Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Peace in wartime, happiness in sadness, fame in obscurity, and stillness amidst the busyness. These are all longings we experience in life on earth. And all are present in the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. The movie is about author and playwright A. A. Milne and the creation of Winnie the Pooh, centering around a boy who loved his toys and the woods. A creative telling of Milne’s life and his relationship with his son, the film shows the impact of one bear on a boy and the whole world. Goodbye Christopher Robin opens with Milne as an adult in post–World War I London. He suffers from war trauma, which is triggered by loud pops and bangs. He’s returned from battle but it stays with him; he becomes disenfranchised with play-writing in the city and flees to the country to write a book against war. Once there, he hits writer’s block and must find inspiration. He finds it in an unlikely place: the imagination of a child and the wonder of nature. These became his new weapons to fight off the existence of war. As the nanny, Olive, says in the opening of the film:
“Once upon a time there was a great war that brought so much sadness to so many people, hardly anyone could remember what happiness was like. But something happened that changed all that. It helped us to believe in the good things, the fun things, and a world full of imagination. And then, just like a tap you turned on, happiness came pouring out.”
Winnie the Pooh happened. And it became a global sensation. Milne’s son, whom he and his wife called Billy Moon, became known for his birth name, Christopher Robin. The real boy was popularized as an illustrated book character. His toys became Pooh and friends, and his beloved woods were renamed the Hundred Acre Wood. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know about the boy and his imaginary world. He was expected to pose for magazines, attend social events for book promotion, and have tea with important people. Everyone was happy again… but not the real Christopher Robin.The peace and happiness of home, embodied in Winnie the Pooh, is what we’re all looking for.
Billy Moon’s nanny, Olive, was forced to adhere to his full and busy schedule. But she did not like it one bit. At one point, she tells A. A. Milne to step up and protect his son, to be there for him, because as she states, “Billy wants you.” This theme of busyness and over-scheduling kids isn’t far off from our cultural norms today. There has been public debate for years by psychologists, researchers, and parents alike as to whether this type of busy lifestyle is harmful for children. In a New York Times article from 2013, Bruce Feiler says both he and his wife work, so extracurricular activities help them out. He says that when his daughters are left to themselves unsupervised, they just end up fighting. Many parents say if they don’t schedule activities for their kids, then they fall back on screen time, which most parents feel is worse than busyness. In Feiler’s article, he quotes Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and author of The Pressured Child, who says, “As a general principle, there is a line between a highly enriched, interesting, growth-promoting childhood and an overscheduled childhood. And nobody knows where that line is.” Thompson states that the problem is with highly successful parents who try to control their children’s lives to a fault. They tend to make decisions about after-school activities based on anxiety rather than on their child’s well-being. Alvin Rosenfeld, a child psychiatrist and author of The Over-Scheduled Child, says, “Enrichment activities are perfect. They add a lot to kids’ lives. The problem is, we’ve lost the ability to balance them with down time, boring time.” He believes the solution is to make time with no activities for kids, no work for parents, and that parents spend quality, and quantity, time with their children. “Spend time with no goal in mind,” he says. “Your kids need to feel there is enough time when the computer is off, the cellphone is off and all you want to do is be together.”
For parents, we know this is easier said than done. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I still struggle with making sure I’m spending time with my children. It’s more work for me to not give in to their demands for screens and tell them to play. I have to be willing to be patient with fights and loudness, at times, in order for them to have free play. And, like A. A. Milne, I have to be the one to make these decisions for my kids. For it was Milne who finally looked through his child’s schedule book and put an end to the madness, so that he’d have more time to play in the woods. This decision was a necessity, one difficult to see at first. It was difficult to see, mainly, because the Milne family was making profit from their child’s celebrity status, much like the celebrity status achieved today by those on YouTube Kids.
I had no idea what this YouTube Kids world was until my five year old first started watching it. Kids, and sometimes parents, get in front of the camera to review toys and games, go on adventures, do science experiments, and taste food and candy. Business Insider even has a list of “11 insanely popular YouTube stars under 12.” The majority of these YouTube channels have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, with some reaching into the millions. Ryan, from his channel Ryan ToysReview, had millions of subscribers within his first year of “production”—when he started at age four. Now Ryan is 6 and earning $11 million a year reviewing toys. Last year, he made it into Forbes top-10, highest-paid YouTube stars in the world.
Of course, my five-year-old son wants lots of toys too, so now he wants to start his own YouTube channel. I could capitalize off this… or learn something from A. A. Milne and ask myself some questions: Should my child be famous? How would fame affect him in the long run? Should I capitalize off his childhood toys? These are questions Milne must have asked himself before he put an end to feeding the Pooh Bear empire. In the film, he tells his son that Pooh is already out in the world and he can’t make him disappear, but he does promise that he will never write another Pooh story again.
Though Milne makes good on his promise, his son still grows up facing the consequences for his father’s stories. He is teased and ridiculed by his peers for being Christopher Robin.
Fast forwarding in the film to post–World War II, we see a remorseful father and an embittered son. But we also see a beautiful moment of reconciliation when Milne confesses his past mistakes and asks for forgiveness. His son gives a moment of understanding and appreciation in return as he describes a time in battle when his comrades began singing the Winnie the Pooh song. Billy Moon says his father created that moment by creating a sense of home and happiness in his Winnie the Pooh stories. Soldiers in battle were able to remember home, a place of peace and happiness, because they knew Winnie the Pooh.
The peace and happiness of home, embodied in Winnie the Pooh, is what we’re all looking for. We might try to find it in fame and money or in endless scheduling and activities. But the child, Billy Moon, knew all along that the peace and happiness of home was found in the woods. It was found in the freedom to create and play. It was found in stillness. Perhaps this is why God’s command to us in Scripture to be still is so important for today (Psalm 46:10). He wants us to take the time to stop the busyness and remember who he is. Winnie the Pooh reminds us that there is a wonderful place outside where we can marvel at God’s creation, instead of always wondering at our own. Like Pooh, we are created by another, and being still reminds us of our limitations.
Ultimately, Billy Moon saw how his father’s creation of a bear in the woods gave people peace in a time of war. The stories of Winnie the Pooh and his friends were a reminder of good in this world—a childlike innocence that could still exist. The desire for the goodness and innocence found in childhood—and the beautiful simplicity of the woods—is a reminder of home. The God who is our home. The God who is preparing a home for us, where he will dwell with us forever. Our place of peace and happiness away from the wars of earth. A place much like Winnie the Pooh and his magical woods.
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