Sunday, July 18, 2010
I met the little girl on a public beach in the Adirondacks--my parents had taken me there to break up the monotony. She was just my age, lived right there in town, and we got along famously, so my mother asked her mother whether she might not come with us for a couple of hours to play at my house.
I looked forward to that playdate, almost (do I remember it correctly?) counting down the hours. She didn't disappoint. We ran in the woods, swam off my dock, splashed and shouted in the sunshine, concocted water fairy games. In the afternoon, when we were hungry, my mother sent us for peanut butter sandwiches. Walking companionably up the country lane to my cabin, she turned to me, and in her sweet, soft voice, asked,
"Do you believe in God?"
I was not in the least taken aback--even at a young age, I had a formed idea of my belief system, and loved to discuss it.
"Yes," I said. "I do."
"Me too." I smiled at her, and she continued her questioning.
"Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?" she asked, kindly. Not wanting to offend her, but feeling the truth was the right thing to offer, I carefully delivered my default statement, taught me by my mother.
"I'm Jewish, and we don't believe that Jesus was God, but he was a good man who really did exist."
I thought that was a nice compromise, but immediately her face fell. She looked genuinely frightened.
"Then you're going to hell," she said, so sadly. "You're going to burn there. In the flames. It's going to be horribly painful, and it will last forever, the burning."
"That isn't true!" I said, already blinking back tears.
"It is. You're going to burn in hell, if you don't believe in Jesus."
We argued back and forth for a few more moments, and then gave up at the impasse. We both managed not to cry, but the playdate was over. We spent the rest of it in silence, trying to choke down the peanut butter sandwiches. Her parents picked her up, and we said goodbye. I never saw her again, after I confessed that night to my mother the conversation that had passed between us. I know now just how furious mom was, but she didn't let on, not entirely. She reassured me that God was good, and that hell was a made up story to frighten people into behaving. That made sense, and it helped, but the image of the burning hellfires, and me, a little girl screaming helplessly in the middle of the inferno, had stamped itself indelibly on my subconscious...
I think now about what mom said--hell is a story made up to scare people into behaving.
I believe that interpretation, with all my heart and soul, and I question the merit of such a threat. It might work--temporarily--but does a tale of terror, in the end, really nurture and sustain the moral development, the strong superego, that restrains bad behavior?
Hedgehog came home this week from her indigenous camp with two books, written by the camp director, full of Native American monsters. These were passed down through the generations, truly frightening stories of howling murderous hideous creatures of the natural world...told explicitly to frighten children into "being good."
The threat of monsters, of supernatural punishment, is a tradition that crosses all boundaries of time and culture. I clearly remember being threatened with a visit from the Boogeyman--just once, by my paternal grandmother, who was roundly chastised by my parents. She never pulled that one on me, or my sister, again. But like the cruel hellfires that light one's psyche with flickering fear, the Boogeyman will be with me forever--scaring me, but also delivering a tiny frisson of delight. Mightn't we tempt him to visit, just once, to see what he's really like? Or will we be satisfied with the awful stories of others whose bad behavior invited him in?
Motives and morality aren't so clearly drawn as they would have us believe. Simplistic terror texts are met with all the complex range of human reaction--fear, yes, of course--but also fascination, desire, and a welling up of natural wicked curiousity...
note: I would be very interested to hear whether you were, in your childhood, threatened with any sort of fictional monster in order to get you to behave. I imagine the Monster takes many forms, depending on one's background.