Don’t Just Say No

When I was a child my friends had a nickname for me. They called me The Preacher because I would turn every situation into a moral lesson.

Where did this finger-wagging tendency come from? My dad had a somewhat sententious manner arising from his rather straight-laced Methodist upbringing. And my mum had an unusually heightened sense of social justice which spilled out whenever anything made her angry. Climbing on a soap-box just came naturally to me, I suppose.

I can only pity my poor friends, having their ears bent like that! And now it’s your turn, WordPress people, because looking back over my posts I can’t find one that isn’t a sermon in disguise. Poems, satires, opinions – each of them a little homily to a happier future where prejudice, ignorance and cruelty are unknown.

A world without evil is impossible if you believe in Original Sin – the idea that we are all born bad and must be redeemed. I happen to believe the opposite – that we are born good but corrupted by social conditioning into bad habits. I’m reading a biography of children’s writer Lewis Carroll which explains how he was influenced by the poets Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth towards an idealised yet honest view of childhood – his Alice books show their feisty little hero more than holding her own against the nonsensical gibberish emanating from so-called adult authority.

Carroll works through parody, a skill he honed as a child producing countless magazines for his younger brothers and sisters to read. He was just thirteen when he wrote the spirited poem My Fairy which spoofed the solemn rubrics and prim & proper prudishness of conventional Victorian society.

I have a fairy by my side
Which says I must not sleep,
When once in pain I loudly cried
It said “You must not weep.”

If, full of mirth, I smile and grin,
It says “You must not laugh”;
When once I wished to drink some gin
It said “You must not quaff.”

When once a meal I wished to taste
It said “You must not bite”;
When to the wars I went in haste
It said “You must not fight.”

“What may I do?” at length I cried,
Tired of the painful task.
The fairy quietly replied,
And said “You must not ask.”

          Moral: “You mustn’t.”

So finger-wagging isn’t the way to go. Who knew?

And how easy it is to glimpse, in this barely teenage prodigy with his natural genius for companionable hilarity, the witty man who transformed children’s literature by giving children a stronger voice in the bewildering world we grown-ups create for them.


Image result for lewis carroll


19 thoughts on “Don’t Just Say No

  1. The Alice books are among my favorite! Even as a kid I could see how sarcastic he was being, haha! A true genius. I, too, believe the ‘opposite’ of Original Sin. Unfortunately, I think that belief operates in every institution of society.

    1. Somehow we need to harness that early sense of curiosity and wonder, instead of stamping it out like we do routinely. This means giving children a measure of freedom in their social and educational choices … an act of faith, I’d say. Thanks for the comment, Christine!

  2. Love the article. Have you perhaps ever considered the question of whether we are not born evil, but rather that we are born as simple small sponges into a world to which evil was brought, propagated, cultivated,and obviously still exists, and that perhaps THAT is the original sin? ie the bringing of evil.
    Which means that we will never be able to stomp it out, even with social programs and much diligence, but that what is needed is a continuous clean-up program, each one of us, In other words, what you call social conditioning, I call original sin. And yes, now I am preaching. But who cares. in other words, all that matters is the kids, and getting in there and showing them how to do it right, not discussing or doing social legislation, unless the legislation is specifically for the feeding, clothing, housing, and decent free-time of the kids involved.
    Preferably with music program, which is always the first thing cut.
    Since I am in adult education, I was amazed when I took a 9-14 children’s choir, as a favor to a friend who wanted her child, who was having problems, to work with me. I was amazed at how fast they are- at least three times the speed of adults. Like little sponges, they pick up everything. One of them even set up her own choir of her friends at school. And they aren’t half bad. When she found out I knew, she was afraid, but now she occasionally asks questions, and has, now fourteen, just entered a youth music program where someone there is teaching her about conducting.
    Maybe Pink Floyd had it right ? Show, and let them copy, don’t preach.
    Ps It amazes me how much this poem already resembles The Mad Gardener from his Sylvie and Bruno.
    I wonder if that is symbolic.

    1. So many interesting thoughts here! Your comment about sponges is exactly right – perhaps I can refine my idea that children are born good into born with the potential for goodness. I don’t believe evil exists – though evil acts occur, as a result of social corruption which is learned not inborn. So I disagree that it can’t be stamped out because learning is a process not a basic condition. We live in a dangerous world full of unthinking conformity which education must battle to disrupt and undermine. Remember reading a book in the 70s called Teaching As A Subversive Activity, the title says it all really. Give them to skills and encouragement to find out for themselves, as your great story about the choir shows. And, yeah, show don’t tell – great advice to writers, especially ‘preachy’ ones like me, and true in life generally. Must read Sylvie and Bruno, cheers for the heads up. As for symbols, they make me feel giddy …

      1. It’s not just social environment, David. At least in my opinion. In great places, like schools set up to teach at a high level, as you probably know, sometimes just one overly bright child looking for a kick can set up an entire aggressive band doing bad. The peer thing is the problem. I went to a high school that was set up for the children of a new subdivision- teachers, preachers, doctors from a huge new hospital. then the drug pushers arrived. And the children from other states- as were most californians in those days- started taking, selling, to be part of the peer group. There were knife fights, disecting needles stolen from bio through the toes of boots. Life was hell. How did it start? we were on the San Jose drug run line, with dealers who saw money, not enough police, a teaching staff not trained to handle it, a new low-cost community social housing project. then another. Soon we had the equivalent of the projects in london. My personal view is children are born with genetic programing, and a soul, for good. But it has to be awakened and nurtured. And defended from the environment. And since the most talented are often the most endangered, sometimes you need special training. at all levels. but also elite choirs, or also other arts and vocational and sports courses. based on talent not money. And a real role model. Sometimes one good role model is enough. Mine was an opera singer who, bless her heart, despite extreme multiple sclerosis, kept up her job at the opera, worked for the church, raised a family, and took time to work with children. God bless you, Sharon.

        1. Thank you, Sharon. With an environment like the one you describe, so many chronic problems intersecting, there can be no easy solutions. To break out of bad peer pressure, kids need to be given an incentive – shown a way forward that helps them develop long-term goals rather than a life of cheap kicks. Hard when the way we live is so focused on short-term satisfactions … the role-model, mentoring thing is important as you memorably describe. We’ve evolved as social beings and need to give much more thought to societal breakdown and its rolling effects on the young. Break a vicious circle, you could say …

  3. I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass when I was a child. I should probably read them again, though. I suspect that much like Gulliver’s Travels, there’s a lot to them that you only get as an adult.

    1. Reading the Carroll biography has taken me back to them. Good kids’ books like these get their main message through to the kids even if some adult ideas are above their heads – a bit like a good pantomime, perhaps?

  4. Also, I must confess that this is the first written post I’ve shared on Facebook. I have shared cartoons, but nothing as powerful as this article.

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