June 28, 2013

Childhood innocence

What is it that's so appealing about children? Is it their youthful physical beauty? Perhaps their openness to loving and being loved? Their playfulness? Beyond these things, from where I'm sitting, children are beautiful because they possess something we've all lost—the quality of innocence.

Innocence is more than lovely, though. It's also heartbreaking, because it represents Housman's "blue remember'd hills" ... the "happy highways where I went / and cannot come again."

The gap between innocence and experience is infinitely explored, like a gap in a tooth, by artists and writers. I've had a faint feeling of exile ever since childhood—not as a result of some traumatic experience, but simply the slow dimmer switch of time passing and my imagination coarsening.

But what is innocence? It's a lot like time—we all understand it, but no one can seem to explain it.

When I look at children playing for hours on end, or dancing as if no one is watching, I know I am seeing it. But it is ineffable.

It is, to a degree, a kind of ignorance. To not grasp imaginatively that death will come someday. Likewise, to be ignorant of sex. To believe in the irrational—Santa Claus, mermaids, monsters under the bed. And of course, the myth of the infinite power and goodness of parents.

But innocence goes deeper than ignorance. It is some mysterious operation of the imagination, the part that can enter into mental universes from which one is soon to be forever excluded. I have a clear recollection of this.

Every year at Christmas, my parents (Santa) traditionally left me a stuffed animal of some kind atop another wrapped present under the tree. The stuffed animal was always the first thing to meet my wonder-filled eyes, and I grabbed it and squeezed it with passion, suddenly immersed in a new friendship. Then one year I picked up the stuffed animal and could not "get into it." Suddenly it was just a stuffed animal. I could no longer enter its portal and inhabit its world.

Even now I can feel the sting of disappointment.

Innocence is also the growth of self-consciousness, perhaps the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" from the story of Adam and Eve. Perhaps you are thrown into a world devoid of color and meaning and spend your life trying to regain it.

But can you regain it? Certainly not in its original form. But sometimes I feel shadows of my passed innocence in the night sky, in the song of birds, in the blooming of flowers every spring—the ones my mom used to plant in her garden.

As we get older and start to unlearn all the things we've been taught in life, perhaps this, as well as the more tragic meaning, is what Shakespeare referred to when he described the final age of man as: "Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion."

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