Invitation to be Childlike
There is a trail behind my home I like to jog in the morning hours. I often enjoy company on my route, as there is much wildlife that greets me along the way. Rabbits consume their breakfast grass, tortoises make occasional appearances, snakes tan in the morning sun, while insects and birds seem to entrance me with their song along my way. I take great delight in this scenic view. The beauty of the trees, the sound of the flowing creek, and the many animals and insects that live among the wild seem uncomplicated and immune to modernization. Not all the inhabitants and visitors are creatures such as these; the road is often home to children playing in a creek bed as I make my way over a trestle.
I am always blessed in hearing the sheer joy of splashing in the murky water below. The laughter and boisterous noise of childhood, being able to throw caution to the wind and indulge in play like no adult seemingly can. I am envious of this play. Children have an ability to let go of the non-essentials for a time and simply focus on the task at hand, in this case letting the waters of the creek wash over them like a baptismal fount. They seem not to be hindered by to do lists and societal norms that might inhibit anyone older. Nothing can deter their frolic in the drink.
Seeing children there, playing, living enchanted, reminds me of magical times when the world was full of myth and mystery. Through their eyes lives a world of fascination and beauty. Where I see an insalubrious creek they see a luminous pool alive with adventure. Where I see the everyday, they see the possibility of enchantment.
Repressing the Child
We often pressure our children to “grow up” and that message is often received, as most youth yearn to be older and experience the pleasures that come with age. Adolescents desire to pursue challenges of the early teen, staying up late, watching bawdy movies, and having the freedom to control their own diet and dress. Upon maturation to the early teen years, the simple freedoms once yearned for now seem insignificant by comparison to the freedoms that late teens enjoy. The experience of a driver’s license and the mystery of the opposite sex move to the forefront of young minds as they grow in both experience and stature. As young adults there is a longing for independence and a quickness to decamp from home and relocate both body and soul to find one’s own path in life.
Somewhere along the way we make choices to lay down the joys of our youth and take up the role of the adult. This, in many ways, is a good thing. We should individuate from our caregivers and grow into able adults. It is good that we learn to use a stove, tie our own shoes or operate a motor vehicle. But I wonder if in the letting go process we loose many sagacious practices of our childhood.
Indeed I am prodded and exhorted by the teaching of Jesus: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18: 1-4)
As we age there is temptation to let go of the enchanting view of the world of our childhood. One recalls the C.S. Lewis tale of Prince Caspian and the toll leaving childhood takes on Peter and Susan, as they are prohibited from returning again to Narnia because they are becoming “too old.” Lewis does not give full detail of this ban decreed by Aslan, but reminds the reader of the notion that as one ages they become less open to the world of imagination and enchantment and more attune to the concerns of adulthood as maturity takes hold.
We learn early on to “act our age.” And “stop being so childish.” Not to be a “baby.” Often these remarks are ways of pointing out ways in which people should act in a more mature, reasonable manner, but is it possible that children may see the world more appropriately? Could it be that the childlike nature we are taught to repress actually hinders our emotional growth and stunts our imagination?
A Zest for Life
There are points in all of our journeys when a nostalgic feeling is triggered that mysteriously transports us to a particular place or event we once experienced and cherished. Often these memories are of Christmas mornings, summer vacations or birthday rituals our families embraced. Thanksgiving would not be the same to me unless I was able to have cranberry sauce like I had in my home as a child.
Every time I see a firefly I am transported back to my childhood, overlooking my yard at dusk as it was filled with green flashing lights and the tiny insects my family affectionately called, “lighting bugs.” In my mind twilight from here to eternity will only compare to that night’s magic and splendor.
I, like most children, had my tree that I loved to climb. That mighty Silver Maple’s branches served as a spaceship, clubhouse, jungle gym and secret hideout for many years of my childhood. Could it be that we as adults still need places to retreat to, imagine in and to call our own?
We could all tell stories of fond memories that have served to shape our identities. As we meditate on the impact those events continue to have on our psyche, we realize that our childhood contains more than just wistful thoughts that evoke misty-eyed and nostalgic responses. Rather, the child is always open to new interpretations, feels deeply, has a penchant to say what they mean, risks valiantly in relationships and has the ability to be captivated by a world that is full of enchantment and grandeur. Should we not seek to foster such a perspective?
Embracing the Child
Last autumn my wife and I visited some old friends over a weekend and had the joy to lodge in their home. They are proud parents of two very beautiful and very alive daughters who stole our hearts. Their oldest daughter, around three at the time, was the most welcoming host we have ever experienced. She was the first to offer us the grand tour of their lovely home and paid particular attention to minor details that many adults might pass over (like her favorite toys, videos, how to use the refrigerator and introductions to the dogs). She also was hospitable in giving full disclosure of their latest vacation to the beach, and how she was delighted by the local cuisine and mystified by the ocean’s waves.
She would greet me with a warm hello from her room at night when she heard me getting up to use the restroom that was near her bedroom. My favorite memory of her comes from my wife, as she was reading a book to her (and yes, I mean the child reading her favorite book to my wife) she had an accident involving potty training. Her childlike lack of self-contempt was refreshing, as after she changed her clothing, she simply picked up the story from where she left off.
Her particular brand of care left a mark on both our souls, as we left desiring to welcome others into our own home as she had welcomed us. The more I pondered her unique personality, I stood in awe of how a heart that has yet to accumulate the wounds of life and be bent into protective postures can truly extend care and hospitality in ways adults usually can not. It is the childlike gift of uninhibited love.
As we live in all the complexities of our adult lives how might we embrace a childlike nature? One way might be taking a long look at how we play. Do we engage in leisure that stimulates all our senses and invites others to join? Do we make time to engage in creative and imaginative revelry? We might re-evaluate our own passions and friendships. We might seriously think about living in the moment and letting the world’s mysteries infatuate and at times puzzle us. Our posture toward nature might change as we meander in the outdoors.
We might rediscover embracing a childlike virtue helps heal the breach between the living in everyday and living out of enchantment. Living with the childlike ardor might serve our families, ennoble our vocations and foster a sacredness that stirs imagination and leads to tranquility of the soul.
– D. Jeremiah Simmons