May 4, 2023
“Contrary to universal public opinion, children do not play; they do not pretend; they do not make believe. They are!”
Does it seem weird to you that a website devoted to serious philosophical, theological, and cultural issues would include an article on stuffed animals? If so, I sympathize, but sit back, it’s about to get even weirder!
We are adults, we are sophisticated; we draw a bright line between things that are alive, sentient, and intentional, and things that are not. Except that no one can actually locate that line; oops!
“Don’t confuse the issue! Don’t use your philo-speak and theo-babel to make ambiguous what is obviously so well-defined.”
Obvious? To whom? Certainly, not to my three-year-old daughter. She invests her $19.99 stuffed animals with at least as much humanity as she does her peers. She cries if one of them is hurt; she panics if one of them is lost. She goes out of her way not to hurt their feelings, and (don’t try this at home) I’m pretty sure she’d run into a burning building to rescue them.
Is she committing a ‘category error’? Has she fallen prey to Whitehead’s Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness? Is she committing the sin of idolatry?
The reverse is true! Idolaters reduce; my daughter elevates. Née Roman Catholic, at the age of three, she has become an observant Hasid, ranking right alongside the Baal Shem Tov in the strength of her faith. She has already found the Shekinah, the spark of God that lives in all things; I am still searching.
I have 4 children and 11 grandchildren; recently, I’ve even earned ‘great-grand’ status. Unfortunately, only now, at age 75, have I discovered the key to understanding childhood. Contrary to universal public opinion, children do not play; they do not pretend; they do not make - believe. They are!
How could I have ever imagined otherwise? Playing, pretending, and making believe are extremely complex behaviors. They require a very well-defined ontological map. You need to learn to play, and for that, you need a firm sense of ‘self, other, and world’ (I, you, it, for short.)
When we meet an adult with an imperfectly defined map…we institutionalize him! How can we expect a small child to work out such a map on her own? Ridiculous!
Missed signs: Using Play-Doh, I fashioned a toy car for a four-year-old grandchild; when we were done, she asked in all innocence and sincerity, “Why doesn’t it start?”
Another time, I made the mistake of saying to a five-year-old preparing for Halloween, “So, you’re going as Captain America this year.” Crestfallen, he turned to me and said, “No… I am Captain America!” Up to then, he had considered me ‘a fellow traveler’; now his faith was shattered. I was just another stupid adult.
All the ‘belts and welts of childhood’ (Samuel Beckett) do not come close to the agony of betrayed trust. ‘Cool adults’ are a child’s worst enemy. Better the aloof parents and austere nannies of the Victorian era; at least kids knew what they were up against. Shane.
Now, for the ‘weirder’ part! My daughter is away for the weekend. I happen to go into her empty bedroom to retrieve some inconsequential trinket, when I notice her menagerie, lined up on her bed against a wall. (She varies the order each night so that no one’s feelings get hurt. She confesses no favorites; she seeks to love all her children the same.)
When I catch sight of her loved ones, I am overcome by her presence. I feel her through them. She has invested them with a ‘portion’ of her own spirit. Are these ‘stuffies’ now more alive for me than many members of my own species? Indeed! Would I run into a burning building to rescue them? Perhaps.
We have turned epistemology upside down. We imagine that we begin with raw experience, that we fashion that experience into a mappa mundi, that we formulate hypotheses based on that map, conduct experiments and ‘draw conclusions on the wall’ (Dylan). We don’t.
We begin with conclusions we had no hand in drawing. They were handed to us by our parents, our teachers, our peers, and of course, the omnipresent media. We view all experience through the prism of those conclusions. In the process, we interpose various patterns (e.g., science, reason) to help us get from preconceived Omega back to freshly discovered Alpha.
Have you read Through the Looking Glass recently? A man is in prison, soon he will be sentenced; after the sentence comes the verdict and after the verdict, a trial; last of all, the crime itself. And what if there is no crime after all? Well, so much the better; the system works!
Sidebar: In the ‘60s I worked with tween boys, a few of whom confessed to receiving an occasional ‘warning beating’ to ensure the best behavior at some upcoming event. According to them, “It works!” and none seemed particularly bothered by the injustice of it.
Have you ever tried to assemble furniture from IKEA? When you’re done, you’re inevitably left with a jumble of unused pieces. What to do with them? Throw them out, of course! Likewise, the process of supporting preconceived conclusions with actual experience leaves a pile of events, unaccounted for and ready for discard.
Like any good DIYer, we consign this remnant toontological hell, the domain of the random, the particular, the magical or the miraculous, depending on your bent of mind. What we need is a good course in finished carpentry. To heck with IKEA, we need to learn to build our own furniture. To do that, we need to ignore pre-packaged solutions and respect the raw data of our own experience, even if it leads to us seeing God in a Teddy Bear.