When kids are little, you can play peek-a-boo with them, and delight them for hours because they have not yet developed their sense of object permanence. Objects that drift out of their sensory field cease to exist—the perfect “out of sight, out of mind” circumstance. It does not occur because of anything they will—it just happens. Sometime during the second year of life (and this is an imprecise measure), children learn that there is a world beyond their immediate senses. Trial and error teaches them that parents and food and comfort exist (or, do not!).
Jean Piaget proposes that we learn schemas—models for understanding the world. As we mature—during our early life—these schemas become more complex. They show us how to navigate a world that is not in our immediate grasp—at our egocentric beck and call. But how much do we simply extend our egos—using the schemas as a way of organizing the world in accordance with our desires?
I wonder how this applies to how we develop a sense of the world—how the schemas we develop shape our senses of morality and mortality. Do the schemas imbue more ephemeral things with a greater permanence than is warranted? Can the trial and error of early childhood be subverted by experiences that teach us about the ambiguity and ambivalence of the world? Or do we, from an early age and onward, cling to one master vision that cannot waver?
Because, as we age, we learn that impermanence is the standard. People come and people go. There must be some kind of formula for this: for every two people who enter our orbit, one must be released. Later, the ratios rise, switching to 1:1, and then 1:2. The causes are myriad—death, disaffection, dumb luck. People appear and disappear with stunning frequency, with hardly a moments notice for peek-a—
For example, I often think of my father, and miss him. I know that he is dead and cannot be a part of the life I lead now, however, his presence feels like the lingering effects of object permanence. Somehow, I have located him in my schema of the world, and no loss, no absence can remove him from that schema. Just like the child who can hunt for the toy hidden beneath the sheet, I can find my father behind the darker veil.
And yet, I am also fully aware that he felt often absent while he was still alive. He entered my life at intervals—holidays, sailing trips. There were stretches of time when I only saw him once a year, other times when when he was without more than with—present in the dimes and nickels that he left on his dresser for us to buy milk and ice cream at school, but only appearing, briefly, in the flesh, at dinner, and then disappearing into his den. Was he really there, or have I constructed a vision of him that became a durable substitute for the times he was away?
My parents championed independence in their children. While we were expected to be independent from them, did we, by happenstance, learn independence or absence as part of the schemas on which we built our early lives? We became free-floating, detached, prepared, in advance, for the disappearances that life would throw our ways—not the peek-a-boos of play, but the more enduring, and finally, more heart-breaking absences of adulthood. There is some solace in that, but also a modicum of sadness. We were pre-lost, almost, before we were found.