It happened one day while playing “What is it?” with one four- and one six-year old nephew. We had a sock with so big a hole in its toe that it was really just a fabric tube. The objective of this game is to select some object at hand, ask “What is it?” and then proceed to assign it really wacky identities. There’s absolutely no question of saying, “This is a sock with a big hole in the toe.” As the saying goes, “No way!” If you say something literal and unimaginative like that, you are definitely the loser.
So I said, “It’s a muffler for a unicorn.” I thought that was a pretty good entry. What happened next set me to thinking about Aunts and Faith.
“But there’s no such thing as unicorns,” the six-year-old said.
“Are you sure?” I countered. Silence.
“Are there dragons?” I asked.
“Yes,” the answer came back instantly.
“Where? In your yard? In the hotel lobby?”
“Of course not, silly!”
“In my book….In movies.”
“But did you ever see one….in person?”
“Then….why not a unicorn?”
When dealing with people of six or of four, it’s important to know when to make an issue of something and when not to. So why the big deal about unicorns? Something tells me, it’s an issue of faith.
And one of the things Aunts are often called upon to be is “defenders of faith.” Not the religious kind of faith, mind you. Since that kind of faith is a gift, there’s no use defending it. Just unselfconsciously savor your own gift, if you’re lucky enough to have it; hope that your niece or nephew may receive his or her own gift; and get on with helping them understand how much faith there is in everyday life, and help make them be brave and balanced and humorous enough to exercise it.
Think about it. Every time you walk inside a building, you have to take it on faith that its outsides are still there while you’re inside.
For all of us who are part of the group of people born before 1970, we are constantly called upon to exercise faith in relation to the computer, which is, we are asked to believe, our friend. We must take it on faith that it is storing the words we labored so hard to write and will not, later, hide them from us by some malicious turn of electronic malevolence.
As members of the culture of “plastic,” we have to believe that the person who takes our credit cards and then walks away, will come back. We are expected to believe that the bus will stop where it promises to stop. (Though I have suggested that some Bus Stops be modified to say “This Crosstown Bus will arrive as the reward for a life well spent.”) That the treadmill will not let us walk ourselves to death because it decides to stop registering our steps.
If the world is going to work, there have to be large doses of faith invested in keeping it running. There needs to be a sort of cosmic “buddy system” by which we are protected from absolute chaos by holding on to some level of belief in “the other guy.” In this kind of world, aunts are ideal people to teach their nieces and nephews about faith. From the very start, it is evident that aunts are people who are there for their nieces and nephews because they want to be, not just because they have to be. They are people with whom nieces and nephews can feel safe; be safe. They are people who make it just a bit easier for nieces and nephews to believe that when they act on faith, there’s a good chance they won’t be disappointed.
As the saying goes, this is an assignment that is demanding and comes with the proviso “should you choose to accept it, you will be expected to ……(you can imagine the rest). But as you ponder signing on as a “defender of the faith, secular but somehow saintly branch,” remember that this assignment like all others works best when accompanied by an unshakeable sense of humor. Especially the part that of that rare talent that makes certain that you won’t be spooked at the thought of laughing at yourself.
In the world of the Aunt as Defender of the Faith, unicorns are probably the least of the challenges!