Today was my son’s fifth birthday. We’re not big birthday-party people, the Supermodel and I — we usually celebrate with a nice meal, a few presents, maybe a little outing of some kind. Neither of our kids has ever asked us if they can invite a bunch of their mates from school and church over for a big party. And thank heaven they don’t, because on the one hand we would have no justification for refusing, and on the other hand we’d have no stomach for dealing with the munchkin horde descending upon our poor house. I know other parents manage to survive the experience just fine … but I have no idea how they do it. ;-)
Despite it not being an exclusive invitation-only event, my son has been talking about his birthday pretty much since Christmas wrapped up. Mind, he didn’t have a really clear idea of when it was, but he knew it was coming and that he’d get a lot of loot and get to see a movie in the movie theater for the first time. (He was sure of that before his parents were, to be candid. That was how we celebrated his big sister’s #5, so he naturally expected that’s what we’d do on his, and we simply found no reason to do otherwise.)
So the Supermodel, me and both our kids went up to Lodi, the town immediately north of Stockton, and had chicken strips, fries and root beer floats at the A&W. Not an A&W, mind — Lodi is home to the ORIGINAL A&W restaurant (founded 1919), which for some reason is not a National Historical Site yet. (Maybe Obama will get on that after Tuesday.) Our son opened his presents — some Syd Hoff books, a stuffed Very Hungry Caterpillar, a floor-sized puzzle and a DVD of the VeggieTales movie The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. Then we had some time to kill before the start of the movie, so we found a park in which the kids could run off some of that root beer. Finally, we saw The Tale of Despereaux, which I will heartily recommend to anyone who doesn’t tell me to shut up first.
And observing our son in action, I got a couple of insights about his perspective on things.
One was the difference between how a 5-year-old views a birthday and how an old person like me (39 going on 59) does. For me, a impending birthday tends to trigger thoughts about how I’m “one year older” (read: one year closer to decrepitude, senility and, in time, death). I try not to dwell on it, but it does tend to cast a pall over the occasion. For my son, his own mortality is not really a concept he can grasp; as Frederick Buechner once said, to a child, all time is “now” time, and ideas like “past” and “future” don’t really enter in. He can therefore enjoy a birthday without seeing the specter of the guy in the black cowl and the sickle, like we “gr’ups” do.
But if you think about it, his perspective is the Christian one. Because part of the foundation of Christian theology is that life on earth is just the start of living, not the start and the end. After this, we are headed elsewhere (up or down, as befits each one’s relationship with one’s Creator), and will eventually look back on this phase of living as just the warm-up for better things. At that point, we will be free from the cage of time and out into eternity, where all time is once again “now” and we won’t need clocks to keep track of it — because we’ll never have to worry about running out. The question isn’t whether we will live forever, because we all will — the question is where we’ll do it.
The other insight was that he didn’t worry about how the birthday was going to go. He didn’t fret over what place we picked for lunch, whether the movie would be any good, what the cost of gas would be for a trip to Lodi and back, or even how he looked for the occasion (as evidenced by the Supermodel and I having to warn him away from the sandbox in the park so he wouldn’t be shaking dirt on us the whole afternoon). Fashion, schedules, economics — he doesn’t care. He knows that Mommy and Daddy are taking care of those things, so he’s free to eat his ice cream and laugh at the cartoon mouse.
Whereas I spent weeks thinking through the logistics of the day, even having to change plans with two days to go because all the theaters in Stockton pulled Despereaux from their screens this weekend. But then, that’s what we grown-ups do: we plan big events, fret about them, scramble when they have to be adjusted and get bent out of shape when things don’t work out. (And I’m worse than most.) Too often, we get so focused on making sure things go right that we forget the whole purpose of the event was to enjoy it. There’s a trust issue involved there — do we trust ourselves, God, the people around us, whoever? And I suspect that if we locked in more on having fun and less on having fun “the right way,” not only would we have a lot more fun, but when things do go awry (as the old soldier once said, battle plans never survive contact with the enemy), we’d be too busy enjoying ourselves to care much.
So thank you, kiddo, for the new way of looking at things. I’m going to have to see about applying some of these principles in my own life. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get to the point of not cringing at the thought of several grade-schoolers coming over to eat cake and play games …