“Are there real fairies in the world?”
I looked up from the mushrooms I was chopping to study my five-year-old daughter’s face. The cock of her head and squint of her eyes matched the skepticism in her voice.
Not long ago, a Christian man who my daughter loves told her that fairies don’t exist. She’s been afraid to believe ever since.
She was waiting for my answer. “I don’t know,” I said. It was the truth.
* * *
Our little family has been watching the BBC’s Planet Earth series. It is chock full of stunning photography, incredible facts, and fascinating creatures. We cannot take our eyes off the screen, except when the fascinating creatures start eating each other. At those times my daughter and I always become engrossed in some important task like picking lint off the couch cushions.
One thing I’ve learned from Planet Earth is that I know next to nothing about the natural world. The more discoveries we make, the more deliciously mysterious and miraculous the world becomes. My favorite moments of the series are when the narrator says things like, “No one knows why,” or “We aren’t sure how.”
I have nothing against good science that studies the world’s processes and phenomena. My father retired from a career in science and now teaches it to middle schoolers, so I grew up in a home that respected the natural world and encouraged learning about it.
But I’m instantly skeptical of anyone who says, “We’ve got this completely figured out.” Or “We know everything there is to know about this.” Or, if you like, “Fairies don’t exist.”
I think a more honest response to learning about the world around us is to say, “I know enough now to see that the world is more miraculous than I ever imagined. I wonder what else might be out there.” (The last thing I want to do is suggest that wonder has any meaning apart from its proper faith-direction. S.D. Smith wrote beautifully about the dangerous “mirage of Godless Delight” last week. I hope you’ll read it if you haven’t already — its truth underscores everything written here.)
Holding onto that kind of wonder takes some effort. It takes humility. It helps to hang around children.
Children have a gift for pressing us for the why until we come to the inevitable conclusion: “I don’t know. It just is. God just made it that way.” I think it’s good to be stumped. It’s a way to peek through the wardrobe doors, to open our minds to powers too terrible to understand, to remember how small we are. It’s a way to reawaken wonder.
I also think it’s good to return the favor.
Ask a child what light is made of. How is it made? Ask her why she craves it so.
Ask a youngster how the 17-year cicadas know that seventeen years have passed.
Did you know that the water in a typical cloud weighs more than a whole herd of elephants? So how do they hang in the sky?
How can a spider spin silk so fine that it floats on the slightest breeze, and yet fiber for fiber is stronger than steel?
Have you seen the waves and the sand glow at night with the light of tiny creatures? How do they make their light?
At the moment of conception, how do those two cells know what to do? How do they know to multiply and cluster and form into complex organs and tissues? And 22 days later, how does the cell cluster that has decided to be a heart know that it’s time to start beating?
Humans like to give names to these phenomena. Some we call instinct. Others are chemical, electromagnetic, or atmospheric events. But naming a thing, studying it, and even understanding something of how it works does not diminish the miracle of it. What makes it work the way it does? What and where and when is the source of its power?
You know the answer. It’s the same answer the Lion gave to Lucy to explain how he was alive again after she had seen him die: Magic. Not magic of the dark, sorcerous, forbidden variety, but of the “Let there be light” variety.
If I were from another world and walked through a wardrobe to find myself on Planet Earth, I would be convinced that I had discovered a magical place. I would marvel at the sparkling, frozen crystals falling from the sky, no two of which are the same. I would wonder why the sea reaches for the moon and what prompts a caterpillar to build a cocoon. I would let the world’s magic carry me away into wild imaginings, into dreams of what other delights and dangers such a place might hold. I would write a song, or a story, or a poem.
But I was born here. I have learned the names that humans use to tame the world’s wondrous phenomena. If I’m not careful, I can quickly grow accustomed to the magic around me.
Then I read about Narnia, and I long to step into such an enchanted place. I peek my head into wardrobes standing in dusty corners of antique shops, straining my ears for a distant horn blast. Or for the roar of the Lion. Admit it — you’ve done it, too.
But in all our trudging along, wishing to be swept up into a wondrous world, have we ever stopped to think that maybe we’re already on the other side of the wardrobe doors?
* * *
The world is full of living things that feed on light without consuming it, that drink the dew, that adorn themselves with opulent colors and intoxicating scents, that brighten gardens and bewitch lovers, that cover the earth with golden sneezing powder, and that send out their wispy-winged children to float on gentle spring breezes.
Are there real fairies in the world? I don’t know. But I’m not going to stop my girl from looking, because in her wide-eyed search for hidden wonders in the world, she’s sure to find some magic.
Photograph by Doug Perrine, Alamy
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