“And I began to see
That I was just as strange to them
As they were strange to me!”
-Dr. Seuss’ “What Was I Scared Of?”
I love children’s literature. Given that I have four young kids I get the chance to read a lot of it. I enjoy it (and feel it’s a sign of it being good literature) when the books I’m reading to my kids make me think and feel and connect with thoughts I have about people and the world. Living away from my country of origin in these rather dramatic first weeks of 2017, which have been full of unrest and confusion in some ways the world over, I have thought a lot about similarities and differences.
Dr. Seuss is well known for his thoughtful and pointed children’s literature, and I have found his stories to be useful recently. We gave our kids a box set of Dr. Seuss books for Christmas and one of the books was one I hadn’t read before – The Sneetches and Other Stories is a collection of four stories published in 1953. There is a definite message and tone to all of the stories, having to do broadly with tolerance and similarities and differences. You can read a summary of the stories here. You can read the text of “The Sneetches” here but here is a summary from Wikipedia:
“The first story in the collection tells of a group of yellow creatures called Sneetches, some of whom have a green star on their bellies….Sneetches with stars discriminate against and shun those without. An entrepreneur…appears and offers the Sneetches without stars the chance to get them with his Star-On machine, for three dollars….[T]his upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches, as they are in danger of losing their special status. McBean then tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars, and the Sneetches who originally had stars happily pay the money to have them removed in order to remain special. However, McBean does not share the prejudices of the Sneetches, and allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine as well. Ultimately this escalates, with the Sneetches running from one machine to the next….
“…until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
whether this one was that one… or that one was this one…
or which one was what one… or what one was who.”
This continues until the Sneetches are penniless and McBean departs as a rich man, amused by their folly. Despite his assertion that “you can’t teach a Sneetch”, the Sneetches learn from this experience that neither plain-belly nor star-belly Sneetches are superior, and they are able to get along and become friends.
“The Sneetches” was intended by Seuss as a satire of discrimination between races and cultures, and was specifically inspired by his opposition to antisemitism.”
This story introduces the valuable idea to children that just because of appearance (perhaps including skin color, hair color, facial features, ethnic background, financial status, etc.) we shouldn’t discriminate against other people. We can all mix with each other.
The last story in the book is called “What Was I Scared Of?” You can watch a video of “What Was I Scared Of?” being read here but the very brief summary from Wikipedia reads:
“”What Was I Scared Of?” tells the tale of a character who frequently encounters an empty pair of pale-green pants in dark and spooky locations. The character, who is the narrator, is initially afraid of the pants, which are able to stand freely despite the lack of a wearer. However, when he screams for help, the pants also start to cry and he realizes that “they were just as scared as I!” The empty pants and the narrator become friends.”
The main character is a friendly funny looking bear sort of creature. Even though not human, I find that I relate more to her (him? We’ll go with her) than to the empty pair of pants. I read one analysis that says this story is about fear of the unknown. I would agree – the spooky setting of the whole story, the encounters that all occur in the dark, in our of the way remote places, all evoke a sense of fear and dark uncertainty. But that’s not what resonated and got me thinking when I read the story recently. What connected for me is that often we get caught up in what are sometimes the more surface differences (like the Sneetches and their stars) and we assume that that is where the biggest gaps in relating to and understanding people occur. But what I like about the story of the bear and the empty pants is that they seem impossibly different. They don’t look alike, they don’t even seem like they could both be living creatures in the same universe. Surely I can see and know what a pair of empty pants is – until it isn’t that at all. In the story the pants are every bit as alive and independent and full of errands and needs and fears as the bear. How could these two things ever possibly be the same or have anything in common?
And I think that our differences with other people are sometimes more like the bear and the empty pants than the Sneetches who have stars compared to those who don’t.
We are all very much the same, with differences only skin deep. But the amazing contrast and conflict of it all is that we are all also impossibly different. (It doesn’t work to simply name us all Dave when in reality some of us are Hoos Fooses and some Soggy Muffs.) Whether it is nature or nurture, culture, country of origin, financial background, mental health, physical health, loss, grief, loneliness, connectedness…there are so many variances that can contribute to the amazing and impossible variety of ways people understand the world. There are so many ways to hold reality. We approach a situation and sometimes it is so clearly different we think we need to be a little wary, a little nervous. But more often than I think we realize something can look familiar but in reality the differences are impossibly stark, and also impossibly wonderful. I love how different people are and can be, I just think that we often end up attributing false motives, more negativity or stupidity to other people than we should because we assume that we are starting out more similarly than we actually are. We are about as alike as a bear and a pair of pants with no one in them, but that doesn’t make one any better than the other. It just means we are starting in different places.
It can be incredibly difficult to get past perceived differences and I don’t want to downplay that. But I think sometimes differences that at first go undetected can be just as hard to sort out because of the conflict inherent in starting out thinking that you are the same only to discover that you are more different, more foreign to each other than you could have imagined.
But these differences don’t have to make us afraid and keep us running away. And when we can work it through it is definitely worth it. I can’t say it better than Dr. Seuss, so I’ll end with the last two pages of his story:
“I put my arm around their waist
And sat right down beside them.
I calmed them down.
Poor empty pants
With nobody inside them.
And, now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble.
We both smile
And we say