The Daddy Diaries
Chapter 38: Zen and the Art of Child’s Play
Zelda Scott Fitzgerald once said, “We were never bored because we were never boring.” For a lot of young kids and teens today, boredom has become the ultimate bogey monster: life is a constant battle to find ways to avoid it. Snapchat, Instagram, Minecraft, ever more digital options and distractions — these are the useless weapons of today’s youth as they tilt against windmills in their sisyphean battle against the terror of being bored — or even worse, of being perceived by others as boring.
Lev is a few years away from all that. When you’re one, the world is one. Sure, you’re cranky sometimes, but I don’t think boredom really enters the picture. Because at this age, everything and anything is interesting to him. A paper bag will entertain Lev for an hour.
Would Lev be excited if you gave him tickets to Star Wars? Yes. He would literally have as much fun with the tickets to the Star Wars premiere — just folding the tickets and turning them over and rapping them on the counter and maybe licking and eating them — as he would seeing the actual movie. It’s like he’s tripping on acid all day. Everything is fascinating.
A baby is like a great jazz improvisor or a zen master: so attuned to the razor’s edge of each micro-fraction of the present moment that by following his lead, you step out of time. You are no longer prolonging the past or inviting the future. Lev is a tiny pied piper who leads me to a world where time doesn’t so much stand still as it ceases to be an issue.
It disappears. You can’t save time in a bottle but you can transcend it, if you have the right role model.
Stepping out of time is the greatest joy any of us can ever experience. Freed from the constraints of a concept that we otherwise use to rush, punish, and pressure ourselves, we are truly alive at last. Ordinarily, time is a vise: we use it to crush ourselves between regret and anxiety. Lev leads adventures in timelessness that are like stepping into the rabbit hole in Alice In Wonderland. The wonderland begins with wonder.
The key to escaping this artificial concept of time is curiosity. When Lev plays, he isn’t aware of himself as player or of the activity of playing, nor of anyone getting any benefit or result. Nothing is a means to an end. He is just immersed in whatever he is doing — to the degree that the line between the person and the activity disappears. There is no self consciousness. He just discovers and explores and wobbles and farts and it’s all in the magical moment of an eternal now.
For Lev, there is no world other than the ocean he is swimming in — which might be the living room carpet, or it could be a galaxy far away. It’s all equally fun.
I am beginning to think there may be hidden health benefits for us, as adults, if we learn to follow a baby’s lead. New research about Alzheimer’s and other age-related cognitive decay indicates that one of the best things you can do to stave off memory loss is to continue learning new things. When adults play with a baby, normally we tend to observe what they’re doing and then show them the “right” way to do it. We are always in the role of teacher, showing the baby something we know. So we are repeating our own patterns of knowledge, behavior, language and mental associations. There is no real chance for us to discover something new because we are codifying: this is how you walk, this is how you eat, this is how you throw a ball.
As an experiment, tonight while I was playing with Lev before his bedtime, I decided that rather than leading the activity, I would follow, observe and learn from him. I tried to emulate his every sound and gesture, to copy his movements.
Allowing the creativity of a one year-old to become your guide and teacher completely changes the experience of playing with your child. First of all, I’m sure on some level the baby is aware you are following his lead, so that’s a great way to empower a kid at an early age. More importantly, because you’re learning from his authentic, on the spot, present-minded spontaneity, it’s also a wonderful way to relate to a child. You surrender the role of being the teacher, and instead you become a follower, an observer and co-discoverer. And the baby becomes an entry point for you to return to your own long-forgotten sense of child-like wonder.
We played like that for a while, and when Lev finally wound down and began to fall asleep in my arms, I realized another gift he had given me. I couldn’t check my phone, or work on the laptop, or turn the radio on, or work, or do anything. At that moment, all I could do was sit in the dark, holding my son, listening to his breath and mine slow down.
Thank you, Lev. What a fantastic and effortless teacher you have become. Tomorrow I’ll show you how to use Snapchat.