I flip idly through the Christmas catalogue. A scarf draped languidly over a chair slides me a come-hither look: arty photography is now standard practice even for selling scarves. Undeterred by teeny-tiny print that renders the write-up well-nigh illegible, at least to my middle-aged eyes, I squint my way through the product description. Undismayed by marketing-ese that renders it well-nigh incomprehensible, I persevere to break the code. In plain language, this is a blue silk scarf imported from Turkey.
You’ll like it, Gram, he whispered, it’s blue. Not to be outdone, his younger sister interjects, It’s imported, while glancing over her shoulder for authority in the form of either parent, who, if they walked in now, would put an end to this frankly exciting conversation. In my mind’s eye I have travelled from my living room to my grandmother’s, from the present to 30-some years ago. As the story she told me plays again in my imagination, I travel further back, to my mid-1950s home.
In the final days before Christmas my older siblings, then about seven and five, couldn’t resist talking about the gift they’d bought for grandmother. Their excitement was bigger than they were; they had to say something. Knowing the rule (no talking) and understanding the reason for it (gifts were supposed to be a surprise), they had no excuse and they knew it: the surreptitious nature of the exchange proved that. The selective nature of their communication proved their capacity to rationalize: although outright telling might be offside, surely hints were another matter.
The co-conspirators managed to talk about their wondrous gift without giving it away. On Christmas morning, to their delight and hers, my grandmother unwrapped the just-barely-kept secret: a blue vase made in Hong Kong. Wondrous indeed, and beyond anything they could have imagined: the memory of this gift still warmed her, 20 years later.
It’s blue: my siblings could see that for themselves as they made their careful selection at the local Five and Dime. It’s imported: that concept must have been a gift to them from my parents. With this positioning, their choice was not some cheap vase from a place then notorious for low-cost and poor-quality goods. No, it was Exotic, Mysterious, Imported. That’s how they saw it and, after their whispered confidences, that’s how my grandmother saw it too.
Children approach Christmas with a wide-eyed wonder that we can hardly remember in ourselves; it’s tempting to believe that if we could, we should become as little children again. How grand to trade our tired plodding through schedules over-crowded with festive obligations for their barely contained enthusiasm; to give up swapping shopping lists with our nearest and dearest for the chance to whisper our deepest desires to Santa; to leave the reasonable gift on the shelf and instead wrap up something Blue and Imported for someone we love.
Wishful thinking needn’t stop with Christmas. Children live year-round in a world of wonders we take for granted: sparkly pebbles, fall leaves, weed bouquets. We have learned to distinguish dandelions from flowers, and both gained and lost something in the process. The world children see can be appealing.
By contrast, the world we see demands difficult-to-master critical thinking skills. Understanding that information spreads at internet speed, independent of its accuracy, we know that it is not trusting but foolish to accept at face value everything we hear or read. Seeing emergent bio-technologies offer options undreamed of a generation ago, we struggle to navigate the new ‘coulds’ using the old ‘shoulds’. Recognizing society’s diversity, we search for sensible ways to think about complex public policy trade-offs. Facing persistent social problems, we puzzle over root causes and agonize over whether scarce resources should be applied to relieve admittedly painful symptoms.
Before we opt for regression to save us from adulthood’s tiring demands, let’s take another look. Although children’s world view seems charming to our jaded perspectives, a limited knowledge of the world and how it works can be frightening rather than delightful. If children are wide-eyed, it is not always in wonder: they live with monsters under the bed. In addition to imaginary dangers, they live with the same real tragedies we do, but without our knowledge, capabilities and power. They get no free pass just because they lack the coping skills we take for granted.
Becoming entirely as little children, then, doesn’t look entirely attractive. What options do we have for becoming adults?
As we learn the world’s ways, we naturally throw out childhood’s bathwater: the good, the bad, the silly. Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny, monsters under the bed, the notion that chocolate milk comes from brown cows: all gradually disappear down the drain. As we grow up, we sometimes throw out the baby too: the ability to delight in simple things, to see the world as if for the first time, to believe in the wonders of each day’s possibilities. Does it have to be this way? Are the worldviews of children and adults mutually exclusive?
Enamoured of either-or thinking, what we need is both-and. A dandelion is both a weed and an amazing yellow flower; a pebble in the shoe both an irritant to be disposed of and an interesting piece of quartz; a small Hong Kong vase both an affordable purchase for two children and a gift of the Orient’s mystery and majesty. Sometimes, what we know changes how we look at things; sometimes how we look at things changes what we know. As Ralph Hodgson said, Some things have to be believed to be seen.
Starting this Christmas, perhaps we can adapt Niebuhr’s prayer to meet our need: Grant us discipline of mind so that we can become effective adults, receptivity to wonder so that we can remain wide-eyed children, and the wisdom to know when to be which.