The arc of the moral universe is longer than the attention span of a five-year-old

Whoa-oh, what I want to know is are you kind?”

– Grateful Dead

There is a certain kind of comic moment that restores balance to the world in a way that is always recognized as beautiful and fitting. My daughter Mara often creates this kind of moment, unintentionally of course, as the by-product of signaling to me that she’s done with a particular line of conversation and needs to move on.

Example? I thought you’d never ask. It happened tonight in fact. We were at the drug store fetching some medicine. Mara was eyeing a rack of Silly Bandz™ packets and coveting them vocally, despite the fact that she’d got a packet of the popular and colorful shape-holding rubber wrist bands in her Christmas stocking just two days ago. She hadn’t realized there were so many different kinds available. Pink pony ones! Finger sized ones! She told me she wanted me to get her some of the pink pony ones for her birthday.

As we walked out of the store I smelled cigarette smoke and said “Yuck, someone’s smoking.”

Mara, holding my hand as we (I) dodged puddles in the parking lot, looked around for the offending individual and said “That’s so unjust!”

I chuckled and said, “What does unjust mean to you, Mara?”

She enlarged to the effect that people aren’t allowed to smoke cigarettes. I explained that actually, in the State of Washington, it was neither unjust nor unlawful to smoke cigarettes unless you were doing it indoors in a public place. Then, because she seemed interested and engaged, I explained that unjust meant “deeply unfair”, and that justice had nothing much to do with the law, that in fact some laws were unjust.

As we drove out of the parking lot, she directly behind me in her booster seat, I cited by way of example the fact that not many many years ago there was a law saying women could not vote. I explained that that law was unfair and people eventually realized it was unfair and got rid of that law.

Mara seemed favorably impressed by this news, so I went on.

“We like to obey the laws,” I said. “The laws are created, most of them, to keep us safe and make sure things are fair. But God doesn’t care so much about the law as he does about what’s fair and just.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into the whole Jim Crow thing with her, but Mara had responded with interest to the sufferage issue, so I kept going.

“There used to be laws in many parts of our country that said that African Americans and other people with dark skin couldn’t go into certain stores or ride on buses with white people.”

“Why?” asked Mara.

“Why? Wow, I don’t even know why. That just seems wrong, doesn’t it?”

“What was wrong about that?”

“Well, it wasn’t fair. Imagine if you had white skin, like we do, and you were hungry and you went into a town where most of the people had dark skin, and they said you couldn’t buy food there, and you said but I’m hungry and I need food, and they said I’m sorry but we don’t serve people like you here, how would you feel? Would you feel that you were being treated fairly?”

“No, I think that would be unfair. I think that would be unjust.”

I beamed a smile she could not see as we puttered home in the dark rainy night. “That’s right,” I said. “I’m so glad you get that.”

And then, I admit, the spirit took me. The pontificating urge rose up. The image of the father teaching his daughter in the way of truth just congealed in my head. It seemed to be going swimmingly, and I couldn’t stop.

“So you see, Mara, laws are things that people make, but God is the one that speaks in our hearts about what is fair and just.”

I imagined Mara in conversation with a friend someday, perhaps long after I am gone, saying “My dad used to say that…” and she would repeat the gem of an adage that I was just now saying to her in the car on this cold and rainy night. Only I was having trouble distilling the point into a gem. I kept fumbling for it in pithy little fragments.

“See, what we decide is lawful isn’t the same as what’s just. You can make all the laws you want, but…”

I was homing in on it. I was close. I was wound up and feeling that the truth and importance of what I was saying would carry this moment into the end-zone. My role as the parent, dispenser of knowledge and calibrator of the moral compass for my daughters, had wrapped me like a mantel and I was putting the cap on a speech that was worthy of that role.

“Dad?” she interrupted. “For my birthday will you get me three packs of Silly Bandz?”

The stage notes at this point call for a slight pause, and in the light reflecting off the rear view mirror onto the father’s face we see a look that we might have seen a million times on the visage of Dick Van Dyke or Bob Newhart. Jack Benny. The moment was deflated. I had lost her, and all I could do was look at the camera and be wry.

“Yes, sweety. We’ll get you three packs of Silly Bandz for your birthday. It’s a long time from now, so you may have to remind me.”

“I will.”

13 Responses to “The arc of the moral universe is longer than the attention span of a five-year-old”


  1. 1 kiwidutch December 28, 2010 at 01:30

    I’m laughing out loud as I’ve ” Been There, Done That” more times than I like to admit.
    Trouble is, that you never know until the last second if you still have them adsorbed in the depth of the conversation or if they took a detour inside their little brains ages earlier but just haven’t let you know.
    If it’s the latter, it has the same effect every time. You wonder where you lost them and it’s a shock that you did.
    BUT the upside is that sometimes they DO stay with you to the very end AND they come out with something profound that tells you that they truly got it, and THAT moment is priceless.
    Sometimes I seriously wonder that moments they *will* retain as “gems” into their adulthood… will it be something sage and wise and profound, or will it be something that makes me go ” um…What????!”.
    I can only hope that it’s nothing taken out of context, or anything that I regret.
    I did have a moment with my nine year old this morning… missing hairbrush, she tells me that she will “just buy a new one”. I said Ok, fine but it’s coming out of your own pocket money. This sparked a sudden renewed interest in finding missing brush and once it turned up we had a chat about it being better to be organised and know where your things are than to have to waste money on replacing it unnecessarily.
    She appeared to “get” that I didn’t want to waste my money as much as she didn’t want to waste hers, and has avowed to clean up after herself more (yeah right, ask me how that’s holding up in three days time LOL).
    Still, it WAS a tiny light bulb moment and little glimmers of light turn into big ones eventually as they learn to connect to the “grid” of growing up.
    The weirdest bit is that these moments often happen at the strangest of times and stem from the events that you never would have predicted.
    If even a minuscule fraction of the lesson was received than take it as a single step taken. The journey is far gar from over but even baby steps all are forward in motion and one day Mara will not only “get it”, she will be the one sitting in the front seat looking into the rear view mirror doing exactly the same.

  2. 2 Janet December 28, 2010 at 11:08

    The grandmother speaking here – a college friend and I, each now with 3 sons and a number of grandchildren, were talking about similar concerns the other day. e.g. how to advise grown up sons. Her advice is just nod sagely and let them think they know it all. This is not quite the issue yet between you and Mara. But when she is in that driving seat and taking her dad out shopping, for example,well….I’ll just let you take the story from that point. Maybe nodding sagely is the answer. I might add that my 1 1/2 year old grandson knows how to nod sagely already.

  3. 3 Angela December 28, 2010 at 18:02

    Okay, so next time you start to ramble, I’m going to ask you if you’ll get me three packs of Silly Bandz for my birthday!!!! I hope it goes over well ;-).

  4. 4 leatherhead109 December 29, 2010 at 14:34

    Ah, dear brother, how our very different lives seem to parallel each at times. I have been in your “car” seat four times over, each with differing reactions. You know, the eldest, stoic and reserved, but forming her own opinion. The second eldest, not liking to hear any of it, no grown up talk. Then the twins…..

    “That man doesn’t have any safeties on! He could die!”

    Father: Its not a law that you must wear a helmet.

    “Well it should be..”

    Father: That isn’t how a country like ours is intended to work. We are free people. Laws only come about when the freedom of others infringes upon the masses, or well, the influential mass.

    “Well I think they would want their family to not lose them”

    Father: Yes sweetheart, but that doesn’t mean we have a law about it.

    And so on. I can’t have a good F—- Father style lecture without them taking it to a level never intended for small ears. One time after explaining who the Taliban was (due to NPR being broadcast on the way to the dump) I had to piece the wee lad back together because he somehow came to the conclusion that the Taliban might come here. Then that went to..”Would they make you fight for the Army?” And I’m like, “Well no, too old, not unless it was really bad…”Well” he says, with tears in his eyes, “I would go in your place if they wanted you.” Now we’re both blathering and I’m trying to keep the truck on the road, thinking “How the H-E-Double L, did he get the conversation to this point? I am soooo in trouble with the wife, and I don’t even know how it got here!”

    Then all of a sudden, “Dad, can we talk about something else?”

  5. 5 jstwndrng December 29, 2010 at 17:14

    Great stories everyone, and thanks all you seasoned parents for the support. Good to know this happens to other people all the time.

    Angela, I DID get you three packs of Silly Bandz for your next birthday.

  6. 6 Louis December 30, 2010 at 11:20

    The smile on my face grew so wide from reading this story, that the back of my head fell off. Most enjoyable. Thank you.

  7. 9 Denim January 4, 2011 at 17:38

    So well told and written, it almost begs for more.

    Bravo!

    “The pontificating urge rose up.”

    LOL…you have no idea how well that phrase fits my house hold!

    I followed kiwidutch over here and am pleased now that I did, worth the extra time for sure!

    • 10 jstwndrng January 4, 2011 at 20:20

      Hi Denim,
      Thanks for the comment. Kiwidutch is a good tour guide, I’ve found. Glad you made it here. I see you left a URL to your blog. I’ll get over soon and find out “whatz that all about.”

      • 11 Denim January 4, 2011 at 21:17

        Oops, I just want to clarify that your writing DID beg for more, not almost but an actual did!

        I reviewed more of your posts and you are certainly a gifted writer and I enjoyed the readings. I am more of a reader than a blogger perhaps and I think it is what I came looking for here at wordpress.

        Most pleased to have “run” in to you.

        Loved the story about the clothes line!

  8. 12 jstwndrng January 4, 2011 at 22:11

    @Denim,
    Oh there’s more. There’s lots more. And you’re welcome here anytime, as long as you don’t light that stogey. I’ll have to go read the clothesline post again, I’ve forgotten what its gist was.


  1. 1 Tricky Questions Provoke dealing with Thorny Issues… « Local Heart, Global Soul Trackback on January 4, 2011 at 17:02

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