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LETTERS TO MY MOTHER-IN-LAW

A Scrape With Son's Theology

December 31, 1989|JON BOORSTIN | This is one in an occasional series of columns written by a thirtysomething father trying to make sense of raising two children in Los Angeles.

Dear Skeeter,

Eric came home from school about a month ago with a truly monstrous scrape on his knee. The car-pool mom said the nurse spent 10 minutes picking dirt out of this one. You see, the principal grounded him for fighting (the first-graders rumbled with the second-graders) so he has to play in the concrete play-yard instead of the park next door. As he lunged for a ball, he fell and the concrete sanded off a hefty chunk of his knee. But he's fine, though he feared he'd have to sit out soccer practice because he wasn't able to run top speed. He was in some pain, a little scared, a little embarrassed, but not above milking the moment for its drama.

I've got to admit I was surprised enough by news of the fighting to feel a surge of pride. You know he's such a gentle soul, and he's one of the smaller boys in the class, and paper thin. (He once showed me with clinical self-satisfaction how he could count his own ribs.) So Leni talked to Eric about how we have to use words and resolve our differences peaceably, and I took him aside and told him that, while that's true, sometimes a man's gotta be a man. He took in both without comment; it seemed like one of those things that grown-ups make more of than the kids. The kids were friends again even before the punishment was meted out.

Anyway, that was about a month ago, and we've spent the last month watching the skin grow in bit by bit, but he's constantly falling on it again and reopening it. It's a race between his body's recuperative powers and his own gangly kidness, all the slipping and sliding and bouncing into things and jumping off things he loves to do. But at last the scabs on the scabs are looking good. This morning however when I was waking him up, I saw that he'd gone and scraped it again. I couldn't hide my disappointment. Eric was very matter-of-fact. Yes, he'd scraped it again. And then he mumbled something about God.

This brought me up short. He goes to Sunday school with the usual amount of complaining, but God doesn't come up very often outside the standard Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur-Purim-Passover-Hanukkah rotation. We like to think that we don't have to resort to God for our everyday explanations. But now Eric is telling me that God gives out scrapes as punishment for doing bad things. Furthermore, he tells me that "God controls everything but whether I do good or bad."

So now I am face-to-face with the question of God. Not a place I'm used to being. My mind races through old college lectures long forgotten. This isn't posed as a question; it's stated as a fact that Eric's worked out in his own ponderings, and is as succinct a statement of the doctrine of free will as any theologian could muster. But I can't help thinking that, if he's telling it to me, it's to run it by me and see what I make of it.

I yearned nostalgically for a time I'd only read about, when people knew exactly what was God's fault and what wasn't. Eric had been thinking hard on this; even though he wasn't asking a question, he deserved a serious answer. So while I umm ed and uh 'd, stalling for time, I ran through my own mini-evolution of theological thought, like one of those super fast-paced TV commercials playing in my head. But all the time I knew I was playing a dirty trick on him, because I wasn't really worrying about what's true, I was worrying about what I'd like him to believe.

My first reaction was joy. How clear it is for Eric. He knows with serene certainty that whether he does good or bad is up to him. I know it's more complicated than that, but I'd love it to be that simple. That's great. I even like the idea he thinks somebody's watching. He can call it God, I'll call it super-ego.

I'm not so happy about this vision of a vengeful God. I'm worried he's taken it the next step, and thinks that, if somebody's had a bad break, it's their fault--that if some kid breaks an arm, or loses a parent, or is poor, they're only getting what they deserve. So I hemmed and hawed some more, and I said that it might not be so clear-cut, the way God works. "Oh yes it is," said Eric.

Now we're in deep theological mire. "Now wait a minute," I said. "Really bad things can happen to people sometimes and they haven't done anything wrong. It's just bad luck." Eric wasn't concerned: "I know that. Only scrapes count."

Now my sense of theo-logic was offended: "You mean scrapes are the only way God punishes you if you're bad?" Eric nodded: "And bumps and things. Nothing too big." I couldn't help myself: "What if someone loses something? Is that God punishing them?" This gave Eric pause. "I don't know," he said. I cursed myself for taking this too far. Then he brightened. He'd worked it out: "I suppose it depends on what you lose."

Skeeter, it might have helped if you had seen to it Leni was taught a few of the commoner Hebrew prayers, now that we have a theologian in the house.

Ever your loving

son-in-law Jon.

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