Friday, July 31, 2009

Wrestling With The Joker

For his birthday last week, Ben received a Bat Cave complete with Batman and Robin from his friend. Before this, Ben knew no more of Batman than of Bill Gates, but now he loves the many gizmos and gadgets to spin, push, twist, and otherwise manipulate as he thoroughly explores the gratifying thrill of cause and effect. When he first opened it, we spoke briefly of Batman's penchant for heroism, focusing mostly on his daring rescues of people caught in all manner of natural disasters or accidents, intentionally skirting the issue of people needing rescue from other people.

A few days later, this same little buddy gave him the coordinating Joker in a motorcycle that sports a giant, functional mallet. Push the button, and the hammerhead extends and drops with authority. Bang, bang, bang.

"Why is there a hammer, Mommy?" Ben asked casually as our family drove to church Sunday evening. My husband and I looked at each other, not quite sure how to handle this question. "So he can smash and destroy innocent people and their possessions" didn't seem the appropriate answer for a four year old who internalizes every word we say with a pensiveness and insight more often found in people decades his senior.

In the front seat, we grapple with which direction to head. Our instinct is to play it off as innocent fun: "So he can smash nuts like a nutcracker, break up great clumps of dirt, hammer really big nails...". This would keep things easy, light. This avoids giant philosophical and theological questions regarding the nature of evil.

But as we're driving, I'm stressing (as usual). I'm wondering if it is a disservice to pretend the world is all heroes and goodness when in fact those things exist more meaningfully in contrast to the villains and badness; I'm worrying that we haven't really introduced him to any fairy tales or super hero stories or moral fables that illuminate the epic struggle of good vs. evil and that perhaps, without this knowledge, he won't begin to choose the light and associate himself with the good and that he'll grow up without thinking of himself as the hero. I'm thinking he needs to know that Batman saves people from the Joker so that the story has actual conflict, duality, struggle, and hope.

So I say, "Actually, The Joker is a bad guy, and he uses his hammer to hurt people's things (I did decide not to go into The Joker hurting actual people), so Batman comes and saves people from The Joker." There. I said it.

But I don't like it. It's so arbitrary, this black and white world view that classifies folks as bad guys or good guys, villains or heroes. It doesn't sit well with me. Frankly, I don't buy it myself. But Ben accepts the answer and from the back seat we hear him saying, "I'm going to be Batman and lock The Joker up in a cave so he can't use his hammer..." Internally, I breath a small if half-hearted sigh of relief--he's making the heroic association.

The next day, on the same road, as Ben and Abby and I are headed to the bagel shop for breakfast, he asks, "Mommy, why is The Joker a bad guy?"

Oh, God, help me. At the root of this question is the root of all theological debate. This is a question I'm still grappling with, and now to explain to a four year old.

The thing is, I can't bring myself to say that there are good people and bad people in the standard "us" vs. "them" discussion that I was brought up with--it's just not that simple. Yes, I want him to identify with Batman, but the truth is, we all have a little of The Joker in us just as we all have a longing to be Batman.

So I say, "Well, The Joker is only interested in taking care of himself, even if the people around him get hurt in the process." I recognize it's kind of lame, even as I say it.

To which he says, "But Mommy, it's good to take care of ourselves, like eating food that's good for our poopies."

I realize in a wave of pride that's he's actually embracing these values that we're trying to impart: we talk often about how important it is to take care of the amazing bodies God has given us by brushing our teeth, eating nutritiously (yes, we talk about which foods are good for our bones or good for our muscles or, gulp, good for our poopies), exercising, and getting rest.

So I scramble for a moment and respond with, "No, yes, you're right--it's good to take care of ourselves. But The Joker is willing to hurt other people to make sure he gets what he wants. Kind of like the kid in the green shirt at the Play School that you told me about who was hitting people when he wanted a toy. Do you remember that?"

"No, Mom, he was wearing a gray shirt, " Ben corrected.

"Okay, the kid in the gray shirt. Is it okay for him to hurt people to get what he wants?"

"No!" he replies in a "that's so obvious" tone.

"Exactly. So he was acting a little like The Joker when he did that. Actually, there's a little bit of Joker in all of us, I think." And I pause, holding my breath, wondering how that statement will be filtered and understood and repositioned in a four-year-old's brain. I continue, "Do you ever take something you want from someone, even if it hurts them?"

The car is quiet, but we both know the answer and after a brief moment of reflection he says honestly but thoughtfully, "Yeah." Confession. And I confess, too.

A minute later, he asks, "But Mommy, how does The Joker get in us?" Sometimes his literal mind is bewildering. He already has this picture of Jesus taking up residence in his stomach, so I'm imagining the visual in his mind of Jesus and the Joker eating, sleeping, and hanging out together. There's actually some truth there, as Jesus seemed most at home with the Joker-types, if we're to believe the Bible.

So the conversation turned to an explanation of metaphor and wandered off into less loaded realms before we arrived at The Bagelry.

I've mentally returned to our exchange all week, though. I've thought about what I believe about myself, about others, about bad guys, about villains. Are there bad guys? I mean, are there truly people in the world interested in hurting others purely for the sport of it? Or is there always motive (or mental illness) at play in varying degrees of extreme? I think this may be the exploration of The Dark Knight; I don't know--I haven't seen it.

Whatever the case, I do know wherever there is a Joker in this world, there will be Batman. But I think Batman's name is actually Jesus, who rescues us from the Joker that is ourselves.

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