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Kabbalah and Thomas the Train

David Cowles

Jun 1, 2023

“Children and tank engines are not so different from the rest of us. They crave meaning! They only settle for pleasure when…they lose hope.”

How plugged in are you to the five-and-under crowd? Not so much? Ok, try this for an icebreaker: ask your favorite neighborhood terror to name his or her favorite character from movies, TV or books. Expecting Winnie the Pooh or Paddington Bear? You may be in for a surprise.

Ask that question of any properly aged, English-speaking child on either side of the Atlantic, and you’re likely to learn a lot more than you ever cared to know about Thomas the Tank Engine and his Friends on the Island of Sodor in the UK.

Created in 1945 and popularized in 1979, Thomas represents a very different take on the ‘childhood hero.’ Thomas is not mischievous; he is not introspective; he is not filled with existential angst; he’s not even heroic, and he certainly has no superpowers. 

Thomas defies the stereotype of childhood as fantastical, hedonistic, self-indulgent, and anti-social. His sole goal in life is to be “a really useful tank engine.” In this sense, he is the anti-Pooh. 

Thomas wants to earn the respect of his boss, Sir Topham Hatt, and the friendship of his fellow engines and rolling stock. He wants a sense of identity; he wants to belong. 

Unfortunately, young and inexperienced as he is, Thomas makes mistakes, each of which he feels deeply. He finds himself at times teased, ridiculed, ignored, criticized, and even disciplined – like any child his age. But he never loses his good humor; he never stops trying to ‘be all that he can be,’ and from time to time, he has well-recognized successes. 

Thomas may be sad, angry, or frustrated, but he is never depressed. His only response to adversity is to try even harder to be the tank engine he knows he was ‘born’ to be. Anything less is out of the question.

So what’s so revolutionary about this? Defying the West’s philosophical consensus, Thomas puts zero weight on personal happiness. He evaluates himself by one and only one criterion: is he being useful, and, if so, is he being as useful as he could be?

It turns out that children and tank engines are not so different from the rest of us. They crave meaning! They only settle for pleasure when, like The Great Gatsby, they lose hope: “Living well is the best revenge!” Pleasure is the graveyard of hope and a poor substitute for purpose.

Imagine, children have an innate desire to be useful! Who knew? But we systematically frustrate that desire and divert it into self-centered pleasure seeking. Not you? You never offered a child a bowl of ice cream to ‘make up for’ some disappointment? Yet we marvel, “What’s the matter with kids today?” Answer: Look in the mirror!

We do things to and for and occasionally with children, but we’re terrified to let them do anything on their own. We need to be needed, and we’re happy to exploit the children in our orbit to satisfy that need. “You will be dependent on me…or else!”

A baby is born! Hallelujah! But somewhere along the way, no later than age seven, usually much earlier, we encase that ‘caterpillar’ in a chrysalis until its 18th birthday when it is expected to emerge, fully formed and beautiful, as a butterfly. 

It’s a dangerous reproductive strategy, one that frequently goes awry. Yet with each hiccup, we double down. Like any species caught in an evolutionary cul-de-sac, we insist on making our adaptations work, empirical evidence notwithstanding.

Crystlle Medansky creates children’s literature from the tradition of Kabbalah – an ancient school of Jewish mysticism related to, but not identical with, Hasidism. In one story, A Droplet, she tells the tale of a single drop of water, aptly named Dewy. 

Dewy lives in the sea but the experience is unsatisfying. Vast, undifferentiated water is not very interesting, and by itself it reveals nothing about the nature of Dewy, the ocean, or the world.

So Ocean agrees to send Dewy on a quest of self-discovery; it begins with Dewy’s evaporation and resumes with his eventual recondensation. Dewy’s goal is to return to Ocean, newly enlightened about the world, the self (Dewy) and the other (Sea). It is the paradigm of all life-experience. 

The soul of any such quest is the journey itself, not the destination. After all, when all is said and done, we end up right back where we started. Oh, but the adventures we have along the way!

Dewy is anxious to complete his quest by returning to the ocean of his birth, but he does not place himself and his interests on a pedestal. Along the way, Dewy encounters various fellow creatures who need his help.

Despite the urgency of his own mission, Dewy does not begrudge others the help they need to complete their own life journeys. 

First, a stalk of wheat needs hydration. “I’m in a hurry, but if you need my help, I will stay.” And Dewy stayed with the wheat until it had ripened. Then a stream needed Dewy’s help to wear away enough rock to create an unobstructed pathway to the sea. Again, Dewy responded generously. 

Next, Dewy encountered a boat that needed a wave to push it out to sea; Dewy selflessly delays his own reunion with Ocean in order to accelerate the arrival of his ‘fellow traveler.' At last, just as Dewy can hear the roar of the ocean ahead, a young mother calls to him from the embankment: “Can you help me take care of my little child?” Of course I can!

Quest complete, Dewy finally reunites with the source of his being, the ocean. We don’t know what Dewy’s expectations were when he embarked on his quest, but it’s doubtful he expected to be gone for so many years. Still, it’s a small price to pay for the Pearl of Great Price, aka Enlightenment. Dewy’s quest allows him to realize that the meaning of life is not mystical union with the sea, but the helping hand he can lend to others on their own personal quests.

Life is what happens while you’re waiting to begin living. Dewy was waiting to complete his quest so that his enhanced life with Ocean could begin. Instead, he discovers the real meaning of life lies in the projects of the others he encounters on his way.

After an experience like this, Dewy will not be satisfied with the simple pleasures of frolicking with Ocean. Dewy, like Thomas, has discovered purpose…and nothing else will ever satisfy him again.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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