One day at the store, my eight-year-old son said to my thirteen-year-old daughter, “I don’t even understand the point of the world. Is it to just stay alive?” They’d been waiting for my husband and me to finish errands on a sunny Saturday: an insult to every child. Stella had been away at camp for a week and Emmett had missed her. They were in the chummy first hours of being reunited.
They were talking in that way kids do when they are playing with big ideas: slightly joking, slightly deep, armed with only snippets they’d overheard on the news or in adult conversations, looking at a problem side-eyed. I’ve been observing the sometimes-terrifying shape and complexity of our lives for many more years, so I get it. To fully open ourselves to information and ideas, to look directly at a problem, to try to grasp the entirety of it: it’s a lot.
Stella sidestepped his question and changed the subject. The query was too deep and was asked too suddenly and blithely for a teenager, who is herself grappling with big questions, to deal with gracefully. But even though I’m middle-aged, I imagine I would have sidestepped it, too, because to me, his question is about justice and morality and power; I would have helplessly wished, instead, for inquiries about sex and drugs and religion.
Emmett has always been a kid who feels the threat of the world as an arm’s length away, staved off only by jokes, wishes, or vigilance, depending on the circumstance. His current worries are about strangers getting mad at him and having to sign up for the draft in ten years. One of my clearest memories of him is one warm sunny day at the coast when he was a preschooler: everyone was relaxing, kids playing in the sand. Suddenly, he ran past me at full speed, past a pile of kids and their sand toys, his baby face somehow firm and set. “Where are you going, Emmett?” I asked, moments before a wave washed up to where we were: startling kids, taking toys, dousing towels. Emmett stood safely on high ground, unscathed.
So here is my son, years later, buoyed by trust and love: asking his humbling questions, beginning to look askance at a swelling sea from his place of relative safety, deciding whether or not to run. I don’t have easy answers for him. But one day I’ll confess to him that sometimes I look away from the full glare of life, and that not everyone has this option: to choose when to look, when to engage, when to try. As a brown person who was made from and shaped by colonial forces, I am both a product and a tool of systems that bend toward injustice and greed. I should not be turning away, but it is so tempting to do so. Reckoning with this, accounting for my actions and inactions, will always be my struggle. Maybe that is the point of the world: to turn into the struggle, and to live our lives there.
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