Wonder, Empathy, Love, and E.T.

There’s been a lot going on in my life lately. The thing that struck me most deeply though was the cascading flow of wonder, empathy, and love from my 4-year-old daughter. These are states that we take for granted as adults, they are things we know in the abstract, things we read about. But children experience emotions unhindered by the characteristic sang froid of our cooler than thou personas. It’s interesting to me that we as adults gate certain emotions as they bubble up, and allow ourselves to express others. Children don’t do this filtering. Whether this is a good or bad thing, whether this is nature or nurture, these things are not the topic today. Instead, I just want to describe the vicarious, infectious events of the weekend, from which I am still reeling.

My daughter loves space and dinosaurs. All animals really. Including aliens. Some of you out there will likely smile at this, thinking I’m directing her to my interests. This is not true. Or at least, it’s not a conscious or deliberate action. I do try to expose her to a range of subjects, and certainly she is presented with everything modern child psychology knows to share with children at her preschool. But she has picked up on the fact that I seem to know a thing or two about space and dinosaurs, and the fact that my walls are decorated with abstract depictions of celestial objects, photographs of nebulae, and classic science fiction movie posters. I tested her attention span on real science by downloading some apps on Hubble photographs and dinosaur profiles, and she was transfixed. I graduated to large coffee table books, and she remained thoroughly fascinated and we went through and talked about everything. Then I went big.

More precisely, I decided to explain the theory of the Big Bang to her, by way of the first episode of How the Universe Works. We had to pause frequently, and I had to repeat and simplify concepts somewhat. Not babify, mind you, I can’t abide that. But as I watched her watch an animation of the Big Bang, sitting a few feet from my giant 60″ Kuro, I noticed her little mouth drop open, her eyes widen, and she let out an oddly melodic¬†gasp. This made the hairs on my arms stick up. It was an extraordinary moment. I don’t share silly creation myths with her, because as I mentioned, I don’t babify her. But being able to explain our current understanding of our creation to someone so dear, and have her grasp that meaning, however tenuous, is a level of happiness that is simply unparalleled.

After that episode, it was back to the Jim Henson Company’s Dinosaur Train, building blocks, puzzles, the usual. But the next day, she surprised me again. She brought up the Big Bang. I asked her what was the most interesting thing about it. She said, “It goes faster than the speed of light, and it’s where all the water and all the life comes from.” This fully drew my attention. It was incredible. She remembered a key feature of the event, that most adults probably don’t know, and she added context that she had internalized about the creation of matter. Water and life are interesting to her, so that’s the meaning of the Big Bang.

I couldn’t get this out of my head all day. And that’s when I began thinking this might be the right time to try a feature-length live action science fiction film. I had tried Star Wars twice before, but Darth Vader is far too malevolent a figure in the opening sequence. But there might be a third go, based on what I’m about to tell you. My daughter had heard of E.T. She has an E.T. shirt, and she had caught the beginning of it already. We talked about it, and she told me she wanted to see it, and find out more about E.T. Since it’s not out on Blu-ray yet, I had to rummage through the upstairs closet to find the box of classic DVDs I couldn’t bring myself to eBay, back when I converted to Blu-ray.

On Sunday, we sat down to watch E.T. This time she didn’t want to pause at all. She was utterly spellbound. And to be fair, so was I. I hadn’t watched the whole movie in several years, possibly not since I was a child myself. My memory of it was a patchwork of iconic images, such as the bicycle flying past the moon, E.T.’s finger extended, and so on. Dialogue that had become pop culture references, like “E.T. phone home.” The whole thing had congealed into a kitschy, cloying puddle in the back of my mind, with something of a high quality residue to it. Watching it again, for the first time through my daughter’s eyes, dissolved this vague memory and clarified what a true masterpiece this film is. I noticed, seemingly for the first time, that most of the movie is shot at E.T. and Elliot height. The adults in the beginning are introduced by the keys jangling at their belts. The emotions and dialogue are all simple, but not simplistic. The film builds with innocence and humor, on the genius conceit of first contact with an alien happening through the earnest wonder of a ten-year-old boy who loves Star Wars action figures. And as it was affecting me all over again, I noticed that little mouth open, those eyes wide, and little gasps.

About three quarters of the way through the movie, we had this exchange:

Her: Daddy! Why is E.T. sick?
Me: He got sick in the forest with Elliot.
Her: Wait, did E.T. just die?
Me:¬†It looks like he’s separated from Elliot and flatlined.
Her: But Daddy, did E.T. just die?
Me: He doesn’t seem to be breathing.
Her: Daddy, yes or no, did E.T. just die?
Me: It certainly seems that way, sweetie.
Her: But Daddy I don’t want E.T. to die! He needs to get back to his spaceship!
Me: Me too, sweetie, I don’t want him to die either. Let’s see what happens. Oh look, the flowers are coming back to life!
Her: E.T. is back! Daddy, E.T. is back!

The movie is extraordinarily sneaky in how overpoweringly emotional it really is. Especially if you’ve been away from it for some time. But seeing it with someone who is experiencing those emotions for the first time, is an utterly sublime moment. She takes care of me when I’m sick, even making me a get well card, but for her to show empathy and love for an alien creature left me shaking. Perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic, and perhaps it’s a bit odd to share this is a public blog. But it’s a true snapshot of the human condition. The emergence of empathy is an event truly worthy of celebration. And I’m happy beyond measure to see it in her.

SF: Very touching Jamil. My only objection is that E.T. was the single most terrifying movie of my childhood. When he goes all white I lost my mind. You’ve unearthed significant trauma. D:

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