The Wicked Child
After I finished reading Slaughterhouse Five on Sunday, I was mostly confused and just a little bit annoyed with Billy Pilgrim. Throughout the week, I got successively more irritated with Billy...he became the epitome of the word pathetic. In class today, I was thinking about Billy and all the other pathetic characters I’ve had to deal with in books and in life. Mostly, I was irritated. I would not let them question my understanding or my beliefs, I let their pathetic existence affirm me. I told myself that sincerity is always better than satire.
This is interesting for me to think about in the context of Pesach, the Jewish holiday that starts tomorrow evening to celebrate spring and lots of midrashim. One of my favorite stories from this holiday is the story of The Four Children. Here’s an explanation, taken indirectly from this great hagaddah, A Night of Questions, via http://www.jwi.org/page.aspx?pid=731:
What does it mean to be a wise child? It means to be fully engaged in the community, to know the limits of your understanding, to be able to search for the answers, to that which you do not know. At different points in our lives, we have been this child—inquisitive, caring, eager to learn and to understand, willing to ask for information we do not have, hopeful that an answer can be found.
What does it mean to be a wicked child? It means to stand apart from the community, to feel alienated and alone, depending only on yourself, to have little trust in the people around you to help you or answer your questions. At different points in our lives, we have been this child—detached, suspicious, challenging.
What does it mean to be a simple child? It means to see only one layer of meaning, to ask the most basic of questions, to be too innocent or impatient to grasp complicated questions. At different points in our lives, we have all been this child—simply curious and innocently unaware of the complexities around us.
What does it mean to be a silent child? This can be the child of the wicked child, two generations removed from the Jewish community and no longer even able to criticize, only able to stand mute. It can be the passive child, who just shows up. Or it can be the child whose spiritual life is based on faith, not rational argument, the child who hears something deeper than words, who knows how to be silent and to listen to the surrounding silence.
I think that my construction of sincerity >>> satire is a reflection of my tendency to place the the questions from the wise child above the questions from the wicked child. My parents will tell you that I’ve been doing this for forever. One of the things I have to re-learn every year during Pesach is that I shouldn’t do this because sometimes I am the wicked child, and sometimes, I should try hard to be the wicked child becuase the wicked child asks really important questions. Another excerpt:
The wicked child might not be wicked at all; perhaps she is just expressing our doubts—what is the purpose of all this trouble you put yourself through at Pesah? Are you really working for freedom? Annoyed at someone who gives voice to our own fears, we react harshly to hide our feelings. The wicked child becomes our scapegoat.
Slaughterhouse Five asks me these important, wicked questions and for that, I am grateful--even if it didn't appear this way in class. Maybe this is the last time I’ll have to learn this lesson, but I’ll bet that it isn’t.