The 14 Year-Old Universe
Our daughter had to travel to Kansas City on business this past week, which meant that we (or more correctly, my wife) had to do a little “babysitting” for our two grandsons. I’ve put “babysitting” in quotes because, well, they’re definitely not babies anymore. One is 14 and the other is 11. The “little tykes” have become much larger, much taller teenage wannabes, and come completely equipped with obnoxiousness, bad jokes, and smartphones. Kind of a scary combination when you think about it.
Still, like all teenagers, they do throw out some really good questions once in a while. Occasionally, from time to time, a serious thought actually manages to find its way into their still relatively small frontal lobes. And then they hit you with a question or observation that kind of makes you think that they might actually make it to rational adulthood. Hope springs anew that perhaps they won’t have to spend the rest of their lives flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Maybe there actually is a thinking person in there somewhere, trying to escape the intellectually limited world of computers and video games and smartphones. Maybe they will, in fact, find something more meaningful in life than writing 10,000 texts a day to other equally silly juveniles. I use the term “writing”, by the way, in the loosest possible way.
Anyway, here is the question we heard from Mr. 14: How could the world (or universe) possibly have existed before I did? If I wasn’t here, then how could anything else have been here? If I wasn’t personally “aware” of the world then how could it have even existed? And then quickly followed by a second one: Why am I “me”? Why aren’t I someone else?
Existential questions from a 14 year-old. The notion that events in history - like World War II or the American Revolution (or anything else pre-1999) - really occurred simply doesn’t compute for him. In a way, I suppose that’s not surprising. Kids tend to think of themselves as universe – centric, I think. The world, by definition, revolves around them. And that’s normal. It’s the only way that a young mind can make sense of the world. Being able to see yourself as a very small cog in a very, very large universe takes a lot of years. You know, the old grain of sand in the desert metaphor. But young boys don’t (can’t) see that. It’s not part of their experience or language. Which probably explains why it’s so hard to communicate with them.
Still, a very interesting question. Not to mention tough to answer. Well, at least the first one seems tough. The second one not quite so much. You were “you”, I said, the instant you were conceived. Your DNA was set. You can still make your own decisions and find your own path, I said, but in a lot of ways the biological dice had already been rolled. You couldn’t have become anyone else, just as they couldn’t have become you.
“But what if I’d had a different mother?”, he asked. Then there never would have been a “you”, I answered. If I had never been born or if I’d married someone else or if your mother or father had married someone else, there wouldn’t be a “you”. “You” would be someone else. They would exist and “you” would not. “You” exist only because the people on both sides of your family are who they are. Change any one of us and you and your brother simply don’t happen.
Not surprisingly, that explanation seemed to confuse him. Heck, I was getting confused. Maybe, I thought, we should both just watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Maybe Jimmy Stewart could explain it better than I can.
As for the first question, I had no answer he could easily accept. I could only say that all the stuff that’s happened in the world - before he was born - did really happen. Dinosaurs existed. Rome fell. The U. S. fought and won World War II. JFK was assassinated in 1963. We landed on the moon in 1969. (Interestingly, he has a teacher who doesn’t believe that. He believes that the moon landing was a hoax. And the school hired him?)
All to no avail. He still can’t imagine a world existing without him in it. I could only ask him what he thought was going to happen to the rest of the world (and universe) when he died. He looked at me like I was insane. I’d forgotten – 14 year old kids are “immortal”. Mortality is another of those words that doesn’t compute yet for him. Life will go on forever.
Until it doesn’t.