The skeptic who first inspired me
. . . was, of course, my Dad. No question there. He got me to be skeptical about arithmetic, for chrissakes: After i grasped that — that is, that — he asked me, “So what would be?” I promptly answered, ““! Hmm, he responded, i’d better write that out.
Oops. (Yes, this is what it was like for me growing up, and i wouldn’t trade it for the world.)
But we tend not to realize just how radical an idea — like science — or skepticism — or naturalism — is before we’re confronted with its preponderant detractors.
In my case, this was elementary school. This was the moment, near as i can remember it, that the people who shared the prevailing worldviews learned the difficult lesson of receiving grades while the rest of us wrestled with the more exotic lesson of ostracism. That’s not, of course, to say that every Christian joined the in-crowd and everyone else was bullied. But i have no personal recollections of Christians having rumors spread about them or stones hurled at them. (Happily, i also don’t remember much talk of race or preferential treatment based on it, at least before middle school.)
Anyway, the persistent references to things that had happened over the weekend that i must have missed was, i remember, a bit weird; but perhaps not as weird as my having no church or synagogue might have been to my classmates. My one Jewish classmate even taught us how to play dreidel every winter. All i remember contributing was a talk on letters and sequences of letters from the alphabet that syllabically produce English words. (My favorite was “cue”.) I wasn’t exactly oppressed, or even discriminated against, generally; i was wondered about, or conjectured about. I, ironically, inspired incredulity.
I don’t know how being perplexed over compares to being persecuted, and i’m glad that i don’t. Were my treatment in elementary school the worst that anyone received, New York City would look like Sesame Street.
And that may be what i expected of the world. I grew up on Sesame Street. Even on into high school i watched The Muppet Movie and Christmas Eve on Sesame Street and others, and in fact it’s been a bit too long since my last viewing of Follow That Bird. (It’s better to watch those old cassettes, with the familiar glitches in just the right places.) Sesame Street surely gave me unrealistic expectations.
Sesame Street also helped prepare me for the world in a way i didn’t fully appreciate for a long time: It championed diversity. It depicted diversity. I might have known a deaf person once or twice, or an African-American, or a Jewish person, or a farmer; but without the familiar and casual conversations on Sesame Street i might have expected somewhat more stereotypical personalities from others of these descriptions, and i might have reacted to their similarity to myself with incredulity. At least for a while, all these and more characteristics struck me as typical. I didn’t learn the words “deaf” and “black” and “Jew” for some time afterward, and it didn’t occur to me until college that what i saw on Sesame Street was “diversity” at all.
Sesame Street — well, Jim Henson’s work — also prepared me for the world in a way i only recently realized. The religious homogeneity of my elementary school experience often set me wondering: How could something so strange be so universally believed — more than believed, known, as though it were obvious, as though the alternative were strange? Was i missing out on an important part of my — and everyone’s — life? Was i ignoring something? I didn’t worry about being sent to aitch-e-double-ell so much as i worried about how my friends would find each other and whether they would miss me. I didn’t wonder if God existed so much as i wondered whether it meant something for me to talk to (or thank or yell at) God when no one else was around. The world didn’t scream “creator” to me, but it did cry out for elation, and that elation needed somewhere to go.
We must be able to question, and we must delight in wonder. We must also be able to find our way back to the real world. This is how i had awe and skepticism legitimized by the most beautiful song ever attributed to a frog, while the world and people and love around me were implicitly attributed to a
gorf forg god.
Who said that every wish would be heard and answered,
When wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that, and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.
This stanza must have played over hundreds of times in my head; when i was told that i was blind to the magic of the world; when i was asked if i stayed up at night crying, and when i did; when i found myself wishing to anything omniscient enough to know and provincial enough to care that things would somehow change for the better — that little reminder, embedded within a song about the beauty and promise and magic of imagination, that we mustn’t let our imaginations get the better of us.
We must imagine. and we must imagine responsibly.
Thanks, Mr. Henson!