The Return of Innocence: A Week With Two Children
Our grandchildren, ages eight and four, are with us for a week. All day every day. By about day four an adult reaches a saturation point and becomes, in some sense, a child too. After days and nights participating in play, story, physical and imaginative games, make-believe, general silliness, and the deep need for security and protection, you fall like Alice down a rabbit hole into your eternal childhood.
Significant time with little children leads us, if we follow, into a world of innocence. Not certainly goodness and angelic sweetness. Anyone acquainted with children knows they are deeply selfish in the only way they can be. Their innocence lies in their consciousness. They don’t yet know they’re selfish—that realization, when it comes, will be their “fall,” their bruising tumble into the world of experience. For now, they just want what they want, which is mostly just food and play and wild confections of fantasy, love, physical bursts of energy, more love (more than you give my brother or sister!), challenges that allow them to prove themselves. They have fierce emotions—sadness, awe, fear, regret, anger—and then they let them go.
In the presence of such innocence, adults pine for something long lost. But we can’t go back into original innocence, just as Adam and Eve could not return to the garden. We can, however, come into a Second Innocence after we have named and accepted our selfishness, our willfulness, when we no longer need to deny or cut off our shadow side. The goal of the spiritual life—a “pure heart”—is given to us, paradoxically, when we acknowledge what a perfect mess we are inside, and when we surrender to the world as it is, that glorious jumble of darkness and light. This is what Jesus means when he says that we must become like a little child in order to understand the riddle of life, and so find happiness and peace.
“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes. “But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” That innocence on the other side of fallenness is what we would give anything for, and time spent with little kids can arouse that longing in our hearts. (It can also drive us half crazy, but that seems to be part of the divine ordeal!)