(About a 9 minute read)
I believe one of the curious facts of life is that the older you get, the more you need to become childlike. I do not mean “childish” — not even children themselves should be too childish, although certainly we should be reasonably tolerant when they do. But I mean here childlike.
You need to be childlike because it seems there is something about our nature such that — if we fail at becoming childlike — we in some way die, even long before we are buried.
Or, to be more precise, the resilience we both need to bounce back from hardships and defeats, and also need to adapt, change, and grow — that resilience first becomes brittle, then broken, and we become so set in our ways, we might as well be a rock, rather than a human; a dull stone rather than a vibrant, passionate, living thing.
But what does it mean, “to become childlike”?
In this context, I think there are three key traits or qualities to being childlike that, if we cultivate each, will suffice to keep us from ossifying as we age. Those are:
The three interact with each other so intrinsically and in so many ways that it would be foolish to try to cultivate one of them without simultaneously cultivating the others too. Think of “childlike” as an emergent property of those three things when they work in combination with each other. That’s to say, imagination, seriousness, and play are the parts, but childlike — childlike is something greater than the sum of the parts. Instead, it is an emergent property of the parts.
Hence, were you to merely cultivate one of them, rather than all three at once, you would not be much closer to becoming childlike at the end of your effort than you were when you first began.
So imagination, play, and seriousness — what do those mean in this particular context?
Let’s start with imagination. Children have abundant powers of imagination, but many of us lose most of our powers as we grow older. The culprit seems to be knowledge. The more we learn how things work, the less we can imagine them working in any other way than they do.
To be sure, there’s a tree in my yard, an ordinary tree, and though I myself turned 727 months old on the 10th of July, I can still imagine that tree has purple bark and gold leaves, farts invisible hairy rainbows (though it has no anus), and speaks to me in my dreams. But that does not mean I have a truly childlike imagination.
No, I long ago lost the capacity for that kind of imagining, just like virtually every other adult. A child, you see, can imagine what I imagine, but then go beyond that to believe that it’s true, or at least, could somewhere, somehow, in this magical universe be true.
Me, I can no longer do that, and I would be kidding myself to say I could. Yet — lucky for me — I still do have a certain kind of imagination. An imagination which, however, sticks mostly within the bounds of this world.
To understand what I’m talking about here, consider Micheal “Air” Jordan. As everyone knows, he was able to leap for such distances as seemed to most of us impossible even for an athlete. Distances that folks tried to explain as his becoming “airborne”.
But was Jordan really defying the laws of physics? Of course not. He was working quite within the bounds of this universe. It’s just that he was pushing those bounds beyond what anyone expected. And that word, “expected”, is key here.
So very often in life we corral our imagination, not merely by genuine facts, but by merely imagined facts too — that is, by our expectations. Instead of pushing and pushing ourselves to leap further and further, we hold back a bit; perhaps give up too soon. But that’s not what Jordan did.
Jordan, I suspect, imagined leaping beyond anything he himself could currently do and then — instead of allowing himself to believe he couldn’t do it — tested whether he could.
So the first principal of an adult imagination is: Take great care that your expectations are well grounded in reality, not made up, and be willing to test and challenge what you think are your limits. That way, even if you can no longer believe trees are anywhere in the universe purple and gold, you might still someday become the Nobel Prize winning scientist who genetically engineers one! And if you can accomplish that, then just how hard will it be to next get it to fart?
Put a bit differently, learn to work within the bounds of the universe in order to accomplish what might seem to most of us out of bounds. If magic won’t turn your tree purple and gold, maybe genetic engineering will.
So that’s how to make — in this context — optimal use of an adult imagination, but where do seriousness and play enter into this?
Seriousness is key because it allows you to work diligently and determinedly, two things necessary to accomplish most goals. Children are not thought of as particularly serious critters, but look again! Few adults take their work as seriously as a child at play.
What children do not do is they don’t usually allow seriousness to turn into grimness. That’s much more of an adult mistake. “Grimness” is seriousness carved in stone — and we all know that turning to stone is precisely what we do not wish to accomplish here. So cultivate determination, diligence, and all such related things, but not grimness.
Last we come to play. Play means far more in this context than just doing stuff for the fun of doing stuff. It is — above all else — and attitude. An attitude that has several components to it.
First, play implies flexibility, experiment, and adaptation. How often do children begin playing one game only to have it morph into another, and then into a third, seemingly on whim? Adults tend to take “changing the rules” mid-game as cheating. Kids clearly see it as a way of seizing opportunities to have even more fun.
So keep loose, experiment, and adapt to new opportunities as they arise. Yes, you spent a month, like John Irving, coming up with the perfect opening line for a novel, but look sharp! The line you just now thought of won’t work for your novel, but by god it makes a good opening for a poem!
Second, the primary goal of play as we all know is to have fun. In fact, there’s a sense in which, for kids, that’s the only real rule: Have fun. But adults can substitute something else for “fun”. That is, purpose or meaning.
Ideally, you can have both. Both purpose or meaning, and fun. But if you had to pick between those two, it’s perfectly ok for an adult to chose purpose or meaning over fun. Just so he or she is back home in time for dinner.
Another thing about fun. It’s quite important to grasp that it implies being primarily driven by your own internal needs, talents, and goals. Growing up, I was (for my age) an outstanding visual artist. I was, for instance, drawing ships at dock in two point perspective in first grade.
Then something began happening to me that I believe happens to so many young talents. I had the misfortune to be noticed. And with recognition came praise. To make a long story short, by the time I was in high school, I was doing art more for praise than for myself. That resulted in my being at least half the time miserable because I didn’t feel my pieces were working out well enough to earn that now coveted recognition and praise. So, in the end, I just gave up on it.
Dropped art right out of my life, and didn’t pick it up again for decades, not until I was in my mid-50s. At that point, I was no better at it than I’d been in sixth grade, and I’m still not (I don’t practice nearly enough). But here’s the difference — nowadays, I’m having fun at it! And that is, once again, my primary motive for doing it.
The moral of the story is, be sure you are in it primarily for yourself in at least some key way. That does not mean you absolutely cannot be playing at something for the sake of others, or for the sake of some higher purpose. In fact, it’s a good thing if you do that. But remember to make the needs of those other people, or that higher purpose, your own needs, your own purpose. Internalize those needs or purpose!
Last, play has an element of “let’s pretend”. This hearkens back to imagination, of course, and is pretty much covered by what I said earlier, but it should again be emphasized here. For one thing, a good way to internalize something is to begin by pretending to embody it.
So stay flexible, experiment, adapt, have fun, and do such things as pretend you already are what you want to be — within reason, of course.
On a larger scale, imagination, seriousness, and play when well mixed together have a tendency to ignite into childlike behavior. Into the sort of attitude towards living that will go far to prevent you from becoming ossified, turned to stone, and dead inside long before your time.
Did any of this make sense? Did any of it help? What do you think of the fact I wrote it all while wearing a second-hand chicken outfit with a tutu? Questions? Comments?