The Meaning of Childhood

August, 2012

Has anyone ever told you that you were behaving like a child? Usually they don’t mean it as a good thing, or a compliment. It’s usually an accusation: you’re being immature, not acting your age, not being responsible, etc. I’ve been wondering recently, however, whether such accusers aren’t wrong: whether, perhaps, all of us really are children, in the end… and maybe this isn’t a bad thing.

Before you think I’m crazy, I will tell you how this first occurred to me. I was in southern Indiana for a friend’s wedding, and after a delightful weekend, was preparing to return home. I was driving my car, and taking with me another friend and her one month old little boy, all the seven long hours back to Ohio. Her husband, and 18 month old were following us with another couple, since my little Scion (which has been called tiny) was entirely unequal to accommodating two car seats and three adults plus luggage. As it is, we were packing up my car to the brim, with diaper bags, pack and plays, our hanging dresses from the wedding, pillows, coolers with food, and every other odd and end you could think of. Little Leo, the 18 month old was sitting placidly in a bright red wagon he insisted on calling a tractor, and for a full ten seconds, watched us carrying loads back and forth from the house to the car. The wagon had been a favorite distraction the day before, and he had received several hours’ worth of entertainment being pulled around outside during the wedding. Now, therefore, he began to repeatedly call out “Ride, ride,” to each of us on every trip back and forth. The poor little thing became quite distressed, and could not in any way understand why Mom and Dad and I all insisted on saying that we couldn’t give him a ride right now, in our hurry to pack up and leave. It was beyond his comprehension what we were all so busy about, or why this time was any different than the day before when he had successfully spent hours in the wagon.

Before long, my car was on its way, the other to follow us quickly. Little Daniel in the back seat had been a real trooper on the long drive there, and I was hoping more for his sake than for mine or his mothers’ that the ride back would be easy and smooth. That was a long time to be in a car seat for one so new to this world, and still trying to be comfortable in such cozy places as someone’s arms, let alone this strange contraption that we strap them into. Some way into our trip, little Daniel woke up from his sleep, and began to scream. He was hungry, and I knew we would need to stop for his mom to feed him, and I began to look anxiously for an exit. I saw the sign approaching: 5 miles. And poor Daniel was working himself up into a very vigorous scream: the new, infant, breathless wail that is so heart-wrenching to hear. We soothed and rocked his seat, and spoke softly, and sang, and reassured, but to no avail. It suddenly struck me as so bitterly hard and sad that Daniel had no way of knowing we would be off the exit and parked in a matter of two minutes, and relief was right around the corner.

We pulled off, and I filled up on gas and found us some snacks while my friend nursed the baby. When we were back on the road, a once more contented baby in the back seat, I couldn’t get the situation of little Daniel out of my head. At once it reminded me of Leo in his wagon. Like Daniel, his whole perspective, his whole world was so much smaller than ours. All he knew was that he really wanted a ride, and all of us were ignoring him, running back and forth doing seemingly nothing. He didn’t know how much all of us would have loved to give him a ride, or that the only reason we couldn’t pull him around was that we needed to be home by a certain time. Similarly, I couldn’t ignore how terrible and ironic it felt, to know how close we were to the exit; to know that in a few moments, Daniel would be in his mother’s arms; to know that no matter how much we hated to hear him scream, there was nothing we could do to get to the exit any faster; and, at the same time, to know that he had no way of knowing any of that, and only knew the misery he was engulfed in to be essentially and potentially never ending.

Suddenly, I realized, how much like infants all of us are: and how much in the position of a father our God really is. How often are we like the screaming infant, hungry, uncomfortable, seeing no way out, and no end, or like little Leo, with no care in the world and no way of understanding why he couldn’t have an innocent ride in a wagon; no way of knowing what lies around the corner, no knowledge of the bigger, all engulfing, many-faceted picture that makes up the view that the Father has, when He sees our lives, always in the bigger context of all of time and eternity, unfolding around us. No matter how much he might want to in a given moment, there are also times when our Father sees why He cannot immediately alleviate our suffering: when we are screaming in the back seat, our Father is driving steadfastly on to the next exit, soothing, singing, comforting, reassuring, moving us onward to satisfy our needs as soon as they can be satisfied.

It doesn’t often feel like that. I’ve had a lot of moments in my life when I’ve felt like little Daniel, screaming helplessly, strapped in a seat I can’t get out of, with no one listening, and no relief. But it’s in these moments that I fail to see the Father in the front seat taking the car to the exit: or cannot fathom how strongly He desires to calm and comfort all of my fears.

Christ said in the Gospel, “Unless you become like this child, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s something we are familiar with, and something we can become so accustomed to, it’s easy to forget what it actually means. As I drove into the rolling Ohio landscape, I couldn’t help thinking that we can spend so much time focusing on striving to be humble, and trusting, and receptive, simple and loving, like children, and in the process forget that we are, in our very condition as creatures, always already children in our relationship to God. In another sense, we can’t but be children. In some ways, I feel that we spend our whole life attempting to act mature, to be grown up, self-sufficient, never in need, totally in control and independent. We spend our whole lives attempting to escape the state of childhood, only to find that what it essentially means to be human is to be a child: and the manner in which we always stand before our God, is as children to a Father.

Our task, therefore, may indeed be to strive to become more like children, more like the little Daniel: but I think, even more fundamentally, this consists in an accepting of an already firmly established and inescapable reality: that we are children. That we don’t have all the answers, that we have a very limited scope of vision, that our whole worlds, all that makes up our realities are,  in comparison to the Father’s, confined and one dimensional to His three dimensions: as foggy and stifling as Daniel’s from the car seat, or Leo’s from the wagon. And somehow, I think, the sooner we realize and accept this reality, the more peace we will have with this authentic reality of ourselves, and the more confidence we can have in a loving God Who is a thousand times more in control, more capable, and more good willing than any adult parent in our own world.

Every time I feel lost and alone, I will think of little Daniel, and, what’s more, I will think of myself behind the wheel that day: and I will take hope from the fact that I can rely on a God who hates to hear me cry a thousand times more than I hated to hear Daniel, and Who can get me to that exit a thousand times more efficiently than I could for Daniel,  and Who knows, in comparison to those five minutes of agony, how much relief is coming so quickly a thousand times better even than I knew it for Daniel. Because we have no human Father, but a Father in Heaven: the one who holds the whole world in his hands.

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2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Childhood

  1. I’m excited that you have found a way to share the fruits of your contemplation!

    This is a wonderful image you have given us for contemplating God’s providence (for obviously He “sees” much farther than we ever could and provides for us) and His Fatherhood.

    Though this wonderful image and truth wouldn’t make the accuser in the above scenario wrong because childhood is not good in every way. Despite Christ’s admonition to become like children, no one, as far I know, thinks we should cry if we don’t get our way or hit our brother if he is doing something we don’t want him to (among thousands of other examples one could give). But children do these things. Moreover then maturity doesn’t have to be equated being self-sufficient or in total control though certainly sometimes people do think this, (maybe often!), and it needs to be guarded against – (which is why this essay is so helpful!). Putting these things together maybe we could say that we need to become more mature children. Being a child then as you rightly say is to trust in the Father’s love (even if we can’t see how it works): “I don’t see why/how this is happening, but it is and God will take care of me.” That in itself is far beyond what young children do as your description attests to.

    All this is to say then the accuser could be right asking someone to stop acting like a child – often we use the term “childish” to denote it in a bad sense – even if in fact that the goal isn’t to cease being children but to be a mature (think: virtues) child, ever trusting in God’s plan for your life. To be fair to the accuser then you would want the same thing – for a person to be more mature, more responsible, etc. and to stop acting like a child (according to the bad aspects).

    Jackie reminded me that Fr. Jacque Phillipe made the same distinction with St. Therese, namely, between a kind of childishness/immaturity vs. child-like/maturity (The Way of Trust and Love, 38ff). He tells the story about how St. Therese had to deny herself “a few drops of joy” by not giving into the constant temptations to be with her mother superior (Therese being so used to a warm, loving family). He comments: “[The Little Flower] realized that seeking human consolation in the company of Mother Marie de Gonazgue was a trap that would have kept her immature and dependent” – and we can hasten to add – dependent on the wrong person, since this child-like dependence (and not a childish dependence) is a dependence ultimately on God – even though of course we receive good things through others.

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    1. Thank you, Matt. Of course: to say that we are, or should be more like children requires the qualifications you describe. This short thought far from exhausts what would have to be said on this. 🙂 It’s only a short beginning.

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