Childlike Maturity

I think an honest person has to admit that our current trajectory, as a species, is not sustainable, even if we disregard the conspiracy theories being sown by charlatans who make a living by keeping their audience scared. We’re destroying the planet, the economy, even simple society. I’m going to skip the blame game and offer some advice. This is going to sound really elementary but I think the hope of humanity is as simple as following our most basic, universal human ethics, most of which we learned in kindergarten. Things like: share the toys, include everyone in recess activities, walk away from a fight, etc. We need to refresh our memory of the Goofus and Gallant cartoon strip in Highlights magazine. Ironically, this is what childlike maturity looks like—playground morality.

The whole point of teaching morals to children is to show a path to maturation. Our problem is that we didn’t grow up. As we aged, we found out adulthood was a myth. Movies (rated for adults) modeled the opposite of what our parents taught us: rather than walk away from a fight they celebrated revenge; instead of inclusion they glorified ‘us versus them’; and instead of sharing toys, they taught us to look out for No. 1 at all costs—even “greed is good.”

There are clear strengths to being childlike: optimism, innocence, simplicity, hopefulness, etc. Children are not born racist, for example. And while life requires us to grow up, we should build on these traits, not undo them. Reality requires courage. If we grow up holding onto our childlike fearlessness, remain unprejudiced and hopeful while navigating reality, we stand a better chance of making choices from a place of connectedness with our neighbors. What we currently have is the opposite: insecure, immature leaders making myopic decisions from a place of fear, disconnectedness and greed, and seeking only to benefit themselves. This, of course, deeply offends those exploited and, because they too are immature, they seek revenge. Unskilled in problem resolution, we spiral downward in self-sabotage. They don’t understand what Wendell Berry elucidated: “Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”

We must learn—like children—to not take ourselves too seriously and to dance, if you will, within the dynamics of our shared existence, and—like grownups—learn to listen to those with whom we disagree. That is, of course, if we want to win this game.

Winning would mean creating a world that works for everyone. Lord of the Flies is a lesson in how it often fails, but I reject the assumption that that’s the only way humanity ever handles cohabitation. The experiment is not over. For overcomers, failure is not an end. We know what happens when people don’t believe something is possible: nothing. It’s those damn dreamers who come along and blow it. Roger Bannister, the Wright brothers, Edison, and those principals who turn hopeless schools around must have been surrounded with naysayers and cynics. These doers refused to let go of their dream. That’s pretty childlike. It’s pretty Disney.

So how does this differ from self-delusion? From lying to ourselves? To keep believing in something in the face of counterevidence can be a dangerous thing—especially in religious contexts. Unrelenting belief is a powerful tool that has the potential for great evil or great good, depending on who gets their hands on it. But the virtue (or lack thereof) of a person’s beliefs ultimately manifests in the actions those beliefs produce. This is what is meant by “a tree is known by its fruit.” If the action is evil (ie. flying a commercial jet full of people into a building full of people) then the beliefs that spawned that action are evil. The end doesn’t justify the means; it reveals it. Steven Weinberg was partially right when he said, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” (I would only redact it to clarify “bad religion,” or better yet, “bad doctrine” produces bad behavior. No religion or ideology is exempt from this potential. In fact, Weinberg’s argument is so overgeneralizing of religion that it too could ultimately produce some pretty bad behavior. I can think of a local example.)

It is undeniable that good beliefs (and thus good religion, good myths, good dreams, good ideals) can produce good behavior. We’re story-telling, goal-setting, ever-evolving people. We become what we behold. What we think about, we bring about—in both positive and negative ways. If the object of my worship is judgmental, I become judgmental. When Bannister fixed his sights on breaking the four-minute mile, that didn’t guarantee he would do it, but it created the possibility. Believing in the “impossible” can put a crack in an otherwise impenetrable dam that awakens hope and incites a riot of human creativity rushing into it. Thousands of people can run a mile in less than 4 minutes today. Some people hear “it can’t be done” and walk away; others rush in. Eventually, society follows these trailblazers.

It takes a special courage to challenge the status quo. Or does it? What if it’s as simple as seeing what is obviously the right thing to do and doing it—with a childlike naiveté and honesty? Perhaps this is why our heroes often don’t feel like they have done anything special. Not everyone can be an MLK, but everyone knows truth when they see it. We would do well to re-ground ourselves in basic kindergarten morality and childlike determination. If we look to the paradox of childlike maturity, we can create a world that works for everyone. It’s not that hard . . . when you believe.

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