Becoming Like a Child

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This is a useful concept for stepping back from our adult neuroses and reclaiming a “beginner’s mind” that is better able to see past all the crap in the world.

It’s from an Orthodox Christianity perspective, specifically from an essay by Nick Trakakis, Department of Philosophy, Monash University (wherever that is):

But how do we, who are either well on our way towards adulthood or firmly established as adults, suddenly stop and return to the mind-set and attitudes of our beginnings? Why, even, would we want to make such a turnabout in the first place? Children are, of course, very often endearing creatures, but they do not always manifest the best qualities of human nature: they can be quite cruel to each other, they are supremely self-centred, they can barely think beyond the present or the present satisfaction of their needs, they live a sheltered and heavily protected existence, they are gullible, and so on. Why, then, should we want to become like children, and what does becoming a child actually involve?

The eminent Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), in his short but insightful book Unless You Become Like This Child, provides a searching discussion of these questions. Von Balthasar points out that there are several things involved in the process that Jesus referred to as becoming like children, three of which I think are worthy of some reflection.

Firstly, the exhortation to become like children is to be understood in terms of the call to recover our childlike gratitude. Such gratitude, as von Balthasar explains, is reflected in the words and actions of Jesus, ‘the eternal Child’: “Thanksgiving, in Greek eucharistia, is the quintessence of Jesus’ stance toward the Father. ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me’, he says at Lazarus’ grave, conscious that the Father has given him the power to raise the dead (Jn 11:41).” Children, likewise, are thankful for the gifts that are freely bestowed on them by their parents, whether it be food, clothing, protection, or Christmas presents. But as von Balthasar notes, plea and thanks in a child, the child’s dependency and its gratitude, cannot yet be clearly distinguished: “Because he [i.e., the child] is needy he is also thankful in his deepest being, before making any free, moral decision to be so. And when he grows older and we say to him, ‘Say please’, ‘say thank you’, we are not teaching him anything new but only trying to bring into his more conscious sphere what is already present from the beginning.”

Secondly, becoming like children involves recovering our childlike awe, our childlike sense of amazement. The ancients, it will be recalled, sought to ground their philosophical reflections in a sense of wonder, a wonder rooted in the experience of beauty. This sense of wonder is also an integral part of childhood. Children are often amazed over everything that we take to be ordinary. A child, for example, will be overawed by all the things, great and small, that he discovers in his newly inhabited world, from the tiny insects he spots on the pavement to the starry heavens above. Unfortunately, this appreciation for the wondrous and mysterious qualities of life can be easily lost, as von Balthasar points out: “In the world of men, childlike amazement is not easy to preserve since so much in education aims at learning habits, mastering tasks and grasping automatic functions.” The problem is further exacerbated in western capitalist countries, where the emphasis on scientific inquiry and economic productivity, together with sprawling cities and the consequent alienation from the natural environment, quickly sap one’s ability to marvel at the splendour of the world.

Thirdly, becoming like children also means recovering our childlike attitude towards time. Unconsciously, and sometimes even quite consciously, we think that ‘My time is my own’. Our sense of ownership in general, but particularly as it relates to time, is perceptively analysed by C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters. In letter 21, the demon Screwtape instruct his nephew Wormwood on how to go about inculcating feelings of possessiveness in his human ‘patient’:

Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

From my archetypal perspective (yes, I completed at certification program in Jungian Archetypal Psychotherapy), we’re talking about the Elder Leader archetype here.

The Elder Leader grows up quickly, and often feels as though he/she passed up childhood altogether. Later in life, however, the Elder Leader begins to revert to a more childlike presence. My grandfather on my mother’s side was an Elder Leader type, and as he aged, he began to laugh more often. He and Grandma started traveling, following the Senior PGA Tour around the Western U.S., and even snuck into Nevado for some gambling from time to time (don’t tell anyone!).

The Wisdom of the Elder Leader is that he/she recognizes that life is too short to spend the whole thing worrying about adhering to social convention. All the hard work that goes into a “success story” — especially in America — is ultimately a vast diversion from what is really important, or from what truly has meaning. It’s not that hard work doesn’t produce rewarding results — it definitely can — but hard work at the expense of “smelling the roses” can lead to years and years of drudgery and missed opportunity.

The Child sees meaning in everything, precisely because it does not judge from past experience. Everything is brand new, and the Child has a more-or-less clean slate on which to imprint these new experiences. All things are possible to the Child, and its desires are a pure extension of an innocent way of viewing “reality.”

Our world needs the Child’s perspective more than ever. Thus, we need to become like a child in our individual lives. Meaningful change must begin with me and you.

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