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Jackie Griffiths tells a tale of innocence and mortality.
A few russet leaves flutter to the ground on the autumn breeze. Jae holds her little girl’s hand tightly as they walk together on the pavement. The child’s long, straggly blond hair ripples in the wind, her cheeks flushed pink. Suddenly she stops in her tracks and bends down to inspect something on the ground. “Look mummy,” she declares, pointing her finger, “a ladybird crawling.”
“Yes,” replies Jae, “look at its red shell and black spots. How many spots are there Chloe, can you count them?” But without warning Chloe lifts her foot and stamps on the insect. Stepping back and waiting eagerly for a response from the ladybird, she seems disappointed when nothing happens.
“Oh no!” cries Jae, dismayed, “You mustn’t do that Chloe! You’ve killed it. It’s dead now. The poor creature. What a shame.”
“What is dead?” Chloe asks curiously, gazing up at her mother with an open, happy expression, her blue eyes shining.
‘What is dead?’ A pivotal moment is upon them. Chloe still has no concept of death – neither her own, the passing away of other people, of animals, nor even the death of plants. Jae feels called upon to explain the great penalty of life – to make her daughter understand that the exquisite Garden of Eden state she presently inhabits is nothing more than an illusion. Revealing this primordial knowledge will open the child’s mind to fundamental psychological fear for the first time; and those feelings will then be with her forever. It will be her second and final momentous expulsion from absolute security. The first was corporeal: but this will be an emotional and psychological eviction, definitively completing her birth into the world.
Jae cautiously begins, “Dead means… it’s finished. The ladybird won’t ever move again. It can’t join in any more.” She makes a small slicing motion in the air with her left hand out, fingers splayed, to give the impression of absolute finality.
“Watch me mummy!” Chloe exclaims abruptly, “I can jump so, so high.”
Startled, Jae stands up, taking Chloe’s hand as they continue their walk to school. Perhaps the topic is beyond comprehension? Or maybe the suggestion was so shocking that Chloe needs to change the subject to distract herself from the trauma? Whatever the explanation, Jae follows the needs of her daughter, praising her little jumps and hops.
Later, Jae considers the incident whilst walking to work. She senses that understanding death could help Chloe express compassion, prevent her lashing out at other children when she’s cross or upset, and allow her to sympathise with others when they’re hurt. Also, to not randomly kill insects! And yet Chloe doesn’t seem ready or willing to discuss the idea – making Jae wonder whether a four-year-old is capable of fully processing the concept of death. Crossing the road, she speculates that in really young children thought has not yet begun to create the cathedrals and temples at which it will worship itself – the ego is not yet formed, and psychological defence mechanisms are not present.
Jae becomes lost in her philosophical ruminations. At the very beginning of a baby’s life it seems there is merely experience: it feels hunger and pain, so it cries; it sees something funny, it laughs. As the baby grows and develops, knowledge about the world is added to pure experience. At the moment, Jae thinks, her daughter is between worlds: more than a baby merely reacting to sensory input; but much less than an adult encumbered with images of self, unconsciously demanding to be aggrandised and preserved. The next level in Chloe’s development will be the formation of memory; the process whereby accrued knowledge is added to elemental experience, which, through repeat experience, provokes the construction of self-image.
Chloe is on the cusp. Jae remembers hearing her say phrases such as, “I’m so clumsy,” in a tearful voice after falling over yet again. But she has always made a point of arresting the formation of these kinds of self-images, with gentle denials that clumsiness isn’t unique to Chloe.
Given that adults are what they think – that people live and behave according to their thinking – what then is the driving force for behaviour in small children? What prompts how they live and behave? If they have not yet developed conscious thinking – if their minds are silent, free of interference – then are they acting purely in the moment, without any intervention from memory or ego? Can it be that the natural state of every child is what practitioners of Eastern spirituality have struggled to cultivate for centuries? If so, why and how does this quasi-enlightened state disintegrate during the process of maturation?
Arriving at the outskirts of town, Jae allows her thoughts to coalesce, surmising that through experience and the accumulation of knowledge, memory becomes the foundation of self-image, paving the way for thought to develop into the all-powerful commander of action in adults.
Falling asleep that night is a drawn-out process for Jae. Tossing and turning in agitated contemplation, she can’t prevent herself from trying to conceive what it would be like to live without an image of herself, or indeed of others. She considers that she probably has a relationship only with the concept she has of her daughter; and of her parents, friends and boyfriend – whereas Chloe very likely has a relationship with the actual person – how and who they are from moment to moment. Jae concludes that while she herself is merely relating to ideas dependent on the whims of her own ego, Chloe lives in the real world, relating to the everyday truth of what is, unimpeded by the corrupting influence of thought.
After a fretful night, the morning brings nothing out of the ordinary. Chloe wants cereal for breakfast with milk and cream; Jae sips green tea and bustles around getting dressed, clearing up, and generally preparing for school and work. She’s always been determined to avoid a hurried, stressful walk to school. They’re so lucky to live just a short distance away, and she feels that rushing it would spoil their morning relationship. So they set off at Chloe’s meandering pace, making several pauses and diversions along the way as Chloe inspects aspects of nature, or points out interesting litter discarded on the ground. Neither of them mentions the dead ladybird.
That evening, after Jae has read Chloe her favourite book, tucked her up in bed and given her a kiss, Chloe grabs her arm, and in a small voice asks, “Does granny have a mummy?”
“Yes love, of course. Everyone has a mummy,” Jae explains soothingly.
“But, where is she? Where is granny’s mummy?”
Jae understands that this is the moment chosen by Chloe for the discussion. She responds gently, “Granny’s mummy is dead now.”
“Oh.” Chloe looks crestfallen. “Will granny die?”
“Yes, some day.”
“Will… you die?”
“Not for a very, very long time. It’s so far away that we can’t even imagine it or talk about it! We’ve got so much to do tomorrow: it’s Olivia’s birthday party, remember?”
“But mummy… will I die?”
“Chloe, listen to me. Everybody dies one day, but for someone little like you it is far, far, far away – a hundred years away.”
“Is it a million years away? Is it so far away that it’s a million years away?”
But Chloe’s face crumples as the pain of knowledge fills her soul. Large, angry tears spring from her eyes, dampening her pyjama collar. “But I don’t want to die!” she sobs passionately, “I never want to die!”
Jae reaches down to cradle her daughter’s trembling body in a tight embrace. This moment is one of the pinnacles of parental duty. ‘I must steer her through this realisation well,’ she thinks urgently. But her heart aches for the bitterness of Chloe’s expulsion from an innocent life. Rocking her tenderly and whispering calmly, she reassures her, “You know, lots of people believe different things about being dead. Some people believe that after you die you can come back and live again. If you could choose, what would you want to be, darling? A cloud? A tree? A rabbit?”
“I want to come back as a girl! I want to be me again. I always want to be me.” Chloe states, outraged.
Jae wipes her face with a tissue.
“Okay my love, you can be you. What a good idea! And I will be me, too.” Holding her daughter tightly in her arms and kissing her soft skin, Jae senses Chloe relax and slump against her as relief floods through her body. “We will always be together and have fun,” Jae continues, “we’ll look after each other and play together forever. Like tomorrow at the party. You can wear your pirate costume and your hook and eye-patch… Won’t that be great?”
“And can I give the present and card?”
“Well… all right,” Jae capitulates, as if she quite wanted to perform the task herself, “I think you should do it.” She watches, consoled, as Chloe’s mouth forms into a smile.
Transferring Chloe gently back to the bed, switching her night lamp on, and giving her Pink Rabbit to cuddle, Jae says, “Fun tomorrow,” and walks away, leaving the door wide open.
Downstairs Jae makes more noise than usual with the washing up, believing it might comfort Chloe hearing her down there, pottering away with the chores as usual. But at the sink she thinks uneasily, ‘So a white lie solves it… for now.’ Although she had attenuated the truth, it had felt appropriate to do so. She reasons that there will be plenty of time for Chloe to form her own opinion in future years. But at least Chloe has had age-appropriate reassurance in the meantime. The distressing concept of her own death is perhaps too much for a little girl to bear without consolation. How could she tell her daughter that when she dies her body will simply rot away like all other organic things, and that she will be lost to oblivion forever? For now, during Chloe’s transition from her Garden of Eden into reality, where she must toil the rest of her life with the burden of her own cessation, she has a fig leaf to clutch as she embarks upon the daunting seas of human understanding.
© Jackie Griffiths 2015
Jackie Griffiths is the author of the philosophical novel, Ox Herding: A Secular Pilgrimage. She has a BSc in Psychology & Computing, and an MA in Psychoanalytic Studies. Twitter: @jackieauthor.