When I was a child I had a lot of faith in adults, especially my parents. And by faith I mean that I really believed that my elders had the answers to all of those curious questions I had about the world. I came to the realization the other day that somewhere along the line, I turned into an adult. Even though I lack most of the important contemporary signifiers of adulthood, (marriage, children, a career, a mortgage) I am at an age where my friends are starting to have these things. Yes, the kid’s I grew up with now have children of their own and those adorable little brats are brimming with questions. Questions that are above my head.
This is probably completely obvious to parents, but like I said, I am not a parent; this revelation came recently while driving over the mountains with my buddy and his daughter who was in the back seat seemingly fascinated by everything on the other side of her window. We were stopped at an intersection and there was road work being done on the cross street to our left. A policeman was directing traffic and the headlights of passing cars were reflected off the rainy late evening air as drivers slowly maneuvered around the cones. “Daddy, what are those glowing things?” Cassidy asked from the back seat. I hadn’t noticed myself but surrounding the bulldozers and work trucks, road flares were blazing red, pulsating like stars. My buddy answered without hesitation or even much thought, “those are road flares, Cassidy.” I looked back at Cassidy in her car seat and saw a look of awe on her face as she made the new association between image and sound…r o a d f l a r e.
I am willing to concede that the object that glowed in the street was a road flare, but is that all it is? I became as curious as Cassidy, what is a road flare, really? I guess it is a chemical reaction, a warning sign, it is probably many things. I was struck with the realization that the way we learn about the world as children is very much a matter of faith in our elders, in their knowledge. My buddy is a smart guy but he doesn’t have the answers to hard questions. He tells his daughter what his parents told him, those glowing things are called road flares. In this way we pass our collective wisdom and ignorance down through the generations.
Faith in authority is a very shabby way to acquire a world view. Ideally, we would have all of eternity to find things out for ourselves (and maybe we do) but if we want to get anything done in this life, we must trust others. I bring this up because I love reading smart people’s ideas about the world; I like to hear what people think about God and space and what it all means. But after my epiphany the other day watching Cassidy, I can’t help but see scientist and priest (the smart people from two warring tribes, or so we would be led to believe. Science and religion should not be at odds with each other, it is the politics of each field that conflict) in the same light as I saw my buddy, a man answering a question the best he could but not really having qualifications to answer it at all. The scientist and the religious give good answers but not final ones. This might all be very obvious, but it has allowed me a little wiggle room--a space to dream. Are we absolutely positive that we understand the expansion of the universe? Do we know for a fact that our distant ancestors were mistaken about God and the gods? Is a capitalist market really the best way to organize our society? Do we know for a fact that trees don’t talk?
Civilization will “progress” and there will still be love and goodies and even catastrophes in the future, in Cassidy’s old age and in her children’s children’s age. But how might the world change dramatically if instead of just seeing a flare--those chemical reaction causing an energy release--Cassidy saw something completely different and had no restriction placed on her vision? What are we failing to see because we fail to look, or even worse, choose not to?