Life and the Afterlife, as Told by a Five Year Old
For almost a year now, every Saturday afternoon at 3pm, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed child prodigy has been deposited upon my doorstep. This charmingly precocious bi-lingual five-year-old is Genius Child* (GC) and my loosely defined weekly mission, for which I am not entirely sure I am qualified, is to Teach Him Useful Stuff.
GC is brilliant fun. He’s exactly the kind of witty, cheeky, chatty and altogether likeable child that makes you forget that most children are screaming, snotty little brats, and start to entertain a dangerously romanticised view of what parenthood will probably be like. With the notable exceptions of writing neatly and colouring within the lines, two things I’ve never been that fussed about, he’s remarkably good at just about everything, including football, chess and, more recently, dispensing advice on how to make homemade tortellini – from scratch.
Moreover, like many children, GC has an extraordinarily active imagination and the ability to ask seemingly straightforward questions that are, in fact, disconcertingly difficult to answer. Fortunately for me, his parents are intellectually curious, religiously unaligned and generally chilled out enough not to question the fact that a lesson that might start off being about Tutankhamen’s tomb or where rain comes from regularly descends into crashing saucers covered in flour together to show how tectonic plates create earthquakes, lengthy discussions about protests in the Middle East or why different civilisations have picked different gods, and pages and pages of scribbled, disconnected diagrams showing what happens when particles heat up, how gravity works, why the Earth has different seasons and how meteors and resulting giant ash clouds could have killed off the dinosaurs – frequently annotated by GC with wonderfully linear comments like “well, why didn’t they just stand there?” or “what would have happened if they’d built their nests on top of THIS rock?”
It is precisely this linear, wholly credulous train of thought which makes dealing with very young, very bright kids so fascinating: they take everything in, and they take everything literally. At times, I find this enlightening. The questions GC asks have a unique ability to cut straight through the crap, reminding me just how much received rhetoric, cultural conditioning and intellectual laziness contextualises meanings that I think of as definitive, or arguments I had presumed to be self-evidently logical. You’re forced to realise how much of what you say is indirect, obscured by metaphorical, posturing or implicit language, or validated only by reference to assumptions and uncertain principles you have long ceased to investigate and no longer fully understand. It exposes how little we as a species think to examine our perceptions, and the daily interactions we have with the world around us.
Most of the time, though, it’s just really funny.
This week, for example, having just returned from a trip to Italy to visit his grandparents, GC arrived at the lesson enthused about a programme he had watched on Italian TV which had explained in some depth the internal workings of the human body. Keen to impart this wondrous new knowledge to me, he then set about recreating the relevant diagrams, accompanied by an excellently remembered (and translated) verbal explanation of what the process involved. It went like this:
“That’s great,” I said. “Very well done. Just one thing – these balls you’ve drawn, the white ones here, they’re oxygen coming in, and the multicoloured ones, that’s carbon dioxide going out. You remember, we learnt about this a few months ago?” GC looked at me wearily. “Yes,” he said. “I know that already. But what this programme was saying is, they’re really little coloured balls”.
Feeling it unwise to confuse him further, I then moved on to the prepared lesson, which concerned the building of the pyramids in Egypt. Reading aloud from his textbook, GC suddenly broke off mid-sentence to ask me whether ordinary people were allowed to have tombs in the pyramids, which in turn led on to a conversation about the comparative benefits of being preserved, buried or cremated.
“But why would you want to burn someone up?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “Some people like the idea of their ashes being scattered in places they liked when they were alive. The sea, for example.”
“That’s a bit disrespectful to the fishes, throwing bits of body all over them. Anyway why would you care, once you’re dead? It’s not as if you’d know about it.”
A few moments passed in thoughtful silence as GC contemplated the possibility of post-mortal sentience.
“One thing I don’t get about the afterlife,” he proclaimed, at length. “If I have to leave my body behind, then how will I remember anything? I wouldn’t have a brain.”
“Well… I think the theory goes that the memory and all the rest of it goes up with the soul, which is a sort of ghost-version of you.”
“But what about my legs? How would I play football without any legs?”
“Well I suppose you’d – I don’t know. Maybe they’d give you a new body when you got up there. Specially built for the afterlife.”
“What if they forgot something? Like my nose?”
“You mean, what if they ran out? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“To be honest” he said. “It all sounds a bit silly to me. I don’t think there IS an afterlife”.
Richard Dawkins, eat your heart out.
*Name has been changed