My husband's latest post reminded me of a wonderful speech I read recently by children's author Natalie Babbitt. I really recommend you read the whole thing in context. It is titled We're All Mad Here and the author compares Alice and Wonderland to the "reasonable" society in which we are a part:
The fundamental reason why Alice in Wonderland was my favorite book was that it confirmed my long-held suspicion – long held even by fourth grade – that grown-ups, and the world they have created, are mad. For the most part, they operate on systems that have no basis in rationality. Children are rational, but their elders are not, and can’t explain anything. (As in the question “Why do I have to do that?” to which the answer is “Because I said so.”) Is it possible to reason irrationally? Certainly. The grown-up characters in Alice reason irrationally at a great rate all through the book. There is only one rational character in the Alice stories, and that character is Alice herself.
Babbitt shares stories from her childhood which further supports these points. After all, how many times do we remember or do we ourselves partake in the irrationality? Even when we see the blatant idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies in our actions?
To the best of my recollection, my awareness of irrationality began when I was four. It began small, but it began memorable. My sister, who is two years older than I am, was at school, and I was alone in the kitchen, sitting on some kind of a highchair, where I’d been told firmly by my mother to stay until I finished my lunch. I’d been there for quite a while, because there were canned pears for dessert, and I was putting off the necessity of dealing with them. I didn’t like canned pears. Still don’t. Canned pears, unlike fresh ones, have strings in them. My mother knew I didn’t like them, but served them to me anyway. Her plea, in such situations, was that I think of the starving Armenians. But since I didn’t know who the Armenians were, or why they were starving, my patience was short. On this particular day, it finally ran out. I climbed down from my highchair and threw my pears in the sink. And then I went down the hall towards the front door, passing my mother who was headed in the other direction. I was stopped with my hand on the door knob by my mother’s voice from the kitchen. She called to me and said, “Whose pears are these in the sink?”
Now, at the age of four, I was probably not familiar with the word “irrational.” Nevertheless, I clearly recall being puzzled by this question from my mother.
Anyways, the author makes some brilliant points about how mad we all really are. How societies are held together by nothing really, and how children are really a hundred times more rational then adults.
What it all seems to come down to is that we humans have a very slim grip on the definition of what’s rational. The societies we have created here, and everywhere else around the world, are messy, unjust and dangerous. But each society believes those adjectives are descriptive only of all the other societies, while it itself is fair and square, tidy, and safe. We’d get along with each other a lot better if we could admit that we are all pretty much alike regardless of what society we belong to, but that seems to go against the grain.
What I liked about this is how easily it could be applied to religion. In Mormonism, all other religions are the "messy" ones. But the LDS church is the only "true one." And yet how many religions think the same of others? Other religions are "dangerous," but one's own is the "safe" and "fair" one.
Another part of her speech that I really enjoyed reading was about how despite all of our contradictions and hypocrisies, people still find meaning and beauty. They choose to create, build, love even in the midst of waves of potential disillusionment.
So – well – I think I grew up questioning the contradictions, as we all do, but finally admiring the way we human beings always manage, however clumsily, to build a footing out of not much, and then dance on it. Because we do dance on it, here and everywhere else in the world, regardless of science, religion, and politics. And we dance pretty well, thank you very much. It’s mad to dance on such a footing, because collapse is always imminent, but we do it anyway. There’s a lot to be learned from that. Somehow, in spite of everything, we manage to build. We have always managed to build, even right after we’ve managed to destroy.
In a way, I feel as though I was Alice when I went to church. Every time I would ask a question or seek an explanation. I would receive an answer similar to one Alice might hear from the mad hatter. And the way people in the church took these quite contradictory and irrational arguments as valid explanations confused me to no end. And as Babbitt illustrates, there are "irrationally reasonable" parts in Alice:
“And their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie, and they lived at the bottom of a well.”
“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
“They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked. “They’d have been ill.”
“So they were,” said the Dormouse. “Very ill.”
Alice tried a little to fancy to herself what such an extraordinary way of living would be like, but it puzzled her too much: so she went on: “But why did they live at the bottom of a well?”
The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, “It was a treacle well. And so these three little sisters – they were learning to draw, you know.”
“What did they draw?” said Alice.
“Treacle,” said the Dormouse, without considering at all, this time.
“But I don’t understand,” said Alice. “Where did they draw the treacle from?”
“You can draw water out of a water-well,” said the Hatter; “so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well – eh, stupid?”
“But they were in the well,” Alice said to the Dormouse, not choosing to notice this last remark.
“Of course they were,” said the Dormouse: “Well in.”
But although it became plain to see the madness in a church environment, it has become more plain for me to see the madness in the culture I live in. The very structure of my society has some very fundamentally f&$cked up ways of living and seeing the world. This rabid consumerism which literally destroys lives coupled with religion and so called "morals" confuses me to no end.
And like my husband, and like Alice at the end of Lewis Carroll's popular work, I just want to wake up, and get out of wonderland.