The Toddler Philosopher
I'm only five "Why's" away from an ontological crisis
I’m buckling my son into his car seat the other morning when he points to the tool used to scrape snow off the windshield.
“It’s an ice scraper, sweetheart.”
“So we can scrape the ice off the windshield.”
“So we can see when we drive.”
“So we don’t crash.”
“Because we don’t want to die.”
What am I supposed to tell the kid? Because we value our lives? I know what his reply will be: Why? Because they are a gift. Why? Um, because life is sacred. Why?
I like to think I have a good education and am respectably literate on matters of meaning and religion, but my two-year-old son reminds me that my Jesuit liberal arts degree only afforded me three theology and three philosophy classes.
Forget the birthing or child development classes. Parents should get advanced philosophy degrees. As the mother of a curious toddler, I realize I am ever only five whys away from an ontological crisis.
It imbues life with a certain crackling awe. It burns through this cloud created by the frittering details of adulthood. My son is unencumbered with practical concerns. Food is provided, a warm bed. He is bathed, dressed; he doesn’t even have to worry about finding a bathroom.
So there is space in his elastic mind to entertain the big questions.
Why do we say good morning to the newsstand clerk?
“Because God is there.”
Why would a sharp knife hurt?
“Because the body is frail.”
Because all things are passing.
An Uncluttered Gaze
As his interpreter and guide, each day is again an open field for wonder and discovery. At any moment I might be pressed to explain the root value of sharing or the inherent need of the human body for food. I am continually forced to justify my vision of reality. The toddler’s uncluttered gaze upon his new world snaps me out of the trodden and typical. It forces spiritual engagement on me like a splash of cold water.
There was a time, maybe in high school, maybe those late wine-fueled nights in college, when the beauty and intensity of life was within arms reach. Don’t you remember? You could taste it. You could feel yourself living.
As life wears on, particularly when many of the big issues are resolved – career chosen, friends made, life partner found – we get complacent. When life gets normal, the openings for big questions don’t present themselves as much as they once did. A few months after that first full-time job starts, we stop staying up into the wee hours when conversations turn metaphysical. Once we have a good decade under our belts with best friends, we know where each other stands on most matters. There is no need to keep taking their temperature on the meaning of life. We’re more likely to discuss parents or cooking or funny stories. There comes a time when it’s simply not polite to discuss politics or religion. It becomes embarrassing, an imposition. A bit too much, really, for a casual dinner.
The company of this little person with no understanding for the appropriate conversational topics forces me to take a stab at big questions again. His wonder stirs my own, much the way guiding tourists reminds you why you love your city.
With my three-foot companion repeating his mantra of inquiry, I am forced to appreciate the wonder of each moment, to exist in life, not in to-do lists and chores. As I help him negotiate his relationship to the world, I recall mine and remember what I want it to be.
The same morning we went from ice scrapers to the value of human life, my son asked if his friend’s mother went to work during the day. “Yes, she works downtown.” And the friend’s other mother? “No, she goes to school.”
“Because she’s studying to become a rabbi.”
“Because she wants to share God with people.”
“Because God is good.”
“Because God is what created and energizes everything.”
“Look man, I was an urban studies major. I can tell you why neighborhoods succeed or fail but that’s my limit!”
The Ultimate Deadline
For years I’ve dealt in concrete sentences. I’ve written about crime and politics. Sure the journalism books say the big questions are who, what, where, when, how and why, but the fact is that on deadline and in 600 words we usually only get to the first four. Why is for the philosophers, psychologists and priests.
And children, I’m learning.
If you spend enough time with a toddler, if you really step into their guileless, weird little world, everything is again filled with the glimmer of creation.