The Immortal Joys of Rediscovered Childhood by Heidi Riebau

The Immortal Joys of Rediscovered Childhood by Heidi Riebau

I had this notion when I was little that adults were boring and uninteresting. They never seemed to have any fun. In fact, they always seemed to take fun away. Bedtime is at 9:00. No splurging in the candy aisle. Shoes must be worn outdoors. “Inside voices” are to be used indoors. 

As a child I couldn’t stand it. I resolved that, no matter how old I became, I would never be a boring adult. The night would always be young, the candy aisles always welcome, the shoes always optional, and the standard of “inside voices” always interpretive. 

At the time it was a desire to maintain a certain zest for life. “Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal,” writes Longfellow. But over the years, as I’ve inevitably grown older—an age beyond that which I once thought I would achieve, for young children struggle to clearly perceive the reality of a distant future—it’s become increasingly apparent that there exists a fine line between “childlike” and “childish.” What does it mean to be mature? What makes a person mature or immature? Surely not age alone, for we frequently encounter mature children and immature adults. Is “mature” synonymous with “boring,” in the vocabulary of a six-year-old? Is the term merely relative? How can that unknown meaning, whatever it is, apply to me individually?  

I struggled with this abstract concept of maturity until I suddenly came to a realization one night: I just want to enjoy life. 

It sounds hedonistic, out in the open, in plain words like that. And perhaps it is, at a deeper root. But allow my explanation to provide necessary nuance. 

Children seem to get the most out of life. They don’t often realize it until they cease being children and learn that poignant pain we term “nostalgia.” I have such vivid memories of my early years, accompanied by that strong sensation that simultaneously blesses and tortures my recollections. I very much loved being a child, and sought to preserve the wonder and excitement of childhood. In the words of Chesterton, in The Poet and the Lunatics, tigers were never cats. Cats were tigers. In other words, a child’s imagination is no home for reductionism. It possesses instead that superb quality of clearly grasping reality’s essence by expanding upon what exists rather than by seeking to diminish it to a “less-than” status. Seeing a cat as a miniature tiger imbued it with depth and intrigue; it made it more real.

I sought as best I could to preserve that enthusiastic, vibrant way children experience life. But as it turns out, childish behavior only makes one come across as childish, and is hardly suitable for adult conversations or serious matters. Behaving like a child only made me seem as though my thoughts were childish thoughts instead of the introspective musings they often were. 

But three years ago I began to realize something deeper. What makes childhood so interesting isn’t its accompanying “immaturity.” Rather it is something easily confused with immaturity, since they both coincide with young age. 

I don’t miss immaturity. I miss innocence. I miss the pure, fresh-eyed approach to life. We lose that as we age, I think, because we become accustomed to or even bored by life. Acquiring a lollipop is no longer exciting because lollipops are so commonplace. We’ve experienced better than lollipops. We know lollipops only last a few minutes anyways, and we are capable of procuring another with the godlike autonomy of adulthood. We don’t care as much about a lollipop as a child does, which is why we don’t burst into tears if we drop one or squeal with delight if we’re offered one. A sure sign of maturity, right? I’m glad I don’t “cry over spilled milk” every time something less-than-convenient happens to me. Yet still I am determined to enjoy life, to appreciate the small things that come my way. 

Buddhism teaches that lasting peace is found through introspection and meditation. Hmm. A rather self-dependent theory, if ever there were one. According to the Stoics, we must unemotionally accept whatever cold Fate throws at us, and only then will we achieve a state of contentment. If only God had created us as emotional beings… oh, wait. I am not Buddhist, nor am I Stoic; I am Christian. I am Lutheran. More than those other philosophical notions I am inclined to find Aristotle’s natural, ever-elusive “happy medium.”  

Perhaps I won’t squeal when I’m offered candy (although I would hope to grin sincerely. Candy is fun!). But were I to drop it, I would laugh at my clumsiness or shrug it off (the kind of maturity that children take too long to learn). That, I think, it the happy medium: to find “innocent” joy in everything, even the smallest of things, without dismissing them as unimportant—to enjoy the swishing sensation of a swing, or the cool sweetness of ice cream, or the energetic freedom of blowing a beautiful stream of bubbles on a hazy summer afternoon—and yet to greet the years with a thoughtful, informed perspective, distinguishing the relatively trivial pleasures of life from the things that truly matter. People matter. Life matters. Truth, goodness, and beauty matter. We must learn to delight in that which deserves it.

This lesson is what I’d been searching for all those years. It seems so common-sensical, and yet also, in a way, profound. Perhaps it takes some people their whole life to learn this lesson. Or perhaps others grasp it instantly. But to me, it is one of the secrets to the good life: know what truly matters, uphold good, flee from evil, and then… enjoy the ride. We are blessed beyond comparison. 

As C.S. Lewis so aptly puts it in The Weight of Glory:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

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