Thomas J. McCarthy

The day the bombing began in Baghdad, my daughter came home from kindergarten and said, “We’re at war with Iraq, right Daddy?” Later that evening, she stopped in the midst of her piano practice to ask, “Daddy, how can music change the world?” Her thinking was, I knew, prompted by a book we have about Beethoven, which says he believed music could change the world. Ever since that moment when she made the connection between music and war, my mind keeps returning to the juxtaposition of her at the piano in our dining room and the violence in Iraq.

Imparting to my children a love of music is easy; but the notion that artistic expression springs from experience and can affect the larger world—a belief dear to my heart—is one that I’m still trying to figure out how to communicate to a six-year-old. Once my daughter began kindergarten, I could no longer expect to control and filter all that she is exposed to: the outside world was no longer outside. Indeed, for a six-year-old the very concept of “the world” eludes definitive explanation, let alone the idea that an individual can or should consider changing it.

Nevertheless, here I sit with my little girl and her two questions, at once pointed and pregnant, dangling between us—one about war and the other about music and the world. The child development books I have read stress the importance of taking into account children’s egocentrism at traumatic or historic moments like this. Their basic concerns are: 1) Am I safe? 2) Are my parents safe? and 3) How will this affect my daily life? The world and its evils and wars—like its beautiful music and art—become most meaningful to child and adult alike through the self, the lens of personal experience. To explain how music changes the world, all I need do is ask her how playing the piano or listening to her favorite music or dancing to a silly song makes her feel.

Of course, tackling the war question demands a bit more delicacy and finesse. But my answers need not and should not be contrived. For although it is clearly understood that children think in a different way than adults, the more I ponder and clarify how to address my daughter’s questions the more I am struck by the universal applicability of a child’s basic concerns. The common feature in most experts’ advice about how to discuss war with children is that we must reassure them that they are safe, while acknowledging the existence of violence, evil and danger in the world. This parental balancing act, it seems to me, is apposite to more than just children. Aren’t we all striving in times like these for a kind of equilibrium that will enable us to function, even thrive and grow, not despite reality but in and through it?

Easier said than done. Learning to live with contradiction is an essential part of maturation; indeed, the capacity to hold opposing truths in one’s mind is crucial to appreciating the most exacting concepts, the subtlest ideas and the richest aspects of human experience. But teaching a child to accept contradiction, I am finding, feels a lot like evasion or outright lying. Sometimes the language one is tempted to employ reminds me of a Defense Department briefing, in which informing and reassuring take the form of condescending banalities that skirt the truth and elide fundamental questions. Advice in a brochure sent home from my daughter’s school exhorting parents to “help children feel safe despite our lack of trust in the world” and “to live a normal life in spite of our fears” could have been lifted from any number of public statements by Attorney General John Ashcroft—a man whose tenure in office has been characterized by treating citizens like children.

And so I confront two of the great questions not only of our time, but of all time: How does one explain war to children, and how can we tell our children or ourselves with a straight face to “feel safe despite our lack of trust in the world”? To claim security in any but the most superficial way has always been an exercise in self-delusion. And since sometime in the third chapter of Genesis, “a normal life” has meant negotiating fear. If the underlying message is to feel safe and normal, and if safety and normalcy are set against the world—and our fears of and mistrust toward it—then have we not already ceded control of our children’s minds and hearts to black-and-white distinctions? Simplifying the truth is essential to preparing a child for the world; oversimplifying half-truths, while also preparing a child for the world, does so in favor of shallow opposition at the expense of genuine complexity.

Which brings us back to Beethoven. For centuries, great art—even just good art—has embraced contradiction en route to enriching our minds and emboldening our spirits. Facing our fears does not mean normalizing them. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has captivated generations of listeners not in spite of its teeming, formidable character but because of it. Children are neither miniature adults nor icons of innocence, just as adults are neither overgrown children nor keepers of The Truth. Simplistic dichotomies mire the mind in ideology and are anathema to the fecund complexity inherent in beauty and mystery alike. Music changes the world the way a child changes its parent: by shining a small, pure light on an unfathomable truth without apparently contriving to do so.

Thomas J. McCarthy writes from St. Paul, Minn.

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