Much of life consists of ordinary events punctuated by transcendent moments. Adult life, anyway. A sad consequence of growing up is losing the ability to see things as a child. Remaining capable of joy and wonder in a world that runs on cynicism and indifference is no easy feat.
It’s particularly difficult when the biggest lessons seem to come in the smallest spaces. These are teachable moments we miss because we live too noisily to hear a train whistle, let alone a whisper in the wind.
This is why the older I get, the more I tune in for hints of the sublime around my youngest children. Since they still see and hear what I miss, it seems a practical place to start. And being practical is an important part of any quest for deeper meaning.
Recall what G.K. Chesterton replied when asked which book he’d want to have if stranded on a desert island. The easy answer would have been the Bible. His response? "Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding."
But back to my search for the sublime in the mundane. I believe I caught a glance of it the other night.
My son Jack and I were watching television together. His late nights and early mornings track the hours of a bond trader more than an 8-year-old, but it’s summer, a time in our house when bedtime is honored in the breach. At the hour we were awake, the rest of the family was sound asleep.
Our deal is that we alternate TV shows and, mercy, does he hold me to it. The arrangement suits me since I can tolerate cartoons more than most adults. There we lay on the couch together, father and son, his sweet head resting on my chest.
When it came to my turn to pick the show, I went with “The Night Manager," a British spy thriller on Amazon Prime that I’d heard was fantastic. It lived up to its billing, but as I quickly learned, certain scenes aren’t suitable for children. No matter, I figured. Jack and I have a workaround.
“Eyeballs, Jack,” I commanded. This was our prearranged code for when he needed to shut his eyes, while I’d mute the volume and get by on subtitles. We operate on the honor system, and he’d never given me a reason to doubt him. When I restore the volume, Jack knows he’s free to redirect his gaze toward the television.
This particular scene went on for a bit, both in length and content, enough that I felt the need to cover his eyes with my hand for extra insurance. Belts and braces, as the show’s Anglo spymasters might say. What happened next took my breath away.
As I watched, my own view was obstructed by a little hand. Jack had seen fit to block my eyes just the way I was shielding his. I’m not sure whether he stole an illicit view or was just trying to be funny. But the moment brought two thoughts to my mind, one specific and the other general.
First, it’s high time to retire the eyeballs rule. It’s hardly the only thing keeping me from Father-of-the-Year, but it’s not helping. Second and more broadly, I need to quit being too clever by half. It’s an offshoot of prideful stubbornness, the tendency to write my own rules.
By pursuing two conflicting goals – entertaining myself while spending quality time (if only watching television) with my youngest son – I was accomplishing neither. I was, simply put, wrong. The little hand helped bring a broader point into focus about truth, and my relationship to it. When I find myself “lost in the cosmos," as Walker Percy put it, it is I who must rediscover my place in them, not their place in me.
Said differently by C.S. Lewis, “we all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back the soonest is the most progressive.” Less stubbornness and more humility are what I need; less insistence I am the captain and more acceptance I’m a crewmate who, trusting the course charted, is just trying to get home.
Am I reading too much into my son’s spontaneous act? Perhaps. But only a child could so clearly and lovingly communicate a message I badly needed to hear, so perhaps not.