And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

If you spend, well, any time on the Internet, it's probable that you've encountered the particular joke format "I wish I loved anything as much as X loves Y". It's a pretty good, flexible construction for when people or animals or rocks or whatever seem to have a disproportionate affection for something. Usually it's a trivial comparison, like "I wish I loved anything as much as Kel loves orange soda," or "I wish I loved anything as much as the kitten in this video loves the spoken word poetry of Gil Scott Heron". I've been ruminating on it recently in a more serious vein, though, thanks to my son.

Like most five-year-olds, he has various enthusiasms that seem to shift depending on mood. He's been super into construction, and dinosaurs, and various other young kid obsessions. Recently, though, he has invested himself in a more complete way than he has before, this time in the plight of endangered animals. He has labeled himself an "animal studier" tasked with protecting endangered species, be it from hunting, habitat destruction, or anything else. He has jumped into this fascination with both feet, which has led to some unintended consequences for our family. Many days he will go on and on about a particular endangered species, or mourn one already extinct (he's very sad about something called a golden toad). At times it's easy to start feeling like the author of this article (Warning: strong language).  

But then I witness the depth of his conviction, and I'm really moved. He recently celebrated his fifth birthday, and a week or so after the fact, he told us, out of the blue, what his birthday wish was: that he could save all the animals from going extinct. His convictions have not just caused internal change, though - they have radiated outward to affect the way we live as a family. A few months ago he discovered that orangutans were endangered, thanks in large part to habitat destruction. He then discovered that this habitat destruction is intimately tied to the palm oil industry, which cuts down huge swaths of the Indonesian rain forest in its insatiable quest for the golden droplets of oil.

My son became very concerned, especially given the huge number of items at every grocery store that use palm oil as a cheap alternative to other kinds of binding agents. He began to research things that had palm oil, and soon produced an ultimatum: our family could not, in good conscience, continue to eat palm oil. No Oreos. No processed peanut butter. And - despite the very great sacrifice involved - no Ritz crackers. This last item caused no end of consternation, even tears, as he loved using them to make "My famous peanut butter and jelly cracker sandwiches". But, though it hurt him to do so, he gave them up willingly for the sake of the orangutans.

You might think that a five year old would quickly forget this dictum, but for some reason it has stuck, and we have been palm oil free for several months now. He's drilled us hard to remember, and we always check the labels of food when we're out shopping. He's even indoctrinated his sister (age 3) so that she can be the watchdog when he's not around. Again, I want to emphasize the sheer number of packaged products these days that feature palm oil; this has been a major change to our shopping habits.

In spite of the inconvenience, I'm incredibly proud. Not just at his diligence in keeping up the boycott, but in his initial love for animals that led him to this sacrifice (he's not quite Abraham, but peanut butter cracker sandwiches are a pretty big deal for a five year old). It really does make me wish I loved anything as much as he loves animals. I mean, I think I love him, and his sisters, and his mom, and my various other family members and friends, that much, but what else? I can't think of too much. I tend to be a detached person, weighing things in the balance. Henry Adams' line from The Education of Henry Adams about how "He never got to the point of playing the game at all; he lost himself in the study of it, watching the errors of the players," resonates a great deal with me. Though there are advantages to my habit of detachment, it can too easily become a prison of my own making.

So I need these period shocks to my system, reminders that life requires real attachment, real love. Even though I get cranky about missing certain foodstuffs, then, I'm happy to be led by the example of my son. On our recent trip to Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, he learned about the threat to the Great Lakes from Asian carp, which have already invaded the Mississippi River to devastating effect. As I write this he's busy drawing diagrams to figure out how to block the access of Asian carp to Lake Michigan. This after he spent the whole car ride home bringing the subject up every two minutes. Like all holy fools, he can be a bit insufferable, but it's mostly proof of a conviction deep enough to make me feel guilty about my own inaction. I hope he never stops loving deeply, and helping me do the same.