Most people who are familiar with “classic” Chinese literature would say that the great novel of the genre is Tsao Hsueh-chin and Kao Ngo’s Dream of Red Mansions. At the end of the novel, the central character Pao Yu, after the eventful course he has taken, makes the following statement:
“So you talk about ‘moral character and a firm foundation’ and the ‘sages of old.’ Don’t you know that one ancient sage taught that we ‘should not lose the heart of a child?’ What’s special about a child? Simply this: it has no knowledge, no judgement, no greed and no taboos. From our birth we sink into the quagmire of greed, anger, infatuation and love; and how can we escape from earthly entanglements? I’ve only just realised that moral men are like water weeds drifting together and then apart again. Thought the ancients spoke of this, no one seems to have awakened to the fact. If you want to talk abut character and foundation, tell me who has achieved the supreme primeval state?” (Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang.)
The whole issue of growing up is, in some ways, the central issue of human life between birth and death. One can define the character of a society by showing how they deal with this issue. Earlier cultures have what we call “rites of passage,” where a child goes through some kind of ceremony to signify that he or she has become an adult. The best known of these in the U.S. are probably Jewish bar- and bat-mitzvahs, but there are others. Unfortunately, things are not as clean cut as one would like. Let’s start by considering the two extremes.
The first is to eliminate childhood altogether and go directly to adulthood. This happens in a number of ways. The most common is through economic deprivation. There’s no time to be a child; the family needs whatever income the child can generate to survive. Many people live on the earth today with that state either a past memory–which creates a void in the heart–or have to deal with as their daily life. Elevated income, however, is no guarantee that childhood will be preserved for any length of time. Many children of prosperous parents (or those who have ready access to ample credit) throw their children into an activity-crammed rat race so that their children will become compulsive achievers, leaving no time for the play and social interaction that is in reality a natural preparation for adulthood. Beyond that there are those who become adults in the cruelest way, through sexual abuse and molestation.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who attempt to make life one earth a childhood experience from start to finish. They attempt to remove from life the normal responsibilities of getting along in the world and make the whole experience a non-stop ideal where the downside risk of irresponsibility is eliminated. The highest expression of this are the “nanny states” we see in Europe, where the “cradle to grave” welfare state become the de facto parent for the entire nation (and soon continent.) Matters are further complicated by our educational system. Formal education is now held the key to success in adult life, and for those who pursue a good deal of it they can find themselves still “children” well into their late twenties. Formal education keeps people in childhood during the years when biologically they are best suited for marriage and parenthood. People’s innate desire for adulthood is stymied by our system’s insistence on keeping them back, even in a world where the whole concept of completing our education then having a a career is becoming obsolete.
The result in the West is that we have reversed the whole process. We start children out by pushing them into activities that require adult-like performance-based outcomes, then when they’ve finished that process we stymie their adult impulses through our risk-averse legal system and decrease their willingness to take that risk through our welfare system (and that includes our middle-class entitlements as well.) What we end up with is confusion, which we have in abundance these days.
So let’s get back to our friend Pao-Yu. He starts out by painting a rather idealised picture of childhood, one which most of us share in theory if not in reality. Then he contrasts that with adulthood, with all of its struggles and difficulties. Then he asks the question: why can’t adulthood be like childhood? Why do we have to make it so difficult?
The answer to that is that, in the U.S. at least, we’ve tried. Our attempts to shield people from the consequences of their adult decisions, however, have plenty of backwash. Let’s consider the matter of our divorce rate. People go into marriage with unrealistic (child-like) expectations. When these expectations are not met, they break up. Behind them frequently is the wreckage of broken lives, both of those who married and the children they brought into the world. For the latter, childhood is severely damaged, which sets up the longing for an idyllic adulthood, which leads again to disaster and disappointment. And so the cycle continues.
So what is to be done? The answer requires us to take a new (for some of us at least) look at what Christianity is all about. Luke’s gospel records the following:
Some of the people were bringing even their babies to Jesus, for him to touch them; but, when the disciples saw it, they began to find fault with those who had brought them.
Jesus, however, called the little children to him. “Let the little children come to me,” he said, “and do not hinder them; for it is to the childlike that the Kingdom of God belongs. I tell you, unless a man receives the Kingdom of God like a child, he will not enter it at all.” (Luke 18:15-17)
Coming as a child…during his night meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus made a stronger statement than that:
“In truth I tell you,” exclaimed Jesus, “unless a man is reborn, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
“How can a man,” asked Nicodemus, “be born when he is old? Can he be born a second time?”
“In truth I tell you,” answered Jesus, “unless a man owes his birth to Water and Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. (John 3:3-5)
The whole business of being a “born-again Christian” has been hackneyed in the secular world since the days of Jimmy Carter. But it’s at the centre of the whole Christian experience. Pao-Yu sees that growing up can be a rough business. Jesus Christ responds that ultimately the problem of leaving childhood and growing up is one that is best fixed in eternity through eternal life: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that every one who believes in him may not be lost, but have Immortal Life.” (John 3:16) In the meanwhile things can be made better down here, doing things like loving our neighbour and turning away from a shame-honour careerist politics, personal and governmental. (Letting the atheists triumph would turn us from both of these improvements, by the way.)
Pao-yu’s dilemma can be solved. We can have the heart of a child, in this life and the life to come.