We had some guests over on the weekend for dinner. My wife likes a few decorous things when setting the table for guests, especially when it’s someone we are just meeting or don’t have often. Nothing overly elaborate, but my wife has certain tastes and a style I like. One of these things are napkin holders that are also in the shape of a bull’s head. They are dark and wooden. My son, who likes anything animal picks this up and is confused to its purpose. My wife tries to explain that it’s for decoration and for holding napkins, but doesn’t really understand why napkins need to be held. His only response was “Well where is its legs? If you are going to have something that looks like a bull’s head, it should have the rest of the bull.
As I watched the puzzlement I began to think about how simply children see the world and just sort of see beyond the messy social fabric that binds us all together. A mass of rituals and customs and rules that we share with others that keep life from seemingly falling apart at the seams. A construct so you know who is like you and who isn’t like you. It helps you sort and categorize. And then as if you hadn’t spent enough time breaking up the fluidity of nature, you actually been to rank all that sorted information. Things that are good, things that are bad, things that are tolerable, surprising, beautiful, sexy, evil, disgusting, creepy, not trustworthy, frightening. Ideally having as few categories as possible, and trying to fit as much into a category as we can. And the diabolical thing about all these rituals, customs, and rules is we both need them to make sense out of an ever changing and persistently uncertain world, and…well…we just made it all up.
And in some sense we all know that much of this social construct is to give us a post to lean against, a chair to sit down in, or a good night’s rest when we need it, but there is so much absurdity that even we don’t really want to follow the rules, perform the rituals, do what is customary. And sometimes we can even laugh about it. Many a standup comedian has made a living from such observations about society. And as we explain to my child what this napkin holder is for, we normalize it and it becomes not a strange thing; something to accept and move on to the more pressing issues in our lives. Of course the use of napkin holders is not the worst of things to normalize. Rather small really. You hope to simply teach the lesson that we all have such decorous things in our lives to add some color, some aesthetic pleasure to the world. But what about those bigger prescribed rules and customs? Like, what is masculine and feminine, a woman’s place is in the home, atheists have no morals, black people are not to be trusted, or a definition of what it means to be patriotic. Past and present is full these human social constructs, meant to make things fit. Like a shirt we’ve outgrown it doesn’t fit well, and even if we do squeeze into it, it feels uncomfortable and the aesthetics are lost even if it was ever actually there.
All of us in our lives have taken a stand against something. We said, I am not going to play by that particular set of rules. It doesn’t make sense. As I age, I feel that part of me slipping away. Is it that I have truly observed carefully enough to know what all the harmful rules are, and thus which ones not to follow? I suspect I’ve missed a few. Or does the fight simply start to leave us when we feel like we’ve come and fought far enough? The same wisdom that protects me from being tossed and blown around, also seems to prevent from wanting to toss and blow others? I feel like I question less, even if I ask better questions. Perhaps there is value to both parts, but as I watched my son, I couldn’t help but feeling that life is for the young to lead the way at making things better. I hate when older people get down on younger people. As a society the young are our children and grandchildren, we need to encourage, because they certainly don’t have it easy. Is it easier than we had it? Perhaps. But these things tend to be subjective. The key is, I don’t think we should be having children if our hope was to keep the world just as hard and as uncertain as we had it. And as I watched my 3-year-old look at something in the world and basically say, “This makes no sense. Why do we do it?”, it made me happy. It is a simple question we seem to ask less as we grow older and that needs to always be asked. This is how we move across this category-laden world we’ve created. The social constructs that our evolved minds create are both essential, and perilous if we adhere to it too strongly. Our species spans across numerous ages, and that is one of our evolutionary advantages. Each age group providing something unique, another way in which we cooperate. Maybe in the end it’s just the young breaking barriers as fast as they can, while the old are just there to wag their finger and say “not too fast, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. “
“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me. ” – Spoken by Robert Frobisher in the movie Cloud Atlas