I shared an elevator with a child, once at a hotel in San Antonio. He was a baby almost, a brown-eyed, round-cheeked chunk of a fellow, perhaps ten months old. While his father struggled with several suitcases and his mother balanced him and a shoulder bag and her heavy purse, he stared out the elevator’s open doors, looking toward everything that happened, everything that existed in the wide hotel lobby. The counter where a line of people waited, the waxy plants and bright paintings, the huge urns of coffee, the concierge who talked on the phone behind the desk.
“Six, please,” the father said to me, as the mother wiped her hand across the child’s forehead to shift his damp hair away from his eyes. The doors closed. The child’s gaze followed them intently, his un-furrowed brow trying a furrow. His wet, dark eyes shone, and his mouth puckered into an “o.”
“Look,” his father said, pointing out the glass back of the elevator toward the tall atrium and the walled, greenish river beyond it. “Look at us go up.”
The atrium view didn’t interest the child, especially not after the lighted panel next to the elevator door dinged for floor two, then three, then four. We stopped. The door slid open. This was a hall far different from the lobby we’d left. A narrow iron table and mirror stood next to a close wall. Two hotel guests waited with magazines and flip flops and sunglasses that announced to all of us, save the child, that their destination was the rooftop pool. Every muscle in the child’s body contracted, as if in fear or confusion or anger or frustration. The father made a joke. The child wailed.
Jean Piaget hypothesized that children develop an understanding of object permanence when they are around eight months old. After, perhaps, they’ve already ridden in an elevator. If you show a four-month-old a ball and put the ball under an opaque box, she will seem surprised when you lift the box and reveal the ball. By a year, most babies will be surprised if a clever researcher has played a trick to secretly remove the ball—a trapdoor under the box, for example—and the ball is not there.
Contemporary developmental psychologists believe children gain the understanding of object permanence over a spectrum of experiences and through a longer period than Piaget supposed. Acquiring it starts sooner and takes longer to completely master. We need a range of experiences to understand what in the world—what of the world—is here to stay and what will go, what is shaped by our perceptions and emotions and what by matter. (A complication, the wave-particle duality, means unreconcilable ambiguity is at the heart of physical reality.) No wonder we can’t master it overnight. The child entered the elevator and watched the doors close on the world. We stopped. The doors opened. The world had changed. The game was one of wish fulfillment and unknown terror, both. I might wail, too.
Attaining a sense of object permanence leads to a paradox. Once we understand that the world exists and remains outside ourselves, we can begin to imagine interacting with our environment as an exercise of desire. We can stash a red foam ball or a Hershey’s Kiss in the corner behind the embroidered couch at grandma’s house and there it will be when we come back for it later. At the same time, we begin to recognize that the world’s reality separate from our experience of it is the very thing that renders it outside our control. Grandma, after all, is a diligent housekeeper.
Most of us live much of our lives as incrementalists. We shape ourselves and our experience of the real by daily habit—the goodnight kiss when we are small, the place we hide during a family fight. We grow up. We brush our teeth. Go to bed. Wake up. Decide what to do when we have a day off. We reach for a creased hand at a matinee. Clear the dishes. One year follows another, so much faster. I can’t believe how fast time goes these days, we say to ourselves, or, if we are lucky, to old friends who remember our faces when they were young.
Sometimes, rarely, but often and irregularly enough that we are almost conditioned by random reinforcement to expect it, the world changes all at once. A son’s aneurism explodes. A bomb does. Elections are suspended. A condom breaks. The cure works. A tree crushes the roof. The promotion comes through, or the move to Hawaii. A double pirouette feels suddenly automatic. The femur breaks. You wake up blind. You wake up alone. You wake up with the winning lottery ticket, Covid-19, the tune in your head that will earn your first gold record, finally the words to tell your spouse you are leaving, or that you love him, or that you love him and yet you are leaving. Your son will survive. No, you will survive your son. As you walk across the thin, synthetic carpet laid over the thick, hard ground of winter, the box is still, and empty of anything of your son that mattered. It will be the same tomorrow—forever different.
Two floors further up, I left the elevator. Even from down the hall, I could hear the child’s cries. I tapped my key card and opened the door to my empty room, a rectangle, a prism. I could imagine him in his mother’s arms where she tried to comfort him, his dark hair matted around his ears, the damp skin of his forearm as he dragged it across his face, the tight arch of his back as he struggled—and failed without words—to ask, to understand, how can it be that the world is first one way and then it is another. I had nothing to tell him. Some things stay. Some things go. It takes our whole lives to know which will be which.
Maybe, if he had the language or wanted my solace, or if I had the time or the words, I could have said that the world shapes us, and then we shape the world. Maybe I could have said, “Everything was transformed when you were born,” or, “You are no more than a grain of sand.” Maybe I could have tried to explain that confusion and fear and loss are everyday occurrences in his life not because he is so young, but because he simply is; not because he doesn’t understand the nature of things, but because in some sense, he already does. I didn’t though. Of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t explain to him about the ball. Not yet. Not about the ball. Not about the box.