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Kids’ Optimism, Faith Turn the World Into Magical Place

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When she grows up, Kate will be a veterinarian. She’ll move out of state to study veterinary medicine in Colorado (there is no vet school here in New Mexico), then live in a house by a lake ringed by mountains and raise two children and many pets.

There will be a husband, no doubt, but she’s vague about the details.

Six weeks shy of her eighth birthday, my daughter has an idyllic life mapped out.

With the miraculous lucidity of the young, she’s planned for every contingency. She knows, for example, that she’ll have to work hard at science and math so she can get into vet school. She’s already steeling herself against the trauma of performing surgery or euthanizing a pet.

“It’s sad when you have to put a pet to sleep,” she explains. “But sometimes it’s the kind thing to do.”

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Kate has somehow acquired the conviction that if she plans carefully and thinks everything through, life will work out.

That comes from her parents, I suppose. My wife and I try to explain how things work, helping her to see basic principles and stressing the need to make wise choices. It’s only natural that she would come to equate planning with security.

But as I get older, the world seems to make less sense than it did when I was a kid, and I’m painfully conscious of all the things that, plan as I might, I can’t control.

Who can look at the endless, unspeakable suffering of Rwanda (or Bosnia or Somalia) and not worry about humanity’s seeming tendency to seek the shortest route to its doom?

What about North Korea, global deforestation, unparalleled extinctions of plants and animals, AIDS, overpopulation, famine and political violence?

Here in America we tolerate violence against women and an aimless cruelty in our public life. Meanwhile, corporations invade our lives with new technology that alienates us from one another and from ourselves.

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It’s a bleak vision of our world and its future--and it seems so much beyond any individual’s ability to change.

It’s painful to be a parent when the future looks hopeless. We want to shelter our children from every one of life’s traumas, but sometimes it seems as if we can’t really protect them from much of anything.

Like other kids her age, Kate is growing aware of the world’s woes.

As the child of journalists, she’s subjected to an extra dose of doom and gloom, because no catastrophe or policy question goes unmentioned in our house.

She’s deeply sensitive to others’ pain, with a remarkable ability to comprehend some injustice or world problem in personal terms.

Just a few weeks ago, during the D-day anniversary commemoration, she wanted to know all about World War II. Later, she told me that if she has sons, she hopes they won’t have to go off to fight in a war.

At moments like this, my heart aches for her.

Despite it all, she’s a happy kid who is boundlessly confident of her ability to carve out a fulfilling future.

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I think it has to do with her belief in the magical. She sees signs and portents in everyday life, and when enough good omens are in alignment, she can scarcely contain herself.

Sometimes, after a great day at school, a special meal and her favorite TV show, Kate will hug herself and announce, “Today is the best day of my life!” And she means it.

I suspect most of us knew such happiness and optimism once. We had that naive, beautiful belief that all problems could be solved and everything would work out. But somewhere along the way, pessimism started to look more realistic.

If we’re lucky, we come to see that such world-weary realism becomes a trap when it blinds us to the possibilities inherent in even the worst of situations. It’s that unexpected turn of events--call it magic--that transforms a disaster into something new and better.

Ask Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years as a political prisoner before becoming his nation’s president, whether he believes in miracles.

Kate knows this intuitively. Because she sees everything as fresh and full of wonder, she teaches me to practice that kind of vision in my own life.

So like any parent, I wish her happiness, security and the love of good people, but most of all I wish for her to keep her special knowledge of life’s possibilities.

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Not that I need worry. For Kate, the future’s practically a foregone conclusion. She’s already picked out which pieces of our furniture she’ll appropriate for her lakeside hideaway.

And in those moments when I furrow my brow and ask how she can be so sure of herself, she fixes me with one of those looks.

“Trust me, Dad,” she says. “Kids know these things.”

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