Recognizing the Wolf at the Door
I have found myself remembering a child's prayer dating back to 1711. That year was a time in which little children were brought forth into a world they often too soon departed. Parents prayed with their children, reminding them about the fragility of life.
"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
Bless me Lord my soul to take."
The prayer isn't prayed much anymore. It's considered too violent and too morose for little lips to repeat.
Yet as we know, little souls were and are taken to God. Death came to a Connecticut schoolhouse last week. Violently, suddenly, before the children had another night's sleep. Solemn Death, as poetess Emily Dickinson noted not only stopped for her; but the Grim reaper also passed by children at recess.
But there is another great evil visiting the classrooms of our public schools every day, though it is often not recognized as such. That is the absence of learning about and confronting Evil.
When did we begin to think our children would be better off if they never knew about Evil? When did we begin to think we could spare all of them from even thinking about death and eternity? When did we decide the great questions facing humankind no longer need to be discussed, much less answered? When did we decide we humans could protect children from all harm, taking on the role of an omniscient and sovereign God even as we refused to give our little ones the moral compass and spiritual armor that would help keep them safe as they marched through life's fiery trials?
When we decided we could make school could be an artificial paradise where no harm would ever intrude. Ever. That's when.
For if there is one place where a distorted version of Eden on earth is most adamantly promulgated, it is within the public schools of America. In those pious and hallowed halls every child is to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. There, we are to find no bullying. There, no child is left behind. There, every child gets a trophy. There, every child can be whatever he wants to be. There every child is equal. There a one size fits all curriculum ensures every kid is as mediocre as the one in sitting in the desk next to her. There, never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day. There, every day is filled with rainbows and every classroom serves up sugar cookies whipped up by half baked, fruitcake educators.
Why do we want our children to be stupidly innocent, preferring naiveté to hard-earned wisdom? Why do we prefer creating and teaching a utopian fantasy to the hard work of helping our children to be truly good?
Do we think Johnny doesn't know Suzie is a very bad girl who follows all the rules but digs her verbal knives into the heart of every kid in the classroom? Do we think Emily doesn't know the teacher dislikes her and treats her like a pariah? Do we believe Gloria doesn't know her grandfather is a monster who visits her every night, a worse troll than ever challenged Billy Goat Gruff? Does Gregory not know his little brother Joseph is going to die from cancer and that he won't be wearing rainbow coats any time soon? Do we adults not know in our own hearts how awful our let's-pretend-everything-is-fine can be to little lambs who are trustfully looking to us to provide them with guidance when a truly terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day happens?
What a heavy, foolish, and futile labor it is to believe and to teach the childish premise that Evil can be locked outside the halls of learning and that all violence can be contained or eradicated forever. What fatuity to think our children must not know the truth about the fragility and vicissitudes of life. What utter fecklessness to deprive them of the sorrowful glory of grappling with the ancient conflict of Good and Evil. What cruelty -- yes, cruelty -- to deprive them of the moral compass they need to find their way through the maze of life with its inevitable twists and turns.
Even the old, old stories have been revised so that no little child will be disturbed by the knowledge of good and evil. Grimm's fairy tales and Hans Christian Anderson's stories have all been subjected to a starry eyed utopianism that wishes to create a fairy tale existence without the trauma and struggle trolls, goblins, and witches bring. Life is all fairies, princesses, elves, and pixie dust.
I once picked up a beautifully illustrated but vapid version of the Three Little Pigs only to return it when I discovered the wolf suffered no worse fate than falling down the chimney into a pot of hot tea. Then, merely wet-not even scalded! -- the beast ran off into the forest and the pigs danced a celebratory jig. As if the wolf wouldn't be back again. In the version I read as a child, the three pigs jumped the wolf and killed him dead. It was a satisfying ending, I remember. I loved the justice of it all. After all, the wolf was going to eat all three of them.
A similar fate has befallen the great story of Peter and the Wolf. One can scarcely find a version in which the wolf is actually shot dead. I saw one of the most recent versions of the tale, a child's play in which the wolf was sent off the zoo, there to live happily ever after. Even a justifiably praised, wonderfully rich animated version directed by Suzie Templeton depicts the wolf as merely captured and released, ineffectually and feebly glowering as he runs off into the distance.
Little Red Riding Hood and the three little pigs knew devouring and destructive wolves were out there. Even more ominously, Hansel and Gretel found, alas, that parents and little old witches can be more ferociously feral than any wolf. The old legend of the werewolf teaches that humans can assume the characteristics of a beast while still retaining human cunning; that an ordinary beast of prey could become something far, far worse in human guise.
The old stories tell the truth about Good and Evil in ways kids can understand, which is why the old stories should be read unedited. Which also is why, as they graduate from fairy tales and antique fables, the legends of great heroes must be read and grand adventures filled with gallant struggles should be told. Which is why the great commandments must be known and discussed, and the Good Book read while matters of miracle and faith are looked into.
Even a child can learn that in the face of great Evil there are great things to be learned and great deeds to be accomplished. Even a child can learn to be brave and good. Even a little one can learn compassion. Even a child can grasp that tears for the fallen are noble tears and cheers for the hero a wonderful thing.
Even a child can learn the great virtues do not exist unless Evil is acknowledged and confronted. Without the battle, where would be courage? Without suffering where would be compassion? In a perfect world, such virtues do not exist.
The attempt to create Paradise here by denying the existence of Evil and refusing to teach our little ones the rules and virtues necessary to confront it, any paradise we seek to create will inevitably be a fantastical and empty chimera. For on any given day, the wolf comes to the door and demands, "Let me in." Are our children prepared to recognize the beast and to nobly kill it before he devours them?
Do we ardently wish that the great and best virtues could be learned another way than through the reality of Evil and suffering? Would we love to have a perfect world where the wolves of Evil and Death never knock at the door? Yes. Of course we wish virtues could be learned otherwise. But they can't.
A matter like understanding the mystery of a ferocious God who is perfectly good remains the intellectual and spiritual struggle of every age. The "fearful symmetry" remains the eternal mystery, as William Blake noted in his poem, "Tyger, Tyger."
[...] When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The struggle to understand God, wrestling with the problem of Good and Evil, the human dilemma and the other great issues which confront all humankind are necessary struggles for each of our children if they are to grow into adults. As Brene Brown said in a recent talk on vulnerability, "children are hardwired for struggle."
The great burden, hope, and overwhelming mystery of humanity is that good can arise from even the most profound struggles with suffering and death. Forgiveness, hope, and love remain, constant and unconquerable, stronger than Death itself.
Though Paradise has been lost -- and it has been -- there is hope of gaining virtues Paradise never knew. There is hope that even in the face of Evil and the Valley of Death, there is still Good pursuing us, running us down with kindness, mercy and love. There is the joy and mystery of knowing there is virtue in bravely fighting Evil. There is the knowledge that even though the dragon waited to devour the Holy Child whose birthday we soon commemorate, the Dragon is slain, though like the Balrog, his tail can still thrash the unwary.
There is faith that Evil will never ultimately win.
Fay Voshell may be reached at mailto:email@example.com