Regarding Freddie the Leaf

I take issue with the story put out in this book.

In our 3rd grade textbook, an abridged version of this book appears as a final reading. I have taken the liberty of copying the textbook version below, so that you may read it, and then better see where I’m coming from.

Spring came. Freddie, the leaf, was born on a branch of a tall tree.

Hundreds of leaves were born on the tree. They were all friends. Together they danced in the breeze and played in the sun.

Daniel was the largest leaf and Freddie’s best friend. He knew many things. He explained that they were part of a tree in a park. He also explained about the birds, the sun, and the moon.

Freddie loved being a leaf. Summer was especially nice. Many people came to the park.

“Let’s get together and give them some shade,” said Daniel. “Giving shade is part of our purpose in life. Making people happy is a good reason for living.”

Old people sat under the tree and talked of old times. Children ran around and laughed. It was fun to watch them.

Summer passed and fall came. Soon the leaves changed their colors. Some turned red and others turned yellow. Freddie turned purple. They were all very beautiful.

One day a strange thing happened. Some of the leaves were blown off by a strong cold wind. The leaves became frightened. “What’s happening?” they said.

“It’s the time for leaves to change their home,” Daniel said. “Some people call it dying.”

“Will we all die?” Freddie asked.

“Yes,” Daniel answered. “Everything dies.”

“I won’t die!” said Freddie.

But his friends started to fall one after another. Soon the tree was almost bare.

“I’m afraid of dying,” Freddie told Daniel.

“We’re all afraid of things we don’t know,” Daniel said. “But you were not afraid when spring became summer, or when summer became fall. Changes are natural.”

“Will we return in spring? Freddie asked.

“I don’t know, but Life will. Life lasts forever and we’re part of it,” answered Daniel.

“We only fall and die. Why are we here?” Freddie asked again.

Daniel said, “For the friends, the sun and the shade. Remember the breeze, the people, and the colors in fall. Isn’t that enough?”

That afternoon, Daniel fell with a smile. Freddie was the only leaf left on his branch.

The first snow fell the next morning.

The wind came and took Freddie from his branch. It didn’t hurt at all.

As he fell, he saw the whole tree for the first time. He remembered Daniel’s words, “Life lasts forever.”

Freddie landed on the soft snow. he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

He did not know this. But, in the tree and the ground, there were already plans for new leaves in spring.

Right, what could I possibly have to complain about within such an innocuous story, I suppose you’re wondering.

First off, it has a bit of a creepy cult vibe. “Daniel was ever so smart, and taught us so many things.” “We all die, you’ll die too~”. And the in-the-original-but-changed-in-this-textbook-version, “You were not afraid when the spring changed to summer, or when summer turned to fall. You did not fear those seasons. Why, then, do you fear the season of death?” (emphasis mine) What the hell, get out.

Next, the entire purpose seems to be to get kids (as I reckon the original was aimed at children younger than my 15-year-old students) to accept death as a natural change that one oughtn’t be afraid of. I’ll return to the “natural” argument in a moment, but doesn’t it strike you as a little dodgy that it’s all EVERYTHING DIES, DEATH IS NATURAL, DIE DIE DIE, SEASON OF DEATH, and then they end with talking euphemistically about how Freddie “went to sleep”? If we’re trying to dispel fear, why have we returned to euphemism?

Finally, the “death is natural, so we should accept it” argument. I reject that. If we accept the argument that “death via aging is natural, and we should accept it and not fight it”, then we must also accept the following statements:

  • cancer is natural, so we should accept it and not fight it
  • the flu is natural, so we should accept it and not fight it
  • earthquakes are natural, and as human settlements are not natural, we shouldn’t bother building strong, quake-resistant buildings that will protect us, and should, rather, allow the natural quake to kill us in our unnaturalness
  • tsunami are natural, and as human settlements are not natural, we shouldn’t bother building our homes in places safe from tsunami or building tsunami defenses and creating evacuation plans in case of tsunami; nono, better to allow the natural tsunami to come and kill our unnaturalness

Now, I don’t know about you, but every reasonable person I know would reject those bullet points, especially in light of what happened in March 2011. Why, then, are we so accepting of the “death by aging is natural, let’s accept it” tenet? Death by aging is the single biggest preventable killer on this planet, but everyone just seems resigned to allowing it to happen. It’s madness, is what it is.

To better understand where I’m coming from, here is a TED talk by Aubrey de Grey, who has been researching aging, says it’s preventable, and argues that the first people who will live for 1000 years or more are already living among us. It’s about 20 minutes long, but do watch it, won’t you?

Furthermore, if we’re to believe author and futurist Ray Kurzweil says in his book The Singularity is Near (if you can get past his constant ranting against people who don’t agree with him) that we’re only about 20 years from the point where nanotechnology will assist us in achieving longer lives.

I understand that many of you will have bought into this “we all die, and we should accept it” idea long ago. I fully expect many of you will look at Kurzweil’s nanotech arguments and tell me that they’re pipe dreams, and if even possible, are still centuries off. I expect some of you will click through to de Grey’s Wikipedia page and see that his work isn’t recognized as being effective. Those are all valid criticisms, but smacks of “I don’t think it can be done, so why should anyone ever bother”-ism, which is terrible.

I then expect some of you will try to harp on about how “if we can live forever, what meaning does life have”. That’s another thing I reject. All we are are bundles of meat and fluids being used by genes trying to survive another generation. That, intrinsically, has no “meaning” in the deep sense implied. Any meaning we glean from our lives and the lives of others we create on our own using the meat in our skulls and the processes therein.  We create our own meaning in our own lives, and so having a long life need not be the “meaningless” trap these types of people claim it would be.

So yeah, from the creepy cult-vibe to the “let’s accept lots of terrible things and do nothing about them because they’re natural” bullshit, I find this story to be inappropriate for all ages in this day and age. Let’s stop acting like poor defenseless victims of fate and take control of our lives and our futures for a change. Let’s stop resigning ourselves to our terrible lots in life and do something about it.