The Adult And The Child

It happens now and then that one hears something praised for its childlikeness, perhaps a book or movie or some other supposedly enchanting object. Childhood is something through which all pass. Subsequent attitudes toward it persist, but with perhaps inadequate critical thought toward their meaning. What is the character of this childlike outlook, and how does it compare with what may be called an adult outlook upon human affairs?

What are generally valued in the constitution of the child are the following: innocence, honesty, wonder, naïveté, simplicity, joy, youthfulness, credibility, vulnerability, and curiosity. The child comes into the world without pre-existing notions, at least so far as the world of ideas are concerned. Of course there are established biological impulses, intuitions, and so forth. But the human child is at the mercy of the world, and must take the surface appearance of things as given, having no previous experiences from which to draw. Most of what is praised or otherwise valued in the child’s disposition comes down to this: ignorance. Considered in its negative aspect, an absence of knowledge for example constitutes a great disadvantage to the individual. But there is a positive aspect as well, for knowledge of the world in almost every instance brings with it unpleasant emotions such as distress, disappointment, and sorrow. The list of child attributes is characterized mostly by absence. Innocence is the absence of experience, honesty is the absence of an ability to dissemble, and credibility is the absence of an acquired mental power of skepticism.

There are however other child qualities which are less readily reducible to the absence of later, adult acquisitions. Among these are joy, youthfulness, wonder, and curiosity. It is easy both to explain and to grasp why these are positive things. Joy is not the mere absence of pain, but may indeed coexist with, and even be informed by, unpleasantness. Youthfulness is not identical with youth, and we have all observed the differing manners in which individual persons age. Note also that an adult may be joyful, and may confront the world with an attitude of both curiosity and wonder. While these states may be inherent in the conventional view of childhood — though not commonly found among actual children, especially outside the so-called rich countries — they may be found in adults as well, even if not widely. It appears to be the qualities determined by absence which characterize the essence of the child outlook, and once they have been filled in by experience, they are quite forever gone.

Thus far the consideration has been rather abstract. But we know that our attitudes toward the child are informed by our relationship to the material world of objects, and in this world one encounters on the one hand toys and on the other jobs, bills, mortgages, and problems with teeth and organs and so on. The life of the child looks to the adult like a life of freedom from responsibility, specifically the responsibility of responding to and altering material conditions. And the reason of course that children are generally in this era of human civilization free from such responsibility is that they are considered to lack as a class of person the required mental, emotional, and physical resources.

It interests me to note that what is praised or valued in the child is despised in the adult. Imagine an adult who believes all that he is told, who takes the appearance of things as the truth of the matter, and who is honest in all of his interactions. In art this is a comic state of affairs, and in life it is contemptible. The exception seems to be in the province of religion, where one encounters in society the general approbation of faith — that is, childlike credulousness. Outside of this, the irresponsible adult who behaves like a child by not “pulling his weight” is regarded with hostility. Nor is it possible to use the term childish as a compliment. The habits and dispositions of the child are not appropriate to the adult, and the reverse is the case also. But what may be said of these qualities in and of themselves?

Consider for example innocence, naïveté, and credibility. They are perhaps charming, but are they good? This question invites a subjective answer. To my tastes the skeptical disposition of mind offers something vastly preferable to innocence and credibility. Indeed, as I reflect upon the list of child qualities I discover that I prefer in almost every instance the adult alternative, even when this alternative is bound up with the unpleasant facts of human affairs.

Some years ago I engaged in an experiment with an evangelist who had come to my door. He was keen to convince me of the merits of salvation, as he understood them, and principally the merit of gaining one’s entry into heaven. I offered him the following challenge: to present me with a compelling description of this state called Paradise. He undertook his task by rehearsing a list of unpleasant facts one would not encounter in the Beyond: sickness, loneliness, misery, death. In other words, absences. Here one may think of the innocence we have considered in relation to the child outlook. On the surface of them, both the Christian Heaven and childhood seem marvellous places. But what I have found in both cases is that more deeply considered they are not so. I am rather fond of doubt, and while innocence may be a pleasant state I feel experience is far more rich and rewarding, as well as painful. I cannot ignore and will not resist the gut feeling that an eternity of pleasantness would be a terrible thing. Indeed, when I consider all that I cherish in this world, I am aware that these things are inextricably connected to others such as loss, pain, conflict, doubt, impermanence, and mortality. In other words, the full range of the adult human condition. There is no getting around it, either by recourse to an afterlife or to the one we have already had.

The consideration of the child and the adult is an indirect way of considering the messy world in which we live and the possibility of its improvement. While I believe in the idea of human progress and am committed to forging a future in which conflict is resolved by peaceful means, I would not wish for instance to abolish conflict, even if that were possible. I do not look with regret upon the lost innocence of childhood. Irony suits me well. I don’t care for pain and disappointment, but they seem to me the cost of going out of doors in pursuit of the good. I am against the certainty of faith and cling to the positive value of skepticism, which I consider essential to the survival of human civilization. Give me the hard lessons of experience, and keep me far from naïveté. Above all, save me from the sweet music of Heaven’s eternal choir, and give me the discordant strain of the human chorus. And if you please a decent single malt and a pen.

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