Grandmother's Motto

By Rolf May

My grandparents' generation still kept up many of the old traditions. One of them involved the lady of the house embroidering a motto on a piece of white cloth, which was then trimmed with lace and hung up in the kitchen, usually above the stove. My grandmother was no exception. The motto emblazoned above her stove read: "The world is always as you think it to be." This thought-provoking motto was almost as mysterious as the crackling wood in the stove below. When I started to learn to read, I asked my grandmother about these strange words. She explained that when I was sad, the world would seem sad, but when I was happy, I would live in a happy world.

Until I received this reply from my grandmother, I had expected that everything would always be as it had been hitherto. The ritual always began with a sort of hunger — not for food, but for something I could not describe. It did not come from my stomach, but from somewhere above it, though I couldn't say exactly where. It started small and then steadily increased — just as water gradually builds up behind a barrier of stones in a stream. Since I thought that it was most likely some sort of hunger for discovery, I had called this strange feeling the "hunger for adventure." Usually I would then begin to observe one of the many interesting things around me, and the hunger was quickly stilled.

On its way home, however, the hunger for adventure went past two large locked gates and opened them a tiny crack. Behind the gates lived another hunger, and when the hunger for adventure had opened the gates just a little, a streamlet flowed out and crept into me. This hunger was so different that I thought it needed a different name. I also felt it came from some higher place within me than the hunger for adventure, more in my chest. Since this hunger made its presence felt even more strongly and could only be stilled if my observations were explained down to the last detail, I named it the "hunger for knowing why." My grandmother was a very patient lady, but I'm afraid she would probably have called it a "question-in-a-hole-in-your-belly." When it was explained to me why a mouse goes into a hole or why it is dark at night, I was satisfied and the hunger for knowing why returned for a while behind the gates.

Now grandmother had explained to me that when I was sad, the world would seem sad, but that when I was happy, I would live in a happy world. Normally the gates should have closed, but this time it was different and the "hunger for knowing why" did not retreat behind the gates. Instead they opened so wide that I no longer knew which question to ask first. This must have been the moment when mind incarnated in my young body. Wasn't it incredible what was written there: "The world is always as you think it to be"? Wouldn't that mean that the world really existed in my mind rather than outside it? This was followed by another discovery: if the world really exists in my mind, other people also exist in my mind, and each of these minds contains another world, and I and my world are also contained in the minds of others.

There must therefore be an infinite number of worlds, all of them somehow interconnected, and therefore everything contains everything and is contained in everything, and that is no doubt why everything is called everything . . . ! My hunger for knowing why developed into something I had not experienced before. As it was so similar to repeated lightning flashes during a storm, but without any thunder, it could only be a lightning storm. I was overwhelmed by it and grandmother had great difficulty calming me down.

The question that most occupied my mind was whether, if I lived in a happy world, I would be able to talk to someone who lived in a sad world. I did not think so, since we would be living in different worlds. Nevertheless, the other person was in my mind and I was in his mind, so everything existed not only in one world but in many worlds. I had to answer the question with both yes and no, and this was my first encounter with paradox. Since I was not yet familiar with this term, I sought a name for this new and exciting discovery. It was yes and no at the same time, and yet neither yes nor no alone. I therefore decided that each of the two had to sacrifice something so that they would fit together again. So ja (yes) sacrificed the a and nein (no) sacrificed ne, making the word jin (pronounced yin). At first the game of jin gave me lots of fun, for it was a thrilling adventure and led to many wonderful discoveries.

But then what adults call the "serious side of life" began, and people tried to teach me that my game of jin and the hunger for knowing why and for adventure were reprehensible. My very first year at school provided an excellent opportunity for playing jin. It happened like this. Adam and Eve were the first human beings and lived in paradise. Then the serpent appeared. But according to my stern school mistress, it did not exist inside Eve's mind but outside it. I felt that this was really too much to accept, but did not dare ask any questions as my teacher was extremely strict. "Oh well," I thought, "my teacher also exists only in my mind — along with her serpent."

But she continued the story. Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise and had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel and went to live in another country, where he married a woman and had lots of children. Barely had my teacher finished telling us this story, when I again felt the hunger for knowing why and the desire to play jin. They were very intense, especially the latter, and unleashed the usual storm of questions: "Where did the woman who married the wicked brother come from? Did Adam and Eve conceive this woman in their minds, so that Cain would not be lonely? Does the same apply to the country in which she lived? God certainly didn't make Adam out of clay — I tried that the other day and it doesn't work — so he must have thought Adam into existence and, hey presto! there he was. And God didn't take Eve from Adam's side; I know for a fact that men can't do that. God must have thought of her in Adam's mind and, hey presto! Eve appeared. And the same goes for Cain and Abel and the woman in the other country!"

My lightning storm ended with a thunder storm from the teacher. She summoned my parents, repeated my ill-mannered questions, and made me out to be a disrespectful little lad. I was taught that the marvelous game of jin and the hunger for adventure and for knowing why were very, very bad. I should learn how to read and write and do my sums, and stop asking silly questions. Only two things were important: to know how things happen, and to know things that my teacher could test me on, for she had to give me marks and write a report, and for that she needed things that could be verified. After all, they only wanted the best for me. I was shocked at what I had supposedly done; nevertheless, I did not believe them.

The pressure was tremendous, however, and so I first went to see my grandmother. Naturally she consoled me and explained that it all happened only in my mind. I should not take grown-ups too seriously; after all, they too are only part of me, and exist in my mind. It was the same as with a person living in a happy world and a person living in a sad world. They, too, could not really talk to one another. Each speaks to the other in his own world, but really we can only speak to those who live in the same world.

She advised me to act as if I had understood them, but to retain my imagination. So that is what I did. After that my life in the mornings was generally rather boring, but this meant that there were fewer tellings-off and my parents were not summoned to school so often. But there were also the afternoons.

One afternoon it occurred to me that not only did the world exist in my mind, but so did thought. Somehow they must belong together, or perhaps they were one and the same thing. What did the motto over my grandmother's stove say? "The world is always as you think it to be." So thinking and feeling must go together. I imagined a network of roads and paths linking thought and feeling, and this gigantic map was the world in my mind, in which everyone lived.

There is probably an infinite number of these maps, but for me only two were important at that time: the one for the mornings, and my own for the afternoons. The one for the afternoons I knew well, but the other one I first had to learn in order to know how to get from one point to another. Those-who-care-about-me had already explained what it involved: firstly, I had to learn things that my teacher could test me on; and secondly, I had to learn how things work. I felt that things that can be tested can be learned by heart, and that is indeed what was expected of me. Besides, it was important to know how the earth orbits the sun, and not why it does so. For want of a better term, I called this world How-Land.

Of course why-questions also existed in How-Land, and I wondered why its inhabitants did not make trips to Why-Land. No doubt it was because the rulers of How-Land had banned why-questions because they were afraid that the population would consider How-Land too dreary and dull and would leave. Those who broke the ban were punished with the most terrible weapons known in How-Land: ridicule, reproaches or misrepresentation, and exile. The latter was considered particularly terrible, because the people of How-Land did not understand that everything is contained in everything else, as they had never asked "Why?" Hence their vanity and jealousy; they were not aware that everything existed only in their minds, and that they had only to think differently to change the world they live in.


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Children are rich with all they do not own, rich with the potential wonders of their universe. Making believe is not only one of their earliest pleasures, it is their vital spark, the token of their liberty. Reason does not curb them, for they have not yet learned its restraints. Happy beings, they live in the clouds, playing lightheartedly without a care. — Paul Hazard, Books, Children, and Men