Children No More
One of the unmentioned aspects of the process of becoming an adult – not that I would dare classify myself as such – is the challenge presented in preventing yourself from falling, or diving headfirst, into the cynicism that effortlessly enraptures so many of us, casually brushing aside the powerful discovery that adults are so much more spiteful and childish than children, if you remove the inherent innocence from the definition of “childish”. Only when we are children are we protected from that the petty wickedness of adulthood – made more wicked by the absence of innocence inherent in the definition of “adultish” – because of the very fact that we are children. We aren’t permitted to see the violence and lust and greed and anger that sits molecular and heavy in our atmosphere. Once the children grow up, though, fuck ’em, they’re adults, our terrible behavior is nothing they haven’t seen before. The Ouroboros of human head and incorrupt tail.
As children, we had no choice but to possess an admiration and reverence for adults (not counting every toddler’s rebellious/exploratory nature), since they were the ones who know everything, held all of the answers and remedies and reasons and food and warmth, coagulating into the notion that they were better, almost the point of divinity; that they were faultless because they were adults, because they simply knew the difference between right and wrong. No growing pain is more physically debilitating as discovering how much worse and even dumber, in a sense, we are as adults, how petty and mean and selfish and unsharing and angry we tend to be, if for no other reason than because we feel trapped into being so by everyone else’s pettiness and meanness and selfishness and unsharing.
We observed all the freedoms that adults possessed, all the things they could do and know that we yearned for terribly, too ignorant to understand that that very ignorance was what allowed us the unsullied glamour shots of those freedoms in the first place. But we eventually realize that those freedoms and privileges allow, and even encourage, us to be nasty and cruel and hurtful to each other, and so often, I would imagine, that realization makes any adult with even a hairsbreadth remembrance of their childhood just want to be young again, innocent and unknowing, if not for the lack of responsibility then for the stymied knowledge of how big the world is and the wonderful job the adults do of protecting us from all things unsavory.
I recall to this day the moment I realized that not only adults, but parents, were indeed fallible; a moment that, as far as I can tell, was the initial and most impactful conscious realization of my life, and the first step in every child’s journey to eventual independence. My mother arrived to pick me up from the babysitter’s house, a dear friend of our family, and when she sat down for a moment on the couch I shoved into her lap and asked her eagerly to read to me the picture book Who Killed Cock Robin before we she took me home. We’ll read it tonight after dinner, she said. But it’s not mine, I said. And then she said this:
My infinitesimal knowledge of the world transformed instantly upon my ingestion of that single syllable, guts imploding; there is something that Mom didn’t know. I knew something that Mom didn’t. Things steadily get worse from this point forward. For all of us, I bet.
Once that reverence is lost, once we realize that we won’t just become something more and presumably better than we are now, that we have to work for whatever further progress we may make with this truncated life, the rules change. And we’re not dealing with children anymore. So fuck ’em. Us.
But as with anything human, there’s hope. A puncher’s chance. Millions of people dedicate their lives to helping others. Millions more donate money or time, scooting through red tape and tax deductions and punditry to do something nameless and helpful for the future, our children. But we can do more, as a people. We can make believe that we are all children – remember playing make believe? – and that we will forever be, and that we are all watching, absorbing. We are sponges.
I read a story once in which the author was in a remote village in some desolate snowy location, and at the center of town was a crosswalk over a road with a Walk/Don’t Walk light on the far side. The author, a New Yorker, was taken aback at the large groups of people who would gather on one side of the snowy road and wait politely for the red hand to change into a white silhouette, even though they could see empty roads through the flurries for miles in each direction, positive at both first glance and fifth that no cars were coming from anywhere. One day he finally got the nerve to break from the groupthink of the silly, time-wasting pedestrians and, as the red hand was brightly illuminated on the other side, decided to conjure up the social courage to walk across the barren, trafficless road without the light’s permission. He took only two steps before his friend and guide for the trip grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him back, shaking his head and pointing to the forbidding open palm. The author inquired why, since they could see that there were no cars coming for great distances in either direction, did the entire town insist on standing idly by the side of the road while waiting for a silly light to change. His friend responded by motioning to several parents holding the mittened hands of their young ones, waiting patiently to ferry them across and said, with a smile:
For the kids.