…become like little children…

Posted by on May 23, 2012 in Otherhood | No Comments
…become like little children…

I’m always on the look out for secular and artful pieces of contemplative wisdom. Here’s one (which I stumbled upon here), from a young adult novel called Looking For Alaska.

When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.

—John Green

This is good stuff, for any age, even if I don’t think it’s completely true. Reminds me of Thoreau, in “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”:

By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit every where, which still is built on purely illusory foundations. Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily, but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is, by failure.

The problem is, the kind of of invincibility Green is talk about is not the invincibility-complex that teenagers are generally accused of. Theirs is one at the height of illusory egoic, permanent, separateness—not some emergent unity. The true law that Thoreau ascribes to children, is a romanticized image of childhood.

Ken Wilber calls this the pre-trans fallacy, which Thomas Armstrong describes well here:

[Wilber’s] reasoning was that children haven’t yet developed ego structures and thus could not have transpersonal experiences (e.g. you can’t transscend the ego until you have one first). He called the tendency of people to imbue childhood with mystical overtones “The Pre/Trans Fallacy.” The child’s experience of lack of boundaries, oneness, and other seemingly mystical events, were in Wilber’s opinion “pre-personal” experiences (previous to having developed ego structures), and were very different from “transpersonal” experiences undergone by those who had developed an ego and who had then begun to transcend it. On its face, this is pretty good reasoning.

Of course, Armstrong goes on to say that Wilber is wrong, that child spirituality is a very real thing, at least in Western and Eastern conceptions of spirituality; we do lose something when we leave childhood, Armstrong would agree with Green and Thoreau:

The problem is that it doesn’t hold up in the face of the great traditions of humanity… You can look at virtually every major religious and spiritual tradition in the world and there will be some reference to childhood spirituality. In Christianity, we have Jesus’s words from Matthew 18:3 (“unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”). In kabbalistic Judaism, children were sometimes asked to stare into a mirror and prophecize. In Islam, children conferred baraka (“blessings”) on those they came into contact with. The Chinese sage Mencius said “great is he who does not lose his child’s heart”. In shamanic cultures, children’s words and behaviors are listened to very careful by a shaman, especially if they warn of danger. In Hindu and Buddhist cultures, a young child’s report of having lived in a past reincarnation is taken very seriously. It seems that only in the materialistic west, with its basis in rational science, is there the belief that the child is somehow “less than” what comes later in development. Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, and others have based their western developmental theories on this rational science, with no validity at all given to eastern mystical beliefs. Wilber’s model is flawed in not recognizing this. He seems to be satisfied with the idea that western rational scientific developmental models are all you need to map out the development of the human being from prebirth through adolescence.

Now it seems foolish to think we should give credence to the inherent spirituality of the child’s experience just because it pops up here and there in every religious tradition. These are metaphors. Jesus could have been more literal: Become like little children, but only in certain ways—wonder, bliss, openness, innocence, vulnerability (which don’t really have to do with the core of what it means to be a human at an early stage of development, and which are more likely our projections).

So I guess for now I’m closer to Wilber’s camp/clique on this one. But I’m open to being convinced otherwise, especially by kids themselves (which may well happen in the next 3-5 years, with some of the conversations my wife and I have been having lately… unfortunately probably not in time for our Art Monastic Cycle themes of “Prime: (Re)Birth” or “Terce: Initiation”).


Life, as I said, is messy. It is also miraculous. It makes sense to view the child’s development as a mixture of Piaget and Wordsworth, of Freud and Jung, of Kohlberg and Hazrat Inayat Khan (the Sufi mystic who wrote a great deal about the vibrant souls in infancy and childhood), of Erik Erikson and Rudolf Steiner. Children simultaneously grow up from the body and down from the spirit.

As a bonus, more good stuff from Thoreau:

Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages, and we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us. The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then. The poet or the artist never yet had so fair and noble a design but some of his posterity at least could accomplish it.

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