01/31/2014 by Christopher Verdick
The proprietor of this blog—the man with the cartoon head on the right—asked me if I might be interested in guest-writing for his blog, so to get a sense of history I scrolled down to the original posting to see a reflection that found its genesis in the immanent onset of fatherhood. As it happens, fatherhood is also about to sink its claws into me and my reflections are, like it or not, tending in that direction.
If you are anything like me, when you think of children, the verbs Lying, Stealing, and Complaining come immediately to mind as well as adjectives like Unsophisticated, Selfish, Impractical. In my experience, not only do young children often eschew things like truth and goodness, they don’t even understand what you are talking about when you try to explain transcendentals to them. This might be because they aren’t very smart or even proficient in English. Indeed, the hard work of training children is often imbuing them with a sense of telling the truth, of being compassionate toward others. Above all, we must teach children the great American values of control, convenience, efficiency. In a word, practicality.
You don’t think that practicality is the hallmark of the American mind? Let’s take a simple test. When was the last time you bought a greeting card based on price? Sure that one over there has glitter or a lovely photograph or a wonderfully tactile paper, but it’s twice as much! My sentiments can be just as easily communicated on this much plainer, much cheaper card, you say.
What about a classic novel? Maybe I’m lecturing the wrong crowd here, but why would anyone buy a leather-bound hardcover when the mass-market paperback on newsprint is so much cheaper. But wait, it’s free on Kindle! Blessed day of salvation!
Box sushi from 7-11 is so much cheaper than regular sushi, and fish is fish, right? The list could go on. We make many of our daily decisions as a matter of practicality (who can afford not to), and we all agree that it is often a good idea. And so in the final equation, there is at least one transcendental that is optional—less important than the others. At least we’ve still got truth and goodness.
Or do we?
I know you’ve tapped someone’s bumper while trying to parallel park and looked around to see if anyone noticed. If you got caught, you might even have written a fake note and placed it on the windshield (This is the internet, we can all be honest with one another). You’ve borrowed a book or a movie from a friend for so long that you move to another state and decide to take it with you. They clearly don’t want it back and you enjoyed it so much. Let’s not even get into truth; the topic is too fraught.
The difference, of course, between sacrificing beauty and sacrificing goodness is that we all agree that goodness must be preserved and then go and do otherwise. But at least we’ve given it lip service. We can’t quite agree on beauty. And while we all agree that the pursuit of beauty is often quixotic, that’s exactly what we ought to expect when we come to the topic of the beautiful—the pursuit of the impractical. And while we live in a world obsessed with control, efficiency, and convenience, the beautiful challenges us to upend these ideals, challenges us to live in a different way. The beautiful overwhelms us. It stops us dead in our tracks. It interrupts the sensible pursuits on which we are so keen to focus. But it is also elusive. It doesn’t give itself up so easily. It forces us to follow it where it wants to go. The pursuit of the beautiful is an act of surrender, an act of willing submission. In a way, the pursuit of the beautiful encourages us to regain the childlike wonder of living, the impractical readiness to follow it down whatever rabbit-hole it wants to take.
Consider how impractical children are. Would any practical adult, for a single candy bar, get into a car with a complete stranger and drive around wherever they end up going? It could waste an entire day! Again, children only eat food they like—not the food that is in vogue (I’m looking at you, kale), not the food that will keep them svelte or promises to ward off disease. They eat chocolate-covered acai berries for the chocolate. BOOM!
The child’s whole life is bent toward the aesthetic. When Johnny gets to go see a movie and Suzie doesn’t, it’s not fair. Are they not instinctively seeking the harmony of balance? As adults, we learn that the world is not fair—there is no inherent sense of balance, no symmetry holding things together.
Children are the most impractical—and therefore the most aesthetic—people on the face of the earth. They sing for no reason. For hours. They color. They wear different colored socks for the sheer joy of doing it. In Holy Motors (one of the best children’s movies of 2013), the main character is asked why he continues to perform when no one is watching. His response is “for the beauty of the act.” This is the natural disposition of children, but I see hints of this also in the best artists and authors. We scowl at them, wondering why Tolkein added Tom Bombadil to the Lord of the Rings. It’s so impractical. He has so little integration with the overall goals of the rest of the story. Perhaps he is added for the sheer joy Tolkein had in seeing him exist. Why does Tarantino give us the Gimp? Why is that weird elongated skull added to Holbein’s Ambassadors? Perhaps he painted it just because he could.
We might as well ask, why have any paintings or movies or novels at all? I suppose it might be argued that these things help distract us from the difficulties of real life. Knowing we can come home and watch Downton Abbey on Sunday night makes the rest of the week more bearable. Reading a good fantasy novel makes real life not seem as bad. Isn’t it true, though, that children have a subtly differnt worldview. They view chores, homework, nap time as distractions from the real work of living. They have the brash foolishness to actually believe that the vast universe unfolds before them, not as an obstacle to be conquered or at least avoided, but as an infinite ball pit or a slide with no end.
To go back to your unfortunate parallel parking incident. Have you ever actually left a note. A real note with your phone number and an apology? You’ve succumbed to the impracticality of ethics, haven’t you? It’s a clear risk of both your time and your monetary resources to do it. It comes at an unnecessary personal cost to you. It’s so impractical. As adults, we put so much stock in integrity in the realms of truth and goodness. What happened to integrity toward the beautiful?
So go out and buy that expensive coffee because it tastes better. Take the afternoon to plant some daffodils in the garden even though the laundry isn’t done. Fly a kite. Or, if you know a child personally, ask her how you ought to prioritize your day. She’ll definitely have an answer. Sure these activities are borderline absurd. Children often start to count to a million. Out loud. While you are driving them. I suspect that they don’t do it to quantify the world. They begin because they know it to be a project that they will never finish and that has no reason to be done.
By way of introduction, I am an artist who got a degree in graphic design. If you’re an artist, there’s nothing more practical than a graphic design degree. Currently, I work for a Presbyterian mission in eastern Uganda. You can read more of my writing on that subject at www.verdickmoja.com