Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Existential Musings of a 5 Year-Old

I wish I could be everything that ever lived.

On the beach last week near Santa Cruz, at a place called Bonnie Doon, we found a baby seal that my wife dubbed, appropriately, Bonnie.  She or he (but I confess to thinking of Bonnie as a she) looked at us first with what appeared to be significant concern. Her dark eyes were huge and blacker than the sea at night, and at one point she even hissed at my older daughter as we got too close and stared right into her dog-like face.

I called the marine animal rescue center in Santa Cruz, and they told us to keep our distance, that the pups are left on the shore when they're old enough so that the mother can hunt for nourishment to generate milk later in the day.

As the tide got closer, the little thing heard the waves crashing and hoisted itself around, rolling first onto its back and then lifting itself on its odd little elbows, shuffling towards the water.

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None of us were sure what to do.  Do we stop Bonnie?  Do we let Bonnie go?  Wild animals are mirrors -  projections of our hopes and fears and memories - and at that moment it occurred to me that Bonnie had probably always heard the surf but perhaps never the sounds of children.  It might be terrifying for her, but it might also be fantastic, an adventure, something she could tell her mom about later.

 Then, just as she hit the tide she stopped and did that strange rolling thing again.  The water brushed up against her nose, but she somehow forced herself to look away from the Pacific and back at my kids.  My little one, her face painted like a cat by a tie-dyed denizen at the Aptos Farmer's Market, was worried.  What if the mother doesn’t come back?  What if Bonnie needs us? And my older daughter, bless her heart, dropped all pretense of being too old to be bothered by her younger sister’s concern and instead put her arm around her little sister’s shoulder and told her it would be OK.

We left Bonnie on the beach at Bonnie Doon under increasingly cloudy skies, and later, in the car, securely buckled into her seat, my little one had an existential moment.

She stared out the window at the passing sand and sighed.

"I wish I could be everything that ever lived," she mused, and then she closed her eyes and napped.


Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.


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