When your kids ask you the hard questions, sometimes you just have to hazard your best guess.
Example: Oscar tilted his little moppy head at me quizzically from the breakfast table one recent morning and turned his palms up.
“Why do people like to predict the end of the world?” he asked. “Why does everyone love to talk about ‘Doomsday?”
Why, indeed. I’d been thinking about it lately myself. Stories of solar surges that will wreak havoc on earth abound, and modern soothsayers caution to beware the end of the Mayan calendar. These predictions can easily hang over kids (and parents) like a dark cloud, one we can do nothing about, unless we let history be our guide. Y2K did not prove apocalyptic — little has.
Of course, the cynical answer would be that people make up scary specific predictions in order to sell books and movies. Those books and movies then spawn whole industries creating the products to save you from what the books and movies have made you scared of, products such as asteroid shelters and years’ supplies of grains and bottled water. I try though, despite years of writing about the twisted psychology of marketing, to take a less dire view of mankind.
And so I answered Oscar calmly, with a smile, from my near-constant spot between the sink and kitchen island:
“Ya know, honey, I think people just want to feel in control. They know it’s all going to end, for them, but they don’t know how or when, so they make up a story. It somehow makes them feel better.”
I was pleased with my response. It was positive, non-judgmental, understanding — all the things I hope my boys will grow up to be. Satisfied, I resumed making lunch.
Then, I heard Oscar’s tell-tale scoff, the one I recognize well as my own. His hands were still up in questioning disbelief and his face was scrunched in its best, much-practiced “duh” position.
“But that’s stupid,” he said. So much for non-judgmental.
Actually, though, I had to agree. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of stories. I have to in order to be a writer. But I don’t think Doomsday stories do anyone any favors. Just like any other dire prediction, they mostly cause more harm than good. There is a certain necessity to caution warnings, but the truth is that we mostly don’t know things for sure, so why not look on the bright side? Why spend the whole year worrying about The End when you could be more productively figuring how to enjoy it?
I try to keep this in mind, not only when explaining Doomsday, but when making daily decisions on things, like what to feed the family. Food is a complicated matter these days, what with new studies and danger warnings touted daily in the news offering up what one or another thing is going to do to you. The mercury in the delicious canned tuna I often make the kids for lunch could get us. Or, very likely, reports offer that we’ll die of stroke from the ground beef I buy near constantly because my kids love burgers and tacos and meatballs.
As I ordered a little more than a pound of the cheap ground chuck at my local Union Market, I pondered aloud to the butcher if he thought I was going to die and kill my kids far earlier by eating too much meat.
He laughed and gestured to the case filled with cow between us. “What am I going to say?”
I smiled as he handed me my little bundle of fatty flesh. “Exactly. You never quite know what’s gonna get you, so it seems like maybe we should stop worrying.”
Funny, as the words came out of my mouth, I recalled Oscar’s reaction to my telling him about the humongous banner Marlboro cigarette packs now carry that scream to smokers loud and clear: CIGARETTES CAN KILL YOU.
I thought it was funny that the doorman next door didn’t blanch at all at the warning, just kept on with his habit at great expense, albeit dodging Bloomberg’s hefty tax by buying them out of town.
Oscar had held up his hands then too, like he couldn’t understand why anyone would heed the warning. “I mean, who cares?” he said. “You’re going to die, and it’s going to be something.”
I’d laughed then. I’m not recommending he take up smoking, but I also try not to offer up specific Doomsday predictions for any one behavior in particular. “Research” findings have proven, after all, to be fickle. Maybe, the healthiest thing is to laugh in the face of The End, try to enjoy and forget your fears with a bite of a big juicy burger or a drag on a potentially lethal cigarette. It could kill you, but it very well might not.