As a child grows up, she leaves the world of the familiar and unfamiliar and enters the world of the possible and the impossible.
I remember watching a children’s program on television when I was a child. I vividly recall a scene with a door inside a doorframe, standing alone as if supported on each side by an invisible wall, in the middle of a mountain pass. A man opened the door and you could see inside to a large carpeted room populated with furniture, a fireplace, and several other items (think something like the Wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia). The man pulled back from the doorframe to look on the other side of the door–nothing, just the door. He shook his head in amazement and entered the room.
The thought-feeling I recall was not, like that man, one of amazement or incredulity, as if the impossible had just been made possible. I didn’t even feel impressed that special effects could make it look like a man could walk through a stand-alone door into a room that could only belong in a large house. Instead, I remember only feeling curious–this was unfamiliar but not impossible. I didn’t live in the modern scientific world of the possible and impossible. My world was a world made up entirely of familiar and unfamiliar stories. Any unfamiliar story could be made familiar. It would have made no sense to say that some stories were possible or impossible. The world wasn’t a magical place so much as it was a place for infinite, pure exploration. No end goal, no teleology, no final answers, just the delightful hazards of exploring for the sake of exploring. Magic would have implied making a distinction between the Real and the fantastical, and neither constituted my existence.
When we say that at some point human beings lose the innocence of childhood and “grow up,” I think that largely what we are referring to is this passage from the unfamiliar to the impossible. We lose something significant in becoming adults. True it might be that it seems that we have to let go of a kind of naïveté in order to survive in the world, but most of the time this results in us seeing our childhood as a primitive phase of childishness and immaturity, something we have to distance ourselves from as much as possible in order to become “responsible adults.” Now, there is reality, or the “real world,” which ironically only maintains its “realness” when being constantly juxtaposed against the unreality of a magical, false, unreal world. We are constantly on-guard against deception and deceitfulness, especially the self-deception we find in ourselves. Trust in the play and delight of exploration and discovery for its own sake becomes distrust of a world that consistently seeks to hurt us. This is eminently understandable of course–nearly all of us have been hurt and broken in some fashion by this world.
I often look at my own children and fearfully think of the ways in which they will be hurt by the real world of the possible and the impossible. Already I see signs of the inevitable passage in my older children from the easy wonder of a world in which anything at all can become part of the familiarity of their own stories to the world of measured actuality and skeptical impossibility. I like to think that because I am somewhat aware of this I can preserve, in some form and in some small measure the significance in their own lives of the pure delight of doing and thinking for their own sake, the feeling and confidence of not embracing the default setting of distrust of the wider world, but of trusting the world to come to them in its naked chaotic complexity and finding something redeeming in it, thereby enabling them to redeem a portion of it for themselves. In other words, not to blindly embrace anything come what may, including hazards that would harm or destroy them, but to orient themselves to the world in a particular fashion, to return again and again to the feeling of familiarity/unfamiliarity of their child-world.
I think one reason why Jesus said that we must become as little children (reinforced in Mormon scriptures which assert that little children who die inherit the celestial kingdom) is because little children exist in a natural state of not resisting grace. They take the world as it comes, in a trusting, loving, and for-its-own-sake manner. The world is unbounded shades of familiarity and unfamiliarity, not possibility or impossibility, real and unreal. When we become adults we begin resisting grace, and there lies our sin, refusing to accept the infinite gifts of the God with whom “nothing is impossible.” To become as a child is to return, gradually, maybe even at first imperceptibly, to a state of ceasing to resist grace, ceasing our battle to escape the world and embracing it in a loving, resolute, but knowledgeable fashion, in a manner that is similar to God’s own love for the world.