret it and what it means to you is only for you, it’s your perspective, your view. Sometimes when you imagine one thing the dots in your brain will connect and show you something else that you didn’t expect to see. Do you understand, Zach?”
“I think so,” he said.
“You don’t need to understand what I understand. What you understand is for you and it changes from moment to moment. How do you feel, Zach? “
“I feel good. Did grandpa teach you this stuff, Dad?”
“Some of it, Zach, the rest I imagined, and you will imagine more.”
“Zach, what do you do when you get a cut or when you hurt yourself?”
“I get a Band-Aid from Mom or from you.”
“But you don’t walk around bleeding right?”
“When you hurt inside, what should you do?”
“Tell you or Mom.”
“Right. Now, why would you walk around for two weeks hurting?”
“Listen closely Zach, this is important. Do you remember times when you have hurt yourself?”
“Some of them,” he said.
“Do you remember the pain you felt?”
“No, not really. Just what happened, not the pain and other stuff.”
“So is it possible your brain does not give you access to this information? Or is it more possible that what you felt as pain was an experience that cannot be remembered, and you can only remember the conclusion? Your brain cannot store what you feel. Your feelings are more like a calculator and you only remember the answer to that calculation.”
“To make things even easier to remember, your brain stores information as good or bad and decides if it is by how you feel at the time.”
“Makes sense, Dad. If you feel bad will your brain store information as bad?”
“You may not remember this information easily because it reminds you of feeling bad.”
“I guess it could,” he said.
“If I give you things to keep, some good, some bad, which would you, use more often Zach?”
“I would use the good stuff more.”
“If you had to keep all this stuff together would you keep the good stuff closer and the bad stuff farther away so it’s not in the way?”
“Do you think your brain might work the same way to be more efficient? Can you even tell me what stupid is?”
“Well, no I’m not really sure what it means, but I was afraid she might be right.”
“So now we know Zach that the bad feeling was fear and it was fear about something you don’t understand. Because you felt bad, from your fear, you could not participate freely in your school work. Instead you spent your time afraid.”
“Have you learned anything from this conversation, Zach?”
“I’ve learned allot Dad, I know more stuff now.”
“Do you feel good about what you know?”
“Maybe, Zach, what we know is what we feel good about. Imagine, Zach, what you would know if you weren’t afraid. Imagine what you would know if you controlled the calculator of your feelings.”