"Do you love God?"
It was a simple, direct question from a five-year-old. Quentin looked at me across the dining table.
Several adults around the table responded, immediately and affirmatively, as much to simplify the conversation, which had up to then consisted largely of five-year-old talk, as it was to deal with a question on which none of those present would likely have the same point of view. A typical family at Thanksgiving dinner.
Judith (my wife) redirected the question to me. "Don, do you love God?" There was mischief in her eyes when I glanced at her.
I thought about it. How do I answer a childís question about a subject Iíd been struggling with for fifty years or more?
Debra finally said to Judith, quietly, "Youíre putting him on the spot."
"Yes," her mother answered, "I am." She was enjoying this. She knew how much I had been reading in the past few years to clarify my understanding of the real question: what is my relationship to the universe?
I finally said to Quentin, simply, "I donít know." What I meant was that I didnít know how to apply such a term to something that remained so undefined in my mind. I was torn between wanting to give a child an answer to his question and not wanting to give a glib answer that would violate my own sensibility.
Debra turned to Quentin. "Not everybody believes in God." She was still peacemaking. She had to repeat the statement, for the boy wasnít expecting anything other than a simple "yes" or "no"óactually, he didnít expect anything but "yes," for a "no" was unthinkable in his five-year-old world.
"Some day," he responded, "God is going to come down to Earth and get all those who believe in Him and take them up to heaven, and the people who donít believe in Him will get all burned up."
I didnít have any problem with a five-year-old believing whatever his father had told him. I didnít even have a problem with his thinking that everybody believed the same way he did. For the sake of allowing the conversation to move on, I could have given that much. I didnít care, particularly, if he thought I loved God the way everybody else did. I was only a little more concerned about what the three adults in the group thought. Mostly, I was struggling with expressing myself (as usual). I thought of the story of Albert Einstein trying to help his nephew with his arithmetic homework.
Keith leaned toward his son. "I think itís not something we talk about at the dinner table." He had to repeat that, as well, for the boy was eager to continue the discussion. "Eat your food," he finally admonished.
That night I dreamed I was in a small cluster of people at a rather swank party, and someone replied to a simple question by asking another question.
"Now we are having a discussion," our host observed. "We can all think about God being here among us, in all His finery."
I was suddenly energized, and wanted to respond to his statement, to question his brash assumptions, but the scene changed slightly, and the host had greeted an attractive young Black couple, and pulled the woman aside.
"Go right through there," he told her, one hand on her shoulder, the other gesturing toward a hallway leading to another part of the house. "Thereís someone who wants to meet you."
As the woman moved off, I wondered how her husband was feeling about all that. She eventually returned, obviously impressed, but my question was never answered.
Nor was the boyís, at that Thanksgiving dinner.
A part of me insists on wonderingówhat is it that keeps us from talking about what is so important to us? I observe the questions, both kindsówhat is our relationship to the universe, and what is my relationship to other people in my environment? Uncertainty stifles me, I suppose. Not the uncertainty of the relationships in question so much as the uncertainty about the outcome of the exchange. Some people, Iím sure, just speak their minds at the moment, perhaps trusting that any misunderstandings can be resolved, perhaps not caring particularly if they are not. Iím not so confident, nor so thick-skinned. I want to be clear. I want to feel as though Iím clear in what I say. Whether other people perceive my clarity is important, but not so much as my own.
Probably, in my mostly unconscious motivation, it gets down to my need to be respected, to be believed when I speak. Itís a throwback, I suspect, to when I was five years old, and held to adult standards, and failed. Iíve learned a lot in my life about things that have been important to me. I havenít yet overcome the fear of being wrong. At least the energy of that fear has been a great benefit to my career.
I wish that now I could just let it go. Would a five-year-old really care?
Donald Skiff, March 22, 2001