Fear is powerful emotion. It is a motivator and a regulator to our more dangerous instincts and does a good job keeping us out of harms way. Their certainly are fears that need to be stood up to and conquered as well. Those are the fears we keep listed in our head throughout our lifetime. It’s a to do list of sorts and you have an ever dimninishing, but mostly unkowable clock keeping score.
But for those fears that are necessary, those fears that provide insight into what’s safe and unsafe and suggest the best path forward we’ve developed systems to ensure that our children are provided at least a base level of fear for things that should be feared. Our tools are blunt and we can instill too much fear for sure. Perhaps this abundance, this collateral fear is there for a reason. Perhaps it provides a measure of insurance that helps keep as many of us inside the curve as possible, ensuring the greatest number survive the day.
A lot of children’s storytelling, be it in books or movies is of this variety. After a while you realize that we adults are pretty savvy and can see danger in everyday interactions or in subtle signs throughout a story, that we are perhaps to be more attuned and aware as tension driven by our communal standards of common decency are breached. But kids, they need it drawn big and bold. The bad guys look evil and intend to do evil and are open to announcing as much. We tell these stories and we make these stories because they can introduce the concept of ‘people who do bad things’ into the conversation in a stark and scary way. It needs to be blunt at the stage where my kids are at right now, which is pre-school aged, 3 and 4. If it were subtle and Mr. Joker were merely trying to fashion his evil doing by way of insuring that the riff raff, the common folk, perhaps even people of backgrounds more diverse than the predominant ones in the neighborhood aren’t shown these houses for fear of upsetting some invisible social order, it would be completely lost on my kids. As it seems to be on most of that ‘predominant’ class as well. Their villains are in makeup, have evil gadgets and intend to do harm for no other reason than evil. It’s not just in superhero movies either. Children’s literature has been this way forever. Checkout some Brother’s Grimm if you doubt me.
Tonight we watched ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’ on Netflix. It’s not as good as the first in the series, ‘The Gruffalo’ but it continues on the theme. It’s a story of how myths are made in order to protect children by instilling appropriate fears. In each the ‘deep dark wood’ represents the world, and the Gruffalo, and in turn the ‘Big Bad Mouse’, are the representation of danger if not exactly evil. Each story goes about showing how the myth came to be and how the resulting terror was put to effective use by concerned parents effectively instilling fear in their children. The stories worked to both pique their curiosity and put them on guard. They’re brilliant stories that get it right.
The fears that you conquer while growing up come to rest in a place in your brain that you don’t tend to. You know when to be fearful and you know how to behave to avoid most dangers. For those you can’t avoid you either conquer them or they conquer you and you go on with life.
Then you have kids. Then you go about learning anew all that the world has to offer in terms of danger. And you go about the delicate dance of protecting your kids from the information and exposing them to it and trying to make them understand something that defies understanding. Evil doing is just a reality. You accept that it exists at some point, but even then you don’t understand it. You might think you do but then you forget to turn off the news and they hear about murder and at first they call it bad and you say yes it is and you turn the channel. They are FOUR. They don’t need to learn about or start trying to accept murder is a thing we do to each other from time to time tonight. It can wait.
So we keep teaching them about the deep dark wood and we hope that the message seeps in. But on days like today I myself don’t know where the ‘deep dark wood’ ends and the circle of safety that wasn’t breeched when I was a kid begins. Is it at my front door. Anyone can obviously break in and do harm if they were so inclined but the news doesn’t make me register that as a real threat as of yet. Is it school? I always knew it to be a safe place to be scared. Scared of the kids at the other table. Scared of the girls you’d eventually befriend and look forward to seeing at the bar the night before Thanksgiving in your 20’s. Fear of teachers. Fear of punishment. All the fears you don’t enjoy but you want your kid to have. To learn from. What the hell is the deep dark wood now. Is it everywhere.
The day we moved into our new home with a one year old and a newborn in tow classrooms full of 5 and 6 year olds were murdered. I was enraged. I was gutted, devastated and mad. Since then countless examples of this new reality have flooded my brain and I’ve stated clearly why I think guns and our culture around them need to change. I haven’t moved an inch from my perspective nor have the others who sit on the other side. This is not an argument. I believe by now it’s intractable. Nothing I say can make me or anyone else think differenly about our thoughts about what the solution is to this epedemic of mass shootings leaving so many innocent lives in shambles.
For me, the adult with the more nuanced ability to see and react to danger, the experience to know that not all danger looks dangerous, the part that really scares me is what is happening in my reaction. I’m still mad. I’m still devastated for those poor families trying to understand that which can not be thoroughly explained. I’m still just as upset as I’ve ever been. But there’s something else there, something to be truly afraid of. I’m starting to sense an exhaustion with banging my head against the wall. I’m starting to lose hope that a solution can be found. I’m starting to feel a tiny little piece of accepting this as evil and putting the topic away in the space in my brain where I store the remnants and scarring from the battles lost. When I recognize this the fear comes back.
Don’t go out that door, guys. On the other side is the deep dark wood and the Big Bad Mouse will get ya.