Friday, November 11, 2011

In Defense of Childish Things

Growing up is highly overrated.

One of the most irritating things I have ever heard is the phrase, "Oh, grow up."  It's usually delivered in a superior or condescending tone, by someone who disapproves of someone else's behavior or attitude.  If you want to get Biblical, it was the apostle Paul who said that when he was a man, he "put away childish things."  On the other hand, it was Jesus Christ himself who said that we must all become "as little children."  I have observed over the years, and have become convinced, that people who "grow up" and dispose of the last remnants of childhood lead sad and miserable lives.

You know, there's a difference between "childish," with its connotations of immaturity and naïvété, and "childlike," with its connotations of simplicity and lack of guile.  Here are five childlike attitudes that we all should retain throughout our lives, even after we "grow up."

1. A sense of wonder
This is what motivates the child, who picks up a red maple leaf in the fall.  He examines the shape of the leaf, the intricate vein pattern, the splashes of color in a leaf that used to be a solid green, and he remembers the way it floated down from the tree.  He wonders "how ...?" and "why ...?" and once in a while, without a question mark, he wonders "oh, wow."  He experiences the same wonder at the blue sky, dinosaurs, mountain heights and ocean depths.  Wonder and discovery drive people to become doctors and scientists.  Wonder is also the source of our natural appreciation of beautiful things.  It's what makes us gasp at a sunrise, stare at a pretty girl, and get choked up when listening to a particular piece of music.  Wonder is what keeps us learning for our entire lives, and, as my friend Kent Galloway once said, "The day I stop learning is the day it's time to die."

2. A sense of delight
This is where "fun" comes from.  It's what makes food taste good.  It's what makes us laugh.  It's why people still drive old Ford Mustangs.  Playing hard and working hard, doing things with your body, are a delight.  A healthy sense of humor stems from this sense of delight, as do pleasure, and enjoyment of the more refined things in life.  But children seem to find delight in the simplest, most mundane things – sometimes even in tedious things.  If you can't look back on what you did during the day, and think of one thing that makes you say "Whew! That was fun!" then you are living your life wrong.

3. The ability to love unconditionally
Unconditional love is what allows us to get along with our fellowmen. It makes it easier to negotiate heavy traffic. It is what binds together families and true friends. It is the deep, hidden, never-mentioned, root of all successful business transactions. It's also the true source of selfless service and charitable giving.  If we give to charity grudgingly, or out of a sense of obligation, it doesn't come from our heart and it doesn't count.  Real giving, giving from the heart, is what really matters.  It uplifts both the one giving the love and the one receiving it.  Conditional love, or love that comes with a price tag, is demeaning and insulting to both the giver and the receiver.

4. Imagination
Sometimes it seems like the goal of civilized society is to squelch our imagination.  It gets squelched by parents, modern public education, peer groups, television, bureaucracy and meaningless rules.  A rare few manage to survive this lifelong beatdown of their imagination. These are the ones we end up honoring for their vision and their creativity.  These are the great musicians, painters and sculptors, but they are not just found in the arts.  Walt Disney was one.  So was Steve Jobs.

5. A yearning for God
Too many of us lose this innate yearning, or have it philosophised out of us by others.  And yet it remains deep within us, constantly bubbling to the surface, where we have to work hard to choke it down again, because ignoring it only works for so long.  It's when we acknowledge this yearning, and nurture it, that we begin to develop and grow for real, in a way that transcends all the worldly knowledge we may have acquired over the years.  All that "adult" learning keeps us firmly grounded – planted on the earth – but when we give in to the yearning for the divine, when we begin to seek for a purpose or an existence beyond mortality, then we are no longer chained to the earth, and we leave those "oh, grow up" grown-ups far behind.  The people in our lives whom we admire the most, and whom we would do well to emulate, are those who have satisfied this yearning (well, to a degree beyond our own, anyway) and remain on earth to tell us about it.

Without these attitudes, these childlike attributes, life isn't worth living. The times in my life when I have felt sad or lost are the times when I have forgotten these qualities, set them aside, or had them forcibly taken from me.  The times when people have gotten frustrated or upset with me are often the times when I've had, um, an overabundance of these qualities, according to those who were passing judgment on me.  I think that true wisdom comes from knowing how to keep these attributes alive and relevant in your life, while keeping them a secret from those who would judge.

© 2011 Ray Depew. You read it here first. Feel free to copy it, but make sure you give proper credit. If you see it somewhere else without my name on it, please let me know.

Lee Ann Womack puts this whole thing into her beautiful song, "I Hope You Dance."