Monday, April 09, 2018

The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter

Vivian Gussin Paley's remarkable book The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter centers around a preschooler named Jason who insists that he is, in fact, a helicopter. Of course, he wasn't really a helicopter, a fact that the other humans in his life insisted upon, especially the adults, who sought to correct him, to control him, even to punish him, none of which seemed to do anything other than to make him more of an outsider. Paley and her teaching team decided to instead try the experiment of simply accepting him at his word, he was a helicopter, the beginning of a process that found this "loner" becoming a valued member of the community of children -- a helicopter named Jason.

There were kids I knew growing up who would insist that they were, say, a fire truck or, more often, that they were going to grow up to be one. I knew a girl who was a flower, a rose specifically, and she would even talk to other flowers. I doubted these kids, of course. I was pretty darned sure that these were inanimate objects and that no matter how hard we wished, we were going to spend our lives as humans, but at the same time, maybe they knew something I didn't know. After all, I "pretended" to be all sorts of things, so my inclination was to simply accept them at their word. I might not have believed them, but it was no skin off my nose to play along.

This wasn't the approach that the adults took, however. They might teasingly go with them for a bit, thinking it was cute, but like the adults in Jason the helicopter's life they would ultimately always try to correct these kids who insisted that unconscious objects were in fact conscious.

I've never taught a child as devoted to his story of being an inanimate object as Jason, but I've known a few who, for a day or a week or even a month, would assert that they were, indeed, a conscious manifestation of something that we all know is unconscious. More often, however, this idea comes up in the form of a child insisting that an actual inanimate object has "feelings." They will, for instance, say that their stuffed animal needs a bandaid. They will tell you that you've hurt their doll's feelings. They are convinced that their favorite truck will be lonely if it's left at home alone. One boy was mortified when I would, after completing one of his favorite felt board songs, unceremoniously roll the felt birds up in their felt tree. "You're hurting them!" he would shout at me, his face twisted into empathetic agony.

I suppose adults, and especially parents and teachers, feel we must correct the children because they are "wrong" in the same way we feel we must let them know that 1+1 does not equal 3. We tell ourselves it's for their own good, that it's our job to make sure they live in a world of facts not fantasy. We certainly can't let them grow up believing that they are helicopters. But, you know, there are multiple levels of fact. And facts change. And even myths contain great truth.

And sometimes, maybe, the children perceive aspects of reality that are blocked of to our adult minds that have been so conditioned by the common wisdom of the society in which we live that it is impossible for us to see certain truths. As adults we want to tell the children, "No, you cannot become an inanimate object. You are a conscious being and those things have no consciousness." It's something we believe so profoundly, yet it is quite possible that the children are right and we are wrong.

"Panpsychism" is a theory of consciousness that takes the view that "(c)onsciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it's the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter." It might sound kooky, but serious philosophers and physicists are increasingly beginning to take the idea seriously, the notion that everything from spoons to stones possess a simple form of consciousness and that this is one of the foundational principles of reality. Maybe this is what children are tapping into when they insist they are helicopters or that their teddy bears are hurt.

It's a stretch, of course. The most likely truth is that these children are simply working out their own psychological and philosophical issues through these inanimate objects, but, you know, it's also not impossible that these kids are capable of perceiving aspects of the universe that we adults can no longer fathom. As philosophy professor Philip Goff puts it, "Why should we think common sense is a good guide to what the universe is like? Einstein tells us weird things about the nature of time that counters common sense; quantum mechanics runs counter to common sense. Our intuitive reaction isn't necessarily a good guide to the nature of reality."

Adults have a lot to teach children, of course, but we must never, never let that cause us forget that children have just as much to teach us. Their lessons for us may not be presented in the sort of straight-forward ways to which we are accustomed. More often than not they come couched in metaphor, myth, and stories, especially the stories they tell about themselves, and they are lessons we will fail to learn as long as we refused believe them when they tell us they are helicopters.

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