Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Where the Wild Things Are

Just When Do We Stop Checking
under the Bed for Monsters?

At the end of this past week, I was on a business trip up to London for a couple of days.  I stayed over the week-end, and my wife and son joined me; for my eight year old, it was his third trip to London.

One of the highlights of the trip was tickets to see the play "Matilda," currently playing in Covent Garden.  The musical is based upon the book of the same name by Roald Dahl.  Dahl, of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach fame has been one of my favourites since childhood, and Matilda is perhaps Alastair's most beloved book. Thus, the trip to the theatre was right up his street.

The play is filled with clever songs, as it lays out the epic battle between the eponymous heroine, her dim-witted parents, and the evil head-mistress of her school.  Of course, it all ends well.

One of the songs that caught my eye - or, more accurately put, my ear - is titled "When I Grow Up."  The children, swinging about the imaginary playground, sing about what life will be like once they cast aside the bonds of youth, but of course, also realise that adulthood is not all the fun and games of bed-time avoidance and cookies for breakfast.

In particular:
When I grow up, when I grow up
I will be strong enough to carry all
the heavy things you have to haul
around with you when you're a grown-up!
And when I grow up, when I grow up
I will be brave enough to fight the creatures
that you have to fight beneath the bed
each night to be a grown-up!

These words got me to thinking.  Virtually every child has visions of monsters that lurk beneath the bed when the lights go off (or, alternatively, hide behind the dresser or in the closet).  I can vividly recall jumping into bed to avoid my foot being grabbed and subsequently being dragged beneath to meet an awful fate that I could never quite gin up in my imagination - the terror perhaps even more grotesquely frightening in its ambiguity.

Now that I am (nearly) 45 years old, I no longer fear that my bedroom hides monsters, so in a sense, when one grows up, one no longer really needs courage to fight actual creatures literally beneath the bed.

Fears change as we age - from monsters and ghosts, we graduate to missed or late  assignments in school, social humiliation, failure at work, death.  This is aligned, I suppose, with the first lines of the song that, when we grow up, we do, in fact, have to carry around heavier loads.  The monsters under the bed are not real, but professional and personal failure surely are.

As I am moving into middle age, I find that, less and less, I need courage to confront fears that increasingly melt away into a soft glow of reality that the pains they bring are acually largely in our imaginations.

I've handed in assignments late (or not at all).  I've confronted embarrassing social occasions.  I've been fired at work and gotten poor reviews.  In every case, the anxiety of what might happen has always been far less problematic than the reality.  One simply has to come to terms and make peace with the fact that embarrassment and failure are just facts of life.  You fall; you get up.  You go on. And in the end, these pains exist largely in our minds - reflexions of a sort of how others perceive us, and not measures of your actual worth.  I've long since really ceased caring in any significant way what the world thinks of me.

I no longer even really fear death, which will of course come to me as surely as it will anyone else.  A quote never far from my mind is this: the only ship in life guaranteed to come in is a black one.  In a sense, I believe in God, so even then, the black ship is not necessarily a malevolent one.

No doubt, my little boy is faced with fears; he will come from time to time because of a bad dream, or to confess a fear or an anxiety.  No doubt, he thinks that, when he grows up, he will gain the courage to fight these fears, to vanquish the monsters under his own bed.

I always try to be comforting and to convince him that it's not courage one needs, but self-assurance.  Turn on a flashlight, and shine it under the bed.  See?  Nothing there.

Never forget one very important fact.

There is nothing hiding in the dark that isn't there when you turn on the light.

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