My son and I have a routine for when we leave the house, as we do for most things. First we get in the car, then we put on our seat belts, then I give him gum.
Well, I don’t just give it to him. He has to ask, because we are always trying to increase his communication. The first “gum!” typically arrives even before his seat belt is secured, followed shortly by a “I need gum!” and, in the case of further delay, a piping “I need gum please!” If we have more than one type of gum I will offer him a choice, at which point he usually selects “berry gum” if we have it, then watermelon gum, then mint. He’s not entirely consistent in this decision tree though, which is a nice change of pace, and he’ll sometimes eschew the fruit and opt for the Big Red.
It’s a piece of gum per trip, you understand. If we exit and re-enter the vehicle for any reason, the routine resets and additional gum is delivered. He used to swallow any existing gum to make room for new gum, but we’ve finally broken him of that habit. Now it just accumulates over the course of the trip. If we’re running errands and make several stops, he’ll arrive home looking like a cud-chewing chipmunk.
We strive to keep the car well-stocked, because running out of gum triggers a mini-crisis. “I need gum please!” becomes “I need gum pleeeeease!”, and he continues to insert E’s at regular intervals until his demands are met.
Explaining that there is no gum is a waste of breath. When you get into the car, you get gum. Assertions to the contrary are clearly specious.
There’s no way to know for sure, but it seems as if he simply don’t understand the concept of running out of something. We see this at home as well. He’ll ask for waffles, and I’ll tell him that there’s no mix, and he rebuts with “I need waffles”. He’s not throwing a tantrum over the lack of waffles, he’s just doing what we’ve worked so hard to teach him, to verbally communicate his desires. When that doesn’t work, he try, tries again. Sooner or later I’ll get the hint and produce some waffles, he seems to think.
The first time I realized this — that my son doesn’t appear to grasp the concept of running out — I was taken aback. How weird it must be to go through life not understanding such a fundamental tenet of the world. Add to that all the other abstract principles to which he appears oblivious, and I found myself wondering why his life wasn’t a constant string of frustrations. How does he deal with all that, and still maintain his usual equanimity?
And then one day I had something of an epiphany. If my car failed to start one morning, it dawned on me, I would be as mystified as to why it wasn’t providing locomotion as my son is when it suddenly stops producing gum. I could open the hood and poke the various things therein but, knowing pretty much nothing about automotive repair, my inevitable conclusion would be that whatever magic makes the car go simply stopped working, and would take it to a mechanic. I could learn about cars, of course, but knowing that cars are knowable doesn’t mean that I know them.
Honestly, how much does any of us really understand of the world around us? Maybe you comprehend the intricacies of internal combustion, but do you know how the internet works? Or your computer? Or your mouse? Or your arm? Do you understand why we stay on Earth instead of being flung into space? And don’t just say “gravity” — that’s like asserting that gum comes from a car.
The gap between what my son understands and what I understand is insignificant next to the gap between what any of us understands and omniscience. The universe is 99% mystery to us all.
Wondering how my son copes with all that he doesn’t understand is no different than wondering how I, or how any of us, cope with all we don’t understand. And curiously, the answer to that question is just one more thing that we somehow manage to survive without knowing.