Wednesday, December 29, 2010
THE BOY WHO SAID, “SO WHAT?”: A parable on existential themes
Once upon a time there was a boy who said, “So what?”
His mother said to him, “Son, eat your vegetables or you won’t grow up to be big and strong.”
And the boy, who was about five years old, said, “So what?”
And his mother said, “If you don’t grow up to be big and strong, you won’t be able to get a job.”
And the boy said, “So what?”
And his mother, who was a very patient mother, said, “If you don’t get a job, you won’t earn any money, and if you don’t earn any money you won’t have food to eat or a place to live or a wife to love you.”
And the boy said, “So what?”
And his mother, who was a very patient mother, said, “If you don’t have food to eat or a place to live or someone to love you, your life will be hard.”
And the boy, who had big innocent eyes, said, “So what?”
And his mother, who was not that patient, said, “Eat your vegetables. Or else.”
And the boy ate his vegetables, but he didn’t seem convinced.
Later, the mother explained to the boy why he had to go to bed and why he had to go to school and why he had to clean his room. “If you don’t get your sleep, you’ll come down sick,” she said. “If you don’t go to school, the world will confuse you. If you don’t clean your room, someone else will have to do it.”
And the boy blinked and said, “So what?”
After a while his mother, who was not a stupid mother, stopped explaining. “Go to bed,” she said. “Go to school. Clean your room. Or else.”
The boy went to bed, went to school, and cleaned his room, but he didn’t seem convinced.
A few years later, when the boy’s voice had grown deep, other people explained things to him.
“If you don’t go to college, you won’t be able to get a good job and make a lot of money,” said a nice woman in an office at his school.
“So what?” said the boy, plucking a loose thread from his shirt.
The woman took the boy to a man in a sweater, who sat behind a desk. “What does this make you think of?” said the man, showing the boy a symmetrical blob of dried ink. “What do you think of when I say, ‘Pistachio’? Can you draw a woman?”
The boy didn’t answer.
“If you don’t cooperate, we can’t help you,” said the man.
“So what?” said the boy, looking out a window.
Later, the boy went to college because his mother told him to, or else, but he didn’t seem convinced.
In college, more people explained things to the boy.
“Study business, or you’ll be poor,” said some.
“Study the arts, or you won’t know what’s beautiful,” said others.
The boy yawned. “So what?” he said.
One of the people at the college took an interest in the boy. “I am a professor of philosophy,” he said. “I will show you the reasons for things, or at least the reasons smart people have come up with for things.” And the teacher talked, for a long time.
When he was done, the boy nodded his head, smiled, and said, “So what?”
This made the man very angry, and he stomped out of the room, saying, “I can’t teach you anything!”
“So what?” said the boy, to himself.
After college, various people—his mother, his grandfather, a girl he knew—told the boy he had to get a job, buy food, find a house, and get married. Or else. The boy got a job, bought food, found a house, and got married, but he didn’t seem convinced.
One day a man at his job said to the boy, who had a bald spot, “You must work harder. I’m your friend. I’m telling you. You might get fired.”
The boy said, “So what?” and doodled on an interoffice memo.
Later, another man at his job, who seemed serious and important, said to the boy, “If you don’t work harder, you’ll be fired.”
The boy looked at the important man. “So what?” he said.
The boy was fired, and then he didn’t have a wife, and he stopped buying food, and he stopped having a place to live. People who saw him on the street said to him, “You look terrible! You’re a disgrace! You’re throwing your life away!”
The boy looked far away and said, “So what?”
When the boy said, “So what?” people looked at him and blinked their eyes. Then they walked away fast. Even children walked away fast, looking over their shoulders at him.
One day the boy, who now had gray hair and wrinkled skin, was lying in a bed. People standing around the bed told him, “If you don’t take these pills, you won’t feel better. If we don’t put these tubes in, you won’t get better. If we don’t cut you open, you won’t live long.”
And the boy shrugged and whispered, “So what?”
And all the people stomped out except one. She looked like the boy’s mother, only she wore stiff white clothes. She said to the boy, “Look. Close your eyes and rest. Or else.”
So the boy closed his eyes. And he kept them closed a very long time.
But he didn’t seem convinced.