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Pale Green Pants

I want to discuss the real meaning in one of my favorite kids’ stories: Dr. Seuss’ “What Was I Scared Of?”.   On the surface, it is a simple story of an unnamed yellow wisp of a protagonist being plagued by a terrifying pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them.

To wit:


Though I’ve now read the poem hundreds of times, primarily (though not exclusively!) aloud to my daughter, I really didn’t like it at first.  Thought it was a toss-away Seuss, forced upon people who really wanted to read the brilliant Sneetches in the anthology we have, fitfully wedged in behind the banal “Too Many Daves.”  The rhyme scheme was erratic and sloppy, and the message hackneyed, simply a reverberation of the Sneetches message of tolerance and pluralism.

If you haven’t already, go ahead, read it.  Even better, go Buy It, and support the publisher and get the illustrations.

Around the 10th time reading it aloud, I got the hang of the rhyme scheme.  It’s different, to be sure, but once the cadence is captured it’s a good one.

But most importantly, around the 30th time reading it, I realized that I had the message wrong the entire time.  Everyone did, including the Seuss blogs.  And Amazon.  The pale green pants with nobody inside them are not simply a scary “other” with which to tolerate and even make peace with.  They are not a Sneetch without stars upon thars.

The pale green pants with nobody inside them are actually the character’s unlived life.  They are the road not chosen.  The alternate reality.

Seuss, in all of his genius, is telling a story that we all know: how completely troubling and even terrifying it is to consider what our lives would be should we have made different decisions.

A different sequence of life changing decisions, and our little yellow friend, to whom we all must empathize, would be happily riding a bike instead of shopping for spinach.

After all, our little yellow friend is pantsless.  How things could have been different for him, how incredible life could have been… yet he never put those pants on.

We can all remember those instances when the heavy decisions presented themselves.  When we were faced with the impossible.  Did we stay home or go out?  Did we quit or keep grinding away?  Did we take that job, or extend that trip, or get too drunk the night before, or did we trust or distrust or turn away or apologize or embrace?  Did we break up or did we propose?

And there are those moments, when we’re out all alone in the middle of the night, minding our own business while just trying to pick a peck of snide, when we wonder: what if?  And sometimes we panic.

But as humans, we learn to cope.  My favorite stanza:

I said, “I do not fear those pants
with nobody inside them.”
I said, and said, and said those words.
I said them. But I lied them.

And then, of course, in comes the real lesson.  …”I was just as strange to them, as they were strange to me.”  As humans, we do the best we can.  We make the decisions that we think will lead to the best outcomes, based on the information we have on hand.  No matter where we end up, that is reality, and no matter the reality we can always reflect on other non-realities.

That last sentence was a twisty one.  It reminds me, in fact I think it’s completely in tune with, the Anthropic Principle.  In short, it’s a philosophy answering the question of why, given all the possible outcomes, we are on a world supporting life, especially human life, when that is such an infinitesimal result probability-wise.  The Principle explains that “only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing and reflecting upon fine tuning.”  Chew on that one and enjoy.

So the pale green pants sees what could have been his reality in the little yellow pantsless man, wonders about a life where he’d be running an errand for grin-itch spinach instead of riding a bike, and freaks the fuck out.

And knowing that, it is up to each of us to come to terms with our choices, sleeping peacefully in the bed we have made.

Of course there will be times when the consideration of the results of our actions will smack us in the face, but to be terrified in the relative reality will only make us miserable.  We can’t make friends with “what would have been”, or live together in tolerance like pluralistically bellied Sneetches, but we must find peace within ourselves.


And now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble,
We both smile and we say…”Hi!”