With his steel blue eyes, often furrowed brow, and an unrelenting blonde colic sprouting from the crown of his head, that is always slightly visible, my son asks a lot of questions. To his credit he is only 4, questions is what he has a lot of. Why are lemons sour? Why is there still snow outside? Why does Grammy and Papa live over there? Why is Harry Potter dead? Yes, I let my 4-year-old watch Harry Potter, but finding a show that his 13 year old sister will stick around to watch, and that he can enjoy, is a challenge. Trying to explain to a 4 year old, that his favorite character isn’t dead, can also be a challenge.
“Well, you see Harry is only hurt,” I’ll tell him.
“Why is he hurt?” He’ll ask.
“He is hurt because he was protecting his friends,” I’ll respond.
“I’d protect my friends,” he would likely say.
“I’m sure you would, and you’d protect your little sister I bet.” Would be my reply
“Yes, but is Harry Potter dead?”
“No he is only…see he’s getting up. I told you he was only hurt,” I may end the inquiry with and watch his momentary applause of relief.
We will have this conversation, or something close to it, the next time we watch the same scene, during the same movie. At 4 you have a hard time understanding the arch of a story: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and some form of resolution, be it revelation or catastrophe. You lack frames of reference. Your life is still unfolding every day right in front of you. You are able to truly live in the moment. To him, it is possible that the story will change suddenly, that the ending may not be the same this time. For him, it is still unknown on how Harry may react this go around. Despite being a scene my son has already watched it is a real possibility that it may unfold radically different this time. Of course, we know that for Harry, the story has already been written, and even its author can not rewrite the path that Harry must now travel.
But what of ourselves? My 4 year old has something to teach me about stories. His questions become much more poignant, when I apply them to my story. Are you dead? No. Are you hurt? Yes. But why? There is an old Taoist parable that, along with my 4-year-old, has had me questioning my story, more specifically the sub-plots within my own story.
The parable goes something like this.
An old farmer who had worked his fields for many years, one day, had his horse run away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“We’ll see,” the farmer replied.
The following morning the horse returned, bringing with her two wild mares.
“How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed! “Your field horse has returned and brought back two more young mares. What great fortune you have!”
“We’ll see” answered the farmer.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was tossed to the ground, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Now your son cannot work the fields with you,” they said. “What terrible luck you have!”
“We’ll see,” replied the old farmer.
The following week, military officials came to the village to conscript young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“We’ll see,” he said…
You see, like the old farmer, my story, your story, it’s incomplete. We can not simply dwell on the singular events that happen, the sub-plots, without looking at our story as a whole. Will your story be the loss you experienced, or how you chose to experience that loss? Will depression or addiction or pain be how your story ends? Or will it be a turning point, an inflection point, that changed your story? I am trying, albeit not always effectively, to take this outlook into my daily life. My story is incomplete, the stories I tell myself are incomplete, I feel incomplete at times, but this realization is a good thing. It brings hope and promise and renewed curiosity. It introduces progress and love and adventure, but above all this realization does not make room for complacency. My 4-year-old has taught me that there is no room for complacency in my life, in the narrative I am now actively writing for myself…