When you are a kid, you are almost always in conflict with your parents. It doesn't matter how sweet you are, there are always rules to break and boundaries to push. It starts before you remember, when you are spitting up mashed peas, and continues when you want a new toy, when you don't want to go to school, and eventually you become a teenager and disappear to the basement and headphones. The structures of childish and teenage rebellion are well known, so I don't need to enumerate the snotty nosed and door slammed forms it takes.
But there is another moment, that I think every child has, and every adult can remember. The first time you heard your parents voices break with fear and you knew you were in uncharted territory. This might happen at different times and ages, and it probably happened more than once, but it was still rare. Maybe it was when you were a child and didn't know you were doing. Maybe it was when you were a teen and an act of structured rebellion went too far. And the fear response might have been different: a sharp yell of alarm, or a low rumble of exhaustion. Things became serious. You suddenly realized that this was not part of the ritual combat of boundary setting and pushing. This was not about whether you had written your aunt a thank you note for your birthday present, or pretended to be sick to skip school. This was about something that was an imminent and clear danger to you. And their voice cracked, and your sense of safety did too. Because all kids believe that their parents are invincible and can secretly control everything, that they just deign not to. As an adult, we still keep that belief in the back of our minds. But there is a point in our youth when that veil is lifted, and we realize for a minute that our parents are limited, that they can not protect us from all harm. We can get hurt or thrown in jail or killed and they can't do anything about it. And the memory of that stays with us. And we learn when to stop and listen when we hear their voices enter that territory.
I can tell one of my own stories, from my tween years, maybe 10 or 11. I wanted to play an April Fools' Day prank, so while my mom was away, I took my sleeping bag, filled it with blankets, and put it on the roof of our house, half hanging off. I thought it would be funny...it would look like I fell asleep on the roof. I didn't think she would believe it, and so I hid and waited for her to drive up. When she did, she screamed my name in terror, and I ran out...she was too relieved to be angry. She said she thought I had electrocuted myself and was dead on the roof. It still scares me. For the past thirty years, I have not done another April Fools Prank beyond the most innocent of gags. That was dangerous, unknown territory, hearing my mother scream like that. I never want to hear a scream like that again.
I don't know if everyone reading this will understand. I am guessing most of you do.
Not to be too coy about it, I do want to talk about this in terms of other things, about current events. Wearing masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is a perfect example, although I could come up with others. While not perfect, it can generally be understood by most people how mask wearing helps, and that failure to do so will lead to the increasing spread of a deadly disease. I could qualify and explain that more, but I don't have to. Because the battles over mask wearing are people misunderstanding things. This is now a competition to see who can be edgy, who is the risk taker versus who is the soyboy. This isn't a way to broadcast sentiments about personal autonomy or disdain for professionalism or whatever the fuck. This is serious, not a game. I don't know how else to phrase it more strongly.
Because at some point in growing up, we learn to realize when things are not games, when the rules are serious, a matter of life and death. And my question now, is how to get people to access that state. How could I, possibly, communicate to people that I am not trying to be a nanny or nag or win points or make sick burns or hot takes, but that what I want to communicate is vitally important for our most basic, vital safety? I have no idea how to do so, and seeing the conversation go around in circles is making me exhausted. I can only say, from whatever small corner of my mind that is still functioning: please listen.