Growing Up

About 20 years ago, I was at a restaurant with my parents, reading a kid’s science magazine below the table. In a small box at the bottom of the page, it mentioned something called the greenhouse effect, caused by cars and factories. The effect could eventually screw up the entire planet’s environment.

My head jolted up. I interrupted my parents’ conversation, which was about something boring, like real-estate prices or which highway to take home.

“Is this real?” I asked, pointing at the magazine.

Oh yeah, definitely, one of them said.

“Is it getting fixed?” I said.

No, no, people don’t really know how to fix it.

And then I remember feeling something constrict in my chest. It was like the adult feeling of learning that a loved one is in danger, of seeing the comfortable world teeter on its axis. There was a problem with the entire planet, and everyone was just allowing it to go on?

— Robinson Meyer, “Why Greta Makes Adults Uncomfortable” at The Atlantic

Do you remember when you first discovered death? The shape and feel of it. Maybe a pet or a grandparent. Were you too young to fully grasp the full implication — this being is gone and will never be again?

I was five, maybe four, and we lived outside of Rapid City, SD, USA in a trailer, on a little piece of land. A neighbor rescued greyhounds fromn the track. Their entire life had been training to chase a bit of fur. I don’t know if the neighbor was doing a good job of resucing the dogs and rehabilitating them to live with people in society, not chasing a bit of fur. The dogs were in a largish kennel (this is all mediated by memory: I was small and there were at least three dogs, maybe as many as six) made of chainlink. A group of children were near the kennel doing childish stuff and a barn cat wandered over. Into the sightline of the dogs.

A bit of fur.

The dogs broke the gate from the kennel and destroyed the barn cat. I ran home, traumatized. Pieces clicked into place: my dad mowing and hitting a nest of garter snakes. No bag on the mower, he returned covered in snake blood. And there were no more snakes. A dog that had been around, that I barely remembered, or maybe only remembered from a few photos in an album. And it wasn’t around anymore. My family had a cat and it often went outside and if it wandered over to where the dogs lived…

And from then on, I knew the shape of death.

There are arguments over reading lists for compulsory education: appropriate topics, language in the books (whether cursing or other inappropriate language), maturity of the readers versus the subject matter.

Adults want to protect the innocence of the young, but innocence dies early. The young are better at living in the moment, which is what is real, maybe, at times. The “grown-ups” mix aspirations, regrets, fears, nostalgia, and hopes into a heady cocktail of “not-now” and insist on drinking from it constantly. Kids just are for much of their lives.

When children learn a hard truth — everything dies, the world is ending — it becomes part of the warp and weft. They are never the same, but they are still children.

I was terrified and sad and more when the dogs followed their instincts and training. Meyer didn’t stop being a child but he wasn’t the same after learning of greenhouse warming and the inaction or inability of the world. He now writes about climate change. Was that the germ of his current career? Perhaps it drove him to action.

I am not sure that the arguments over content is about wanting to protect the young as much as it is about fearing them. They exist in the present, more than most adults, and they have agency. They want change and they act towards it.

Look at the Parkland shooting survivors, Greta Thunberg, and others. “We don’t have much power but we will use it. And try for more.” Their action paints our inaction more sharply, more harshly. The better angels of our nature are not the best part of ourselves, but different beings.

It would have been unwise for my parents to say “everything dies” after the incident with the dogs. They comforted me and reminded me to cherish the time I still had with my cat. Later, after the death of a family member, they did the same. They couldn’t keep the knowledge of death from me, that would have been disrespectful and impossible. They didn’t have to relish it, nor the conversations about it. And I did have to sit with it, live with it, let it become part of my understanding of the world, snake into the weave.

We fear the young for their energy and light and we fear the difficult conversations, those that have no easy answers nor any answers at times.

Instead of arguing over the books, maybe we should put the energy into our conversations with them. “Here is a hard truth. What do you think? How do you feel?” and, after they have answered, “Here are my thoughts. My feelings” and talk about those, and the differences. These topics affect everyone and almost everyone1 can have thoughts and feelings and possible solutions about them.

Like death, change is inevitable. Will we support it or fight it?

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.

We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.

— Greta Thunberg to the UN Climate Action Summit, transcript available at NPR

  1. The very young may not have the framework to understand the context. What is gone, beyond not here at this moment? What is the world? Climate? But a simpler model might be enough at a young age.