Life on the fringe of understanding

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This morning, I bumped into a household scene that arrested my train of thought. Along the roadside, in front of a yew hedge that surrounds the horse track, a youngish woman was shouting at a little boy; 5 years old or so. “Lundi, Mardi, Mercredi!”, she screamed.

She repeated the days of the week and made the boy repeat them after her. He did fine but every time he hesitated, she raised her hand in anger, threatening to hit him. She didn’t, but as far as the little boy was concerned, he was being battered to death. Tears streaming down his red cheeks.To make matters worse, or better in fact, the skies broke into a downpour and drill sergeant Jane, brought to her senses, called a dog who had wisely kept his distance and the little family pursued its course into the challenges of parenting and growing up.

Some/many parents assume that they have given birth to a genius and even though statistically that chance is close to zero, they will raise their offspring on the basis that their own missed claims to fame and fortune will finally be vindicated by the quality of their genetic material and anyone suggesting otherwise will face the fury of self preservation.

I don’t know that little boy and will probably never see him again but his reluctant pristine mind can teach us something. Us, as in the intelligent grownups that know thousands of words and can quote from more or less learned works. Us, as in the people that master inter-human relations and communications and are only rarely caught out by the unexpected. I’m not being cynical: this could be a definition of being a mature adult.

Little Boy couldn’t recall the days of the week, possibly because they are quite meaningless. The concept of time is a human fabrication. You can’t see or feel time. You can tell night from day and snow from a heat wave but Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday are human artefacts that helps us organise our life. Little boys don’t need to organise their lives and although they may be equipped with a good dose of innate reason, logic and recollection, that concept of day of the week is artificial.

When you speak with speech therapists who help children overcome speech and language issues, you realise how hard it must be for children to learn our own language because much of our language is based on concepts rather than things. Try and explain the word ‘concept’ without using concepts.

Good luck.

In time, Little Boy will be battered into learning the days of the week and other basic concepts by helpful adults and peers. But his revenge will be sweet.

“They like jumping in front of the television”, said my mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s.

“Oh that.” I said. “The kids are playing a video game: Dance Central. The idea is to copy the dancing that you see on the TV and the best dancer wins.”

“So why are they jumping in front of the television?”, she asked.

You don’t have to have Alzheimer’s to lose touch with the new concepts in this world. I had no idea what Gangnam Style was until Psy had half a billion hits. It took me years to work out what Twitter was really for and I’m still not sure. Facebook? I know it is central in the lives of many people but exactly what role it plays I haven’t really understood. What is wrong with email? What is wrong with meeting friends in person? Whay are they jumping in front of the television?

My daughter has tried to explain “Instagram” to me (even MS Word doesn’t know that word).

“Well, you post photos and then people can ‘like’ them”, she explained.

“What photos? Of yourself?”

“Sure, whatever you like”.

“But why? What is the point?”

“Oh, forget it Dad!”

Notice that she didn’t shout at me or raise her hand. Children are surprisingly forgiving with those old people called parents. If parents think that their young geniuses are temporarily stupid, adolescent children think that their parents have atrophied brains and need to be handled with care and compassion. Or ignored.

When you visit elderly people at the end of their lives, you often avoid some of the contemporary subjects, unless it is within the expertise sphere of that person. Instead you talk about issues that are 20 or more years old. You say that power steering is a great invention or that not all Germans are bad.

The world we live in is one thing; even my cat gets that. But the world we have created is highly complex and permanently in flux. We understand that the young and elderly can only touch the fringes, but how sure can we be that our peers – the mature adults – really get it all?

I am not so sure. Perhaps we should pursue a strategy of kindness towards our fellows when we argue over important things. We may be smart enough to debate; but are we smart enough to understand what we are debating?

Little Boy was saved by the rain. Perhaps I should spend more time outside.

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7 thoughts on “Life on the fringe of understanding

  1. Your story broke my heart. I think of my three children and how differently each one learned. One thing for certain – yelling at or berating them is monstrous. Holy crap – big hug where ever you might be little boy.

  2. Oh my goodness, what a shocking story of painfully atrocious parenting! But you’ve pulled such interesting and thought-provoking ideas from it. Seriously excellent post! In fact, it may be my favourite ever best post in the world. Why’s there no button for that?

  3. No. I am not smart enough to understand what I am debating, most of the time.
    Perhaps the concept of understanding already narrows it down too much for people of all ages and mental abilities, since we can only understand based on what we already know.
    Sometimes I think that small children and people with Alzheimer are far more capable to appreciate surprises, and at other times I surprise myself by an unexpected flexibility, but when it comes to Twitter, Facebook and Gangnam style, you may think of me as a lost cause.
    I like how you play with age and time here, Genetic Fractals! 🙂

    1. But when you debate – you do so to grow and learn, not to convince (I think). That makes you smart!

      I have a ‘theory’ that the human search or desire for paradise is the search for that lost time when the innocence of our youngest age allowed us to experience everything in complete bliss.I don’t think old age brings us such relief but perhaps dying will.

      Thank God for Zen – I won’t have to wait either way 🙂

      1. Thank you. You’re right. I am not in it to convince myself or anyone else.

        What you say about the innocence of our youngest age makes me think of Márquez…I don’t know which book, where he describes how the almost forgotten great-grandparents of the family are dressed up and put in a pram and pushed around by the children. Merrily, merrily, etc. I thought it was romantic and indicative of non-linear time. 🙂

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