Learning from Little People

Everyone should keep a three-year-old around.

“Mommy, what are airplanes for?”
“How did God make you? Did he just put your head on?”
“Mommy, am I good?”
“Why are there mosquitoes? Why don’t mosquitoes like to eat fried eggs?”

These and a dozen other questions came at me rapid-fire one summer evening. I threw out some creative (and theologically questionable) answers. But I’m not sure I succeeded in satisfying that little philosopher before he went to bed.

There is a gentle reproach in a child’s questions. As we scramble for answers, we realize that we might have them, if only we’d read our Aristotle and Aquinas more assiduously. I go about my day, calculating banal equations of time and efficiency (What time do I have to set my alarm tomorrow to get to work? How do I keep my kids safely occupied while I write emails?) . . . and here is my child, wondering about the nature of things.

Children have a credulous quality that we like to call “innocence,” but I would rather call it joy, because it is the opposite of cynicism. It is unself-conscious presence, a wondering interest in the whole of the world. We need to keep children around to remind us what joy looks like.

The joy of children is, of course, transitory. Like sand in a seive, it flows away as they grow. A child’s world is a fantastical one, cobbled together by a mind with few defenses and no larger vision against which to compare its impressions.

In the process of learning, working, and entangling ourselves in relationships, all of us experience the scrambling of the capital-letter ideals we held as children. I might present them to you now from an ironic distance, wrapped in quotation marks: “True Love,” “Calling,” “BFF Friendship,” “Character,” “Good,” “Evil,” “Faith,” “Beauty,” “Success.”

A few years ago, there was a spate of articles debating whether irony is the “ethos” of the Millennial generation. Whether or not we can call it our ethos, most of us seem to understand the impulse to live and speak ironically–to hide disillusion with double entendre and sardonic indifference. But the concern of these writers seemed to be that an ironic posture toward the world, if we don’t pass out of it, develops into cynicism—the disease that makes you skeptical of all meaning, and prevents you from loving or believing anything sincerely. The disengaged cynic is unable to be present in the world, and therefore unable to enjoy a poem, a candlelit dinner, a romp in the woods, or a chat with a curious three-year-old.

It is healthy to grow up out of simplicity, to learn to question, mistrust, and compromise; to gain an emotionally nuanced response to the world. The danger, however, is of remaining in the stage of scare quotes. We have to remember, as George MacDonald says, that “everything in the world is more or less misunderstood at first,” and it takes courage and childish joy to be willing to come back and learn what things really are.

A similar startling encounter, like the one between my son and me, happens between the youth and the old married couples at weddings. Veteran couples know marriage as a many-layered thing. They know it’s not so much a neat knot; it’s more like a tangle. There are the never-ending arguments and the cutting words, interrupted by unexpected communion. There are lonely and sleepless nights, as well as quiet comforts. Your spouse wounds you unforgivably, and also forgives you unaccountably. Remembers your birthday, and then thoughtlessly insults your mother. Publicly defends your quirks; falls asleep during your favorite movie. Plans fabulous family outings; forgets about watching the kids while they all but burn down the house.

What does the girl giving the toast know about these tangles? What advice can she offer the newly-weds that will prepare them for the difficult re-shaping of their dreams? And yet, I wonder. More than the bride and groom need to hear about the pitfalls of married life, maybe the experienced folk need to witness again the brightness of these two, as they say the vows whose meaning they only partially understand and act out a rite as old as man and woman and creation.

But how is one to transcend the cynicism that is our natural response to a confusing, disappointing, and troubled world? According to one ancient poem, the book of Job, the answer is simple: humility. For a minute, for an hour, stop trying to know and do and master. Stop trying to answer the problem of evil, and simply look around you, a small creature amidst the largeness of creation.

In chapters 38-41, God presents Job with a devastating panorama of the grandeur, strangeness, and goodness of the world.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth
. . .
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
. . .
Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?
. . .
Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with a mane?
Do you make him leap like the locust?
His majestic snorting is terrifying.
He paws in the valley and exults in his strength;
he goes out to meet the weapons.

God seems to be saying, “Whatever your struggle tempts you to think, Job, the world is not nothing. Suffering does not negate everything.” In fact, it seems that the beauty and mystery of the universe ARE an answer to the problem of evil, in the sense that they quiet the painful, prying, world-destroying questions that suffering prompts us to ask. They do not make the world safe for us, but they do insist that we love it anyways, sincerely, as a child does.

However harried our lives and dark our feelings, we must aim to come back around to where we started—to where we recognize the world as a place of marvels. Sometimes this takes a lot of imagination; but that’s exactly why we should keep little people around, to remind us, even when it eludes us, what joy looks like.

Comments are closed.