My daughter, Saskia, is a superhero. I am not sure what her other-worldly name or abilities are, but I am confident that she will embrace them in due time. For now, she is content to teach me lessons she learned from lifetimes ago and previous worlds.
We have a tradition when Saskia sleeps at my house. I will tell her a true story from my life, a story that I make up, or a joke. She loves jokes. I must admit, some of the jokes I share with my daughter, though not offensive or mean, are probably not jokes found in a six year old joke book. But give me a break, how many knock-knock jokes can one tell?
Saskia has a delightfully smart sense of humor. With parents who are both performers, what else could one expect? Currently, she has a favorite joke that I share with her. Personally, I love the joke, but more importantly, I find Saskia’s consistent response, regardless of the amount of times I tell her the joke, to be refreshingly enlightening. Here’s the joke.
Guy number one is sitting alone at a bar when guy number two sits next to him. Guy number one looks over at guy number two and says, “Is this your first time here?”
Guy number two replies, “Yeah, how did you know?”
Guy number one says, “I can always tell the newcomers. Did you know that this is a magic bar?”
Guy number two responds, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” says guy number one, “if you go on the roof of this building and jump off, because of the way the buildings are set, the wind currents will catch you before you hit the ground and carry you back to the top of the building.”
Guy number two laughs, “Listen, buddy, I don’t know what you’ve been drinking, but I want you to know that I was born, but it wasn’t yesterday. I would suggest that you slow down on them drinks.”
Without missing a beat, guy number one invites guy number two to follow him to the rooftop. Guy number two cautiously obliges. When they get to the top guy number one says, “Watch this!” And he takes off running and jumps off the roof. About 30 feet from the ground, the air currents catch him and carry him back to the top of the roof.
Guy number two is utterly amazed. “Wow! I’ve got to try that!” he shouts. So, guy number two takes off running and he jumps off the roof. He gets 30 feet from the ground, and keeps descending until finally he smashes on the ground and dies.
At this point, guy number one calmly walks back down to the bar and continues sipping on his drink. The bartender looks at guy number one and says, “Superman, you sho’ is crazy!”
At the end of the joke, Saskia is laughing, and she says to me, “Daddy, that’s really funny, but it’s kind of dumb, because Superman is not supposed to kill you, he’s supposed to save you.” And by this brilliant response, my daughter illuminated me to recognize a simple truth. At six years of age, children actively rely on their brains to process their world. They attempt to ascertain what makes a joke funny or not so funny, good or not good, appropriate or inappropriate. And then, the deterioration occurs; we get older. We rely on our brains less and less. Automation is king.
As you are reading this essay, I want you to stop and look at your nails. Now, there is a favorable chance that, if you are a male, you turned your palms up, and bent your fingers towards your wrist to examine your nails. If, on the other hand, you are a female, odds are in my favor, that you laid your hands flat, with your fingers moving away from the body to gather a clear view of your nails. I haven’t even seen you, but I know that more than 90% of the associated gender will follow that script. Now, the question: from where did you learn that behavior?
I can assure you, no health class taught you how to look at your nails. Nor was there any specific parental lecturing that bid you to conform to this gender identification. You picked it up along the way, and have not given it a further thought in your time on this earth. And I can be confident in also assuming that until I mentioned the difference in action between the genders of nail-watchers, most of my readers were unaware that a variance existed at all. We do what we do. No questions asked. No additional thoughts volunteered. It is what it is, an automatic behavior.
Now, looking at your nails or getting a joke is not very significant in the grand scheme of things. (In fact, I dare say, if you have to explain every joke to your friends, you will wind up without friends.) There is nothing wrong with limiting the amount of brain power we exert for activities and behaviors that are routine. Automation is the way the world works. This is why we practice over and over. We want to create routines; we are desirous of order.
However, my daughter got me thinking about the automatic behaviors that do not benefit our place on this planet. They do not add perfection to our lives or nobility to our legacies. I think about the hallways of our schools where students travel through daily, navigating away from “this” group or “that” group, so as not to be beaten down anymore. Like what happens in the cafeteria of countries, where the nation of Hip-Hop despises the province of Abercrombie, but they will unite to demolish the small island of Ciphers who eat alone daily.
Or in gym class, where it’s all about fitness, but some children just fit less than others, so they witness the witless making decisions about who should come first, but these children know that they will always be picked last.
Or in a college dorm room, where one boy discovered his roommate was gay, so he turned on a webcam to broadcast the sexual explorations of his roommate and another man, unbeknownst to either his roommate or the other man. And it’s funny because we live in a world of YouTube, so we can broadcast this worldwide and receive our 15 minutes of fame, for hours. It’s automatic. It’s fun. It’s guaranteed to make people laugh, feeding their vacuous voyeurism. The formula has worked over and over: the wonderful world of automation. Can we really blame the parties involved? How was Dharun Ravi or Molly Wei ever to know that playing such a reckless game would inspire Tyler Clementi to scream “olly olly oxen free” because he was tired of hiding who he was, and he had already lost the game? How were they supposed to know that Tyler Clementi was not a fan of automation? He fooled everyone. He practiced his violin incessantly. The notes were like breathing, until his final note of whimpering, of feeling unfit, a dirge of a swan jumping off a bridge and making ripples from New York to San Francisco. How could they have known their actions were a part of Tyler’s opus?
There must be some other way; some other way to avoid the norm of derision and imprisonment. We need to burn those stagnant stocks passed down as heirlooms by prior generations. Burn those mutual funds of fear and ignorance; these investments always crash. Burn! Burn! Burn! Let the ashes rise to heaven so that they may be spat down into the dirt and transformed into something nobler, more useful. Our human race has survived because of the tools of bravery, boldly going where others fear to tread. We are not the strongest creatures, but we have more than just instinct and hardwiring. We are not condemned to do what those of the past have done. We can choose. We can choose comfort over castigation, faith over despair, and brain power over automation.
We were told that our greatness will be revealed as we get older. We were told that we know more now than we did before. We were told that adults have the answers because they have lived longer. We were told that the world is far more complex than it was when we were younger. But these days, I’m not too sure if these axioms I learned hold pure for me anymore. I think the world is a lot simpler than we presume. It is brilliant because of its simplicity. And I’ve met the smartest people of them all – the six year olds – like Saskia, who very simply said to me, “Daddy, Superman is not supposed to kill you, he’s supposed to save you.”