Zia Hassan got more than he bargained for when he went by to pick up his fiancé from her job minding three children. The parents were late getting home from work and she couldn't leave yet, so she invited Zia in to meet her charges. When she introduced the eldest, squatting barefooted on the brick patio in back watching ants hurry about, she mentioned that he is interested in cosmology. Zia jokingly asked the boy, nine years old, a smart-alecky question, and when the youngster started to answer, Zia instantly recognized something rare and asked if he could video their discussion.
The boy, speaking articulately and without pretense, in a gentle, thoughtful manner, offers his views on the universe and our place in it. He compares us to the ants he's watching, hustling about, unaware that there's vastly more out there than just their world of the patio. His mind ranging freely across issues normally reserved for adult scientists and philosophers, he discusses destiny, free will, the likelihood of life elsewhere in the unknown realm, and what types of life it might be.
This is not just a kid who has a fanciful imagination and thinks about space ships and make-believe other worlds. This is an unusual package of an exploring mind and personality that offers reasonable opinions on deep philosophical and scientific matters and yet who makes clear that they are just that, opinions. "I could be wrong," he says from time to time, after giving a persuasive dissertation on a subject.
When asked "What's the meaning of life," he calls that "one of the hardest questions there is," but then goes on to explain that, in his opinion, the meaning of life is what you determine for yourself, what you want your life to be. And he swings from that into a discussion of destiny, of whether we are pre-destined to follow a certain path, and he suggests that our lives might be pre-destined, but that we can change that destiny if we choose. He speculates that, on the other hand, it might be like a play in which we're scheduled to act a specific part and we just don't know it, so we think it's free will. "But then again," he says, "I might be wrong."
Hassan also videoed a brief discussion with the boy's brother, who talks about baseball and its importance in our lives. Sports, he says, provide us with entertainment and suspense that we don't have in our lives. He includes music and art among these special gifts to humanity, but the fact that he is swinging a whiffle-ball bat while he talks suggests he considers sports especially suspenseful and entertaining. He is, by the way, seven years old.
You have to wonder what in the lives of these children developed in them the ability to approach topics that interest them with such inquisitive, open minds, capable of distinguishing between the known and the unknown, even the unknowable. They're obviously bright, and articulate beyond their years, but there's also a wisdom and an affinity for thinking. Most of us find thinking hard work. We talk about "brain sweat" when we try to solve difficult problems. But these kids seem to find it pleasant to think deeply and at length.
Adults need to be adults, to set and enforce necessary rules for their children. But I have to wonder if treating childish ideas, even outlandish ones, as worthy of consideration and respect might be a factor in freeing the minds of these small creatures from the bonds society likes to impose. If your serious but ill-informed opinions as a child were ridiculed, especially repeatedly, you perhaps recall the shriveling of your insides and the reluctance to repeat that experience. I get the feeling that the young philosopher in the video found his ideas, even foolish ones, respected from the beginning.
Your opinion may differ. If you have access to a computer, I recommend you search for "Backyard Socrates" or some such title. The video is fairly easy to locate. I believe you'll find it fascinating and well worth your time.
But then again, I might be wrong.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."