There is an old saying: “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” It means of course that, like the butterfly story embedded in chaos theory, small changes in one’s youth can profoundly affect later behavior. Apropos of this is a Cherokee story I saw on a my friends’, Isaak Mak’s, website:
An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”
As chance would have it, another of my friends, Indiana Jen, had an interesting discussion of children’s stories, mostly macabre as it turns out. In her post she initiated an interesting discussion of what spices the fledgling intellect. To what extent do disturbing experiences or exposures to emotional stories affect our later psychological development? She summarized a list of what disturbed her in youthful reading or viewing this way:
So, these were the shattering “childrens’ stories” of my youth. Here is what I learned from these lovely stories: life is about pain, tragedy, death, depression, suicide, unrequited love, worthless self-sacrifice, and killing your childhood pets. While the Trolls television show isn’t going to raise any I.Q. points at least the children aren’t sobbing and scarred for life when the show is over.
But I was curious about whether this portended more than whether children’s psyche’s were upset by such works and submitted this comment:
When I was about 7, Disney’s Snow White scared me so badly I had to go to the lobby during part of it. Powerful? That was 67 years ago and I still remember it. Later, the images of The Yearling (Gregory Peck starred) also seared themselves into my brain permanently – a boy raises a pet deer only to have his father have to shoot it dead after it destroys the garden on which the poor family relies for food. Talk about your good times! So you see, Jennifer, your generation is not the first to be subjected to such powerful stuff.
Then there are the aptly-named Grimm’s fairy tales, which I found fascinating. I think they were so outrageous that I didn’t take them seriously, but had I been a child of the Middle Ages I probably would have perceived their verisimilitude. I also recall reading many animal stories including those of a then-famous explorer, Roy Chapman Andrews. Almost every animal story ends sadly and for that reason I eventually shunned all such. However, one I recall with great fondness was “The Black Stallion” by Walter Farley.
This post poses an important dilemma, I think. For literature to be appealing, I submit, the subject matter must be compelling and therefore must arouse strong emotion. The Red Badge of Courage is (or was) ubiquitous on reading lists for that reason I think. Therefore I ask of Jennifer and other teachers this question: Has substituting the more bland entertainment of today for yesteryear’s emotive gruel (as in this post) diminished the current generation’s interest in or capacity for self expression in writing?
What I did not mention in any of these online exchanges, but which bears on the subject, is the profound effect on my own life of certain dramatic episodes that transformed and shaped my dreams. In three of these I had experiences that vividly impressed on my brain the reality of death. In other dreams there is a continuing theme of stress and inadequacy in certain situations. One is easily explainable – I have some paralysis of my legs and feet, and in the dreams I struggle to run but am unable. I am usually lost in such dreams. In another I have forgotten some article of my Navy uniform and am going to be embarrassed, being at sea and having no recourse. In yet another, which I mentioned to my friend Anson once, my ship is going aground. (Something to be feared for sure.)
We humans are each unique and some kind of product of both genes and environment, and environment includes the culture in which we live and the behavior of people with whom we are connected. What does it portend that such connections are also undergoing a sea-change with the rise of social media? To what extent are our futures and our personalities shaped by such exposures and experiences? Is it a good idea to shield children from any strong emotion? Is there a clue here to why children of famous people often turn out to be unexceptional? What would George Orwell or Aldous Huxley make of it all? And to what extent do dreams reflect who we really are?