Rain rain go away
Come again some other day
Little children want to play….
We’re an odd culture.
Our nursery rhymes – those sweet little ditties we sing to our children – are filled with terrible, terrible things. Rock-a-bye Baby is a beautiful, gentle melody with which we lull our babes to sleep, at least until we terrorize them with the part about babies tumbling from trees. Ring Around the Rosie has whiled away many a pleasant afternoon with laughter, twirling and falling down – falling down dead, that is, from the rosy rashes of the bubonic plague. Humpty Dumpty, of course, shares the deadly fate of those rocking babies, irreparably smashing himself into pieces.
And worst of all is that contemptible little classic sung by children everywhere – and by most of us New England adults during the dreary first part of this summer – Rain Rain Go Away.
Now your first instinct might be to disagree.
Falling babies and bubonic plague is pretty heavy stuff, admittedly. And what’s the harm in wishing, now and again, that the rain go away? For rain can be awfully problematic: it causes cancellations and delays, outages and accidents, and it interferes with everything from baptisms and bar-mitzvahs to baseball games. Rain can be, in short, so darn irritating, especially when it dominates a season it’s not supposed to. So why shouldn’t we wish it away?
Especially if little children – or we big ones – want to play?
But maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t the rain, but us.
In fact, the “problem of evil” has long tormented philosophers inclined to believe in the existence of a deity. How could an all-perfect, all-knowing and all-good being have created a world which has so much evil in it? The great 12th century Jewish thinker Maimonides cautioned, however, that our judgment of what qualifies as “evil” is often remarkably self-centered. If something does not fit our personal desires or interests, we immediately condemn it as evil, as if the whole world is all about us. But individual people, and even all humanity, he thought, are but the tiniest components in this immensely vast world – a world which is not made worse because some people enjoy less goodness than others, but rather more beautiful by the tremendous variety of circumstances it contains.
We may not like it, but the world just might be better off, as whole, in other words, if we personally happen to be enjoying less goodness than we might. Who are we to declare that the world is only good if things go well for us in particular?
Rock-a-bye Baby, Ring Around the Rosie and Humpty Dumpty at least have the integrity to face the facts: boughs break, plagues break out and odd, egg-shaped creatures fall from walls. Even better, they teach us to have a positive attitude toward unpleasant facts and realities generally out of our control. If most of medieval Europe is going to be decimated by plague, after all, we might as well twirl in a circle and fall down laughing hysterically. This, it seems to me, is the attitude we should have toward much of what happens in our lives.
But Rain Rain Go Away?
The other rhymes encourage positive attitudes toward the inconvenient facts of reality. This one teaches us to demand that reality itself change, that reality adapt to us – rather than teach that we, ourselves, ought sometimes adapt to reality.
Must the rain go away simply because we want to play? Is the world, overall, going to be a better place if little Johnny gets to play kickball this afternoon? It’s not all about you, or me, Maimonides reminds us. Maybe the world will be a better place as a whole if Johnny stays indoors today and works on the cure for cancer instead.
Now, if what I have said has taken the sheen off a beloved refrain from childhood, please know I am deeply sorry to have rained on your parade. But it seems to me that popular culture, in its little ditties and funny phrases, often contains some pretty deep and important lessons – lessons worth some reflection, at least during yet another dreary, drizzly afternoon.
Now if I could only make things right as rain, believe me, I would.
Unless they already are.