‘The things that bind’

I learned that if one were to observe three different babies, all three born totally blind and all three from vastly different parts of the world; one’s father herds goats on the African Savannah, another’s father owns oil wells on the Caspian, the last one’s father sells insurance in Des Moines, while because they were born sightless, none of the three babies have ever, ever, seen another human smile … that they will never the less all learn to smile about the same time as other babies who were born with the ability to see and have seen many smiling faces. It’s just a thing we all know how to do …smile.

Across continents and cultures, babies smile. And, across continents and cultures, when a mother sees her baby smile, according to researchers at Baylor, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in her brain and she experiences happiness. Across continents and cultures, when a baby smiles and a mother … a wife … experiences happiness, a door is opened to a place where a man … a husband … can freely experience happiness. A married Azerbaijani guy, a married Zulu guy and a married guy from Des Moines sharing a drink in a pub in Liverpool would have a common understanding of the adage, “happy wife/happy life.” Like smiles, it’s just one of those universal things.

It doesn’t matter where one lives on this earth, we share universalities. We were all born with the ability to smile. Conversely, we were all born with the capacity to cry. And the things that make an Azerbaijani, a Zulu and a guy from Des Moines smile or cry are variations of the same sorts of things; the experiences of loss and mourning, satisfaction and contentment, things common to us all. As Shakespeare’s Shylock pointed out, we all have “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections…” that we all are “Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” These are just some of the things that bind us, that make us the same, natural things. And it seems so natural we would recall these things in our dealings with one another. But we do not. We do not speak of these things or teach them to our children.

It is the un-natural, the invented, the construed, things taught and learned, that instruct our faces to scowl. Un-natural sorts of things that loom so large in our minds they metastasize and grow until we completely forget the natural things.

When I was a young boy, the late 1950s and early 60s, at night I would lie in bed and listen to the thunderstorms rolling over Kansas. I was not afraid of thunder or lightening. But until I could hear rain tapping on the house I would lay still, eyes wide opened and wonder…is this thunder I am hearing in the distance? Or is it the Russians?

And I would know these seemingly eternal moments of uncertain terror while I analyzed the explosive booms I heard in the distance. A thunderstorm? Russians? Was this sound of nuclear war or the coming of rain? Were the missiles honing in on my home. Is this the moment I should get out of bed, dart into the hallway and crouch against the wall with my hands and arms covering my head … like we were taught to do in school in the event of a Russian, nuclear attack. And I would wonder why it was that my dad had never bothered digging a bomb shelter in the back yard? A man had come to our school and showed us picture slides of the sky afire and diagrams showing how to make a bomb shelter … just dig a hole … cover the hole with an old door … cover the door with six inches of dirt … good to go. He gave us how-to pamphlets to take home to our fathers so they also would know how to just dig a hole … cover the hole with an old door … cover the door with six inches of dirt. Then rain would begin to tap on the roof and lightening crack in the back yard, terror would turn to peace. It is just a thunderstorm. Somewhere on the other side of the world in a small town, surrounded by wheat fields, Ukraine perhaps, were other seven year old boys listening to the sound of distant thunder.

As I remember this, I think of a place where three unbroken generations have been taught and raised to know this exact same terror. Three generations of children have become adults in a socialized militocracy in which participation begins early and continues throughout life. In school they have been constantly drilled and taught to cover their heads and to dig bomb shelters against the most intensely focused array of potential destruction ever known on the face of this earth. Imagine the reaction of a child, three generations of children reared in such a place, to the sound of distant thunderstorms. Imagine the child grown up.

We share in common the desire and the will to live, the joy of happy wives and smiling babies. We also share fear. It behooves us, when we consider others, to consider all the things we have in common.

Even in language we share a small universality. There is a word that no matter what language one speaks or understands … one will understand this … it’s an expression of surprise or bewilderment … it’s the word “Huh?” This is all I have learned today.

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James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at whatjimhaslearnedtoday@yahoo.com