From the Unfamiliar to the Impossible: Some Thoughts about Children and Grace

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.

Comments

  1. Very nice, Jacob.

    As a follow-up question, how would you differentiate between the “childish things” that Paul puts away?

  2. This reminds me deliciously of G. K Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy:

    “The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. . . .
    Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. . . .
    We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. . . .
    These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. . . .
    We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

  3. Love it.

  4. Beautifully written as always Jacob.

    I just think though since we see it on such a grand scale it *appears* to be that this is the way of human nature. How then would it be possible to either preserve this state, or return to it, without retarding function in some capacity? I think skepticism as hard as it may sometimes be is the result of having learned from mistakes and grown. I don’t recall feelings of childlike wonder and glee in my own life but I think even if I did I might appreciate them, but also be glad for the refiner’s fire that has gotten me to where I am today. That some of my biggest mistakes (HUGE ONES) will never again be repeated because I have sufficiently learned from them and recognize the signs going forward.

  5. Lovely. And very, very true.

  6. Beautiful and profound, Jacob. Thank you.

  7. This is an interesting idea, but something I don’t really understand at all. I have four children and I am not trying to preserve what you are describing at all. I watching my children develop but I don’t bask in their “Trust in the play and delight of exploration and discovery for its own sake.” Perhaps it is a function of my own personality, since I don’t recall delighting in exploration and discovery in my own childhood. What you describe as “the easy wonder of a world in which anything at all can become part of the familiarity of their own stories” I view as anxiety producing feelings of confusion and disorientation and not understanding the unknown. There are those who thrive with new experiences and those who don’t and would much rather someone teach them beforehand what to expect and what is expected and why things will happen as they do.
    As for grace I didn’t really understand it as a child. I do now and I appreciate it and don’t feel a resistance to it.
    I am glad to read this to try to understand how others view things.

  8. Snyderman says:

    EOR, I wonder if you might be willing to give an example? Just because I’m not sure I’m fully understanding you. Couldn’t the refiner’s fire be part of the world we’re approaching in a “trusting, loving, and for-its-own-sake manner?” If we approach the refiner’s fire in that manner, we’ll end up in a place you seem to describe in your comment.

  9. This is interesting (and beautiful) to me, as I’m actively trying to demystify the world for my daughter and at the same time teach her how she can build the world of her choosing IRL. I think you capture it with this line:

    “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.”

    I’d respond that If there was ever a time to teach children to disregard the impossible and engage in pure exploration, it’s now. A team of humans just put a car on a boat and sailed it to Mars. That it wasn’t done by magic but by human brains is the most magical thing I can think of, and passing that wonder on to my children is a bigger deal to me than preserving a lack of distinction between real and fantastical.

  10. One of my daughters wrote the following poem during her junior year in high school. I think it says much of what you say in this post, Jacob:

    “Imagine If” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2012/03/imagine-if-what-if-point-is-asking-not.html)

  11. This is true, when I was a child I acted as a child, and I loved that child like world… but then I “grew up” and became cold to many of the things that I love… but then I had children, and what a blessing they are for guiding us back to pooh corner where we can meet our old friends again and find out that what we enjoyed then we can enjoy again now, only more vividly through the eyes of our children.

  12. Something confortable and familiar about these thoughts. I’ve always loved the world of play and exploration you describe. That is my country. As Gilda Trillim says, “There is more truth in fairytales than can be squeezed from any scientific treatise.” She always affirmed the impossible and denied the possible.

  13. I love this.

  14. Robert, that’s a good question and I’m not sure I have a good answer. In context, Paul is speaking about the difficulty in the Corinthian community in which there was contention over the hierarchizing of spiritual gifts. His invocation of charity as that which diffuses the wrangling over which gifts are most important might imply something about the distinction between adults and children. Charity is “not” all the things with which sinners struggle–envy, unkindness, unseemliness, etc. Paul is perhaps saying that when he put away “childish” things and became a sinful man, THAT’s when he began to see through a glass darkly and only in part. Are we justified in thinking that Paul is denigrating childhood or not interested in distinguishing between child-like and childishness? Now we are in darkness but it is the darkness of sin, after leaving “childishness” behind that makes us only see in part, and in the future we will see in full, but a future in which the child is restored to us and we possess the pure love of Christ. Maybe…..

  15. Sarah, yes, excellent connection there with Chesterton.

  16. The best scientists are those who retain their sense of wonder. I believe I lost that the moment understanding became less important than “schooling.”

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