My son and I are watching Veggie Tales. It’s the one where the Bad Apple comes to town to lure everyone off God’s path. Larry Boy, the animated protagonist, gives into his chocolate temptation; the mayor to vanity, the hard-nosed, Lois Lane-style reporter to video games.
Veggie Tales is a show my kindergartener and I can watch together, and he’s learning to relate these parables to his own life. At his parochial school they talk about real things, like God’s love, good citizenship, and all the things you can do with the letter C, so this kind of thing is not foreign territory. “What’s your temptation, Mommy?” he asks. I’m taken aback by his question.
“What isn’t my temptation?” I want to reply. There are so many. There’s chocolate, just like Larry Boy; there’s vanity, there’s electronics—for sure there’s electronics, from social media to games to TV shows and movies. And there’s more. There’s fantasizing about all the things my life is not and hasn’t been, there’s self-doubt and harsh critique, there’s envy of objects and choices, there’s snacks, finishing the whole bottle of wine, the whole pint of ice cream, online shopping.
My son is looking at me expectantly. He wants to have a real, human conversation, with me, his mother, who has been looking forward to having real, human conversations with her son since he was in utero, since he was a month old and I read to him from Willa Cather, since I first began talking to him about creation and what it means to be alive.
More Conversations with Children
On Friday nights I teach catechism at our church. Imagine trying to teach Catholicism and Christian morality to a room full of 25 seventh graders at 7 p.m. on Friday nights. If you’re thinking Dante would have had something to say about that should he have lived so long, don’t worry—I’ve had that thought too.
It’s Lent, so we’ve been talking about temptation. The kids in my class are all smart, interesting, exciting kids. Whether they feel that way on Friday nights in class is another story, but their light shines through. I wanted to talk to them about Jesus’ time in the desert, what temptation is, and how Satan (yes, the actual embodiment of evil) wants to steal their light and turn their hearts to darkness. I wanted them to know that despite his holiness it was not easy for Christ, and that we shouldn’t expect it to be easy for us.
“Could you say no to the devil if he offered your every heart’s desire, but you had to give up God?”
“Yes,” say some of the kids.
“No,” smirk several others.
“Let me posit to you”—I like to use words they may not have heard before, then give them the context to understand so that they know I take them, and our time together, as seriously as I take my own study—“let me present to you the idea that in giving up God what you are really giving up is freedom.”
“Whoa,” I hear. Some of the kids seem legitimately blown away by this concept, some ignore me, some don’t care. But I do, so I continue.
“Where does free will come from?” I ask. “Who gave us that?”
“God,” comes the reply.
“Do you think the devil would give us our every heart’s desire and exact no payment in return? What he wants is your belief in God, and in demanding that from you what he takes is your freedom. God is freedom, do you get that?”
Some do, I can see, and some would rather have new sneakers.
The Temptation to Despair
I always get distracted when I get to the hard part. And this is the hard part. So let me delay a moment longer. Before class, I’d talked to my husband about this lesson. I was preparing some visual aids, namely, classic European paintings of Christ in the desert, St. Anthony’s temptation, Bosch.
Many of these paintings are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which brings me to my other consistent lesson for these child residents of the outer boroughs: “This city is yours,” I tell them, “it belongs to you, it is your inheritance. Go forth and own it,” I tell them nearly weekly about all the ways to see all the art for free). My husband said, “Don’t forget about sadness.”
I hadn’t forgotten about sadness. But I hadn’t thought to bring it up in class, either. Sadness as a temptation is not the one we usually hear about. We think instead of high-calorie foods, of self-serving behaviors, of practices that ignore the needs of others, or the lure of money. But what about the temptation to wallow in melancholy? The urge to give up entire days to thinking of our own failures and inadequacies? The fierce desire to give in to intense grief, be it days or decades old?
My students hadn’t forgotten about it, either. I don’t know much about their lives, or where they come from before class, or where they go. We all live in the same neighborhood, but this is Brooklyn, and even within the same neighborhood there are vast differences in lifestyle.
For example, my next-door neighbors, an Eastern European family I’ve only met in passing but with whom we share a wall, keep their baby up until all hours of the night. I’ll be sitting down to have an herbal tea before bed and I hear this preschool-aged child, through the wall, yelling, jumping, playing. Meanwhile, my son will have been in bed since 7:30 p.m., which is his bedtime.
Every night I stare in disbelief at this wall. “Don’t they want any adult time?” I ask my husband, “Don’t they want to decompress from their day? Isn’t that kid a basket case in the morning?” “It’s a cultural difference,” he says.
One of the girls in class who is always a little late, the one who questions the Catholic Church’s stance on women becoming priests, who will take her confirmation name from a woman saint who was a midwife (but whom I can’t find in my Dictionary of Saints), who stuffs her fists into her pockets and juts her chin out, who takes on her peers, and me, with fiercely intelligent eyes, piped up.
“What about suicide?” she asked. I gulped.
“Yes,” I said. “Suicide is a huge temptation. To commit suicide is to forsake God completely. The one true, unmistakable gift that God has given us is life. Life is the truest evidence of God’s love for us.” I worried I was rambling, but I pressed on. “Life is what we get, the experience of life, of witnessing God’s love in us, around us. That’s the gift.”
I tried to impress this upon her and the class. Life is what is there is for us, and just like this city that is theirs, that in a very real sense is their playground, so too are their lives their own. But this temptation, to take our one, very real, very substantial gift, and say “shove it” can be so strong.
Brighter than the Fear of the Dark
The Bad Apple on Veggie Tales is now very near to being vanquished by Larry Boy and his trusty asparagus butler, Alfred. I still haven’t answered my son’s question, although I’ve obfuscated by asking him about his temptations. He is eager to tell me about them. His perfect little-kid voice is confident and strong.
“My temptations are like my iPod and TV and stuff. And also not listening to my teachers and mom and dad when I’m supposed to. And like, wanting to play instead of doing my homework.” He pauses for a minute. “When Jesus was alive, was he tempted by anything?”
“Yes,” I tell him, “by lots of things, by everything he ever wanted. He was hungry and the devil offered him food, but said Jesus would have to give up God.”
“I would never give up God for food, I would just go to the fridge,” he says. I don’t explain about crushing hunger and poverty. That’s a conversation that typically results in realizing that we can’t do anything to help other than give money, time, and prayer; three things we already do. Instead, I laugh. “Me too,” I say. “Let’s hope it’s always so easy to turn away from temptation as it is to open the fridge.”
“What’s your temptation, Mommy?” He asks. I can’t push off my answer anymore.
“Chocolate,” I say, “Just like Larry Boy. And also my phone, and not focusing on what I’m meant to be focusing on, and procrastination. Also sadness and dread. Also fear.”
“How is fear a temptation?” he asks.
“Because it is tempting to look at life and worry about all the things that could go wrong instead of seeing all the things that could go right. It is tempting to look at you and think of all the potential pitfalls that can happen in your life instead of seeing your light. But your light is bright,” I tell him. “Your light is brighter than my fear of the dark.”