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The Existentialist Dread Of Five-Year-Old Girls

October 25, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By SHAUN KENNEY

My youngest daughter was horrified at a world-shattering thought: Cartoons aren’t real.
Now in order to really dive into this revelation that each of us must have had at some point, imagine oneself absorbing the idea of a myth — any myth — with the wonder and amazement of a child. One implicitly believes. After all, why would you question the facts as presented to you?
St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes this best with what should have been the instant refutation of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum — nothing is first conceived by the intellect which is not perceived by the senses.
Thus the good old-fashioned Peripatetic Axiom is the mantra of every child right up until the point that one realizes that sometimes, and in some things, myths are not realities. Such was the revelation for my daughter who has a habit of penning notes to her mother (mostly consisting of “O Please May I Have An Oreo?” and other nominees for a Nobel Laureate).
This one in particular was left in the open, and it reads “Now I know that nothing is real and now I think that I am not real.” Yes, she actually penned this.
So after making sure all of my Kierkegaard and Camus texts were still on the bookshelves and not hidden under a pillow somewhere, my daughter’s 15 minutes of existential dread subsided with a conversation with her mother. In essence, she had determined she was real because her mother was real, and that ended the argument.
It is interesting how myths are created in the world today. For instance, I subscribe to the myth that the Washington Redskins can win football games. That the Virginia Cavaliers might actually beat Virginia Tech this year in football. That Aesop’s Fables are instructive, even if they are not actualities. Fairy tales and fiction; Beowulf and Tolkien all fill that gap between fantasy and fishing stories.
Yet in instances of religion, we find that the “myth” of religion often fails as reality imposes new truths upon our presupposed facts. The idea of the suffering of small children, for instance, confounds the skeptics and atheists. The silence of God in the face of our constant and shallow attempts to fill the silence with words, junk, and experiences. We build our myths; reality wears them down.
Of course, we all deal with these struggles in different ways, just as my daughter did with a concept as simple as realizing a cartoon character was insufficiently real. As Catholics, we too may struggle with our faith, especially during times of distress — whether material or spiritual.
Surely, for the Catholic there is an instant parallel here between Jesus and Mary. When our faith struggles, the Blessed Mother is quite real. When our doubts become fears, the Blessed Mother appears as a calm reassurance. No doubt we can express was not conquered at the crucifixion, no uncertainty we possess was not responded to with the Magnificat, no regret we hold was not restored at the Resurrection.
Naturally, my daughter has probably forgotten her episode. Yet I still have the note in my desk drawer, perhaps one day suitable for framing — and perhaps not. These are the joys of learning from a home-schooled child.

+ + +

This week, a reader helpfully notes that the recommendation to give $10 a month to Catholic organizations doesn’t just stop in America, as there are places in Latin America, Africa, and India where $10 a month goes a long way. In some instances, we are talking about chickens and goats (yes, you can sponsor a goat for $50 and when it goes to slaughter for $120, the family who raises them not only buys two new goats, but gives an extra $20 to live on).
This is an interesting thing, as there is a gulf of difference between philanthropy and charity.
Philanthropists may give with all the proper inclinations of the mind, but at the end it is philos at play. Christ asks for agape — the same love in John 21 where Christ asks Peter “Do you love (agapas) me?” Peter responds, “Lord, you know that I love (philo) you.” We miss this distinction in English with our poor substitution for the word love.
Yet as we are reminded in 2 Cor. 7, the greatest of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity is indeed charity, not in the sense of philos but agape — not a philanthropy of the spirit, but a moral assent of the will that sees the Imago Dei in the Other.
In today’s world, we fear agape because we fear the loss of self it must bring. Philanthropy and philosophy, rules and rubric, logic and dialogue are far safer means of expressing love than taking that total leap into the arms of Christ — and if that is too far a jump, then into the arms of the Blessed Mother, whose advice will be the advice of any mother proud of her Son — “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).
Now that’s a long way from goats and $10 a month, yet one suspects that the Catholic Church in America (and American society) has some work to do in recovering the Greek distinctions of the meanings of love.
Another excellent letter from Mr. M from Arizona writes about the good old days of a common moral consensus in America. And that despite that, even with the best catechesis, the best parenting, and the best K-12 formation, four brief years in a college can change a young gentleman or young lady into something entirely conforming to the world.
There are notable exceptions, of course. And several great reasons to hope . . . but for times such as these, I always reflect on G.K. Chesterton’s line in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. When Chesterton ruminated about why the Roman Empire converted to Christianity so quickly, his answer was effectively that the Romans simply got bored with sex.
Perhaps, being saturated with worldly (mundi) desires as we are today, it will all become mundane? Hope springs eternal!

+ + +

Of course, I am succeeding (but not replacing) the inestimable Mr. James K. Fitzpatrick for the First Teachers column. Please feel free to send any correspondence for First Teachers to Shaun Kenney, c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Road, Kents Store, VA 23084 — or if it is easier, simply send me an e-mail with First Teachers in the subject line to: svk2cr@virginia.edu.

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