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The other day a random child was walking ahead of two women as I ran past, and he had the idea to race me.
That was a problem.
No, I’m not one of those grouches who doesn’t like kids. (Okay, maybe a little, but I usually don’t mind them for the first fifteen minutes or so.) At any rate, this was different.
You see, this was a white kid. So picture me, a black man (never mind that I’m considered “fair” in Nigeria) running, and this white kid running ahead of me, and behind us both, the two adults, at least one of whom was surely a parent.
The kid didn’t understand the social complexity of what was going on, of course, and shrieked with delight as he ran, enjoying what to him was nothing more than a fun race with an interested (and therefore, interesting?) adult. I laughed with him, enjoying the moment, but also slowing down a bit, enough to ensure a few more metres’ gap between us, so that I got slightly closer to the adults than to the child. Soon enough, they called him back — and to be fair, he was running too far ahead.,
But just as sure enough the voice in my head whispered all the same: “How do you know it wasn’t for fear of you?”
The answer, of course, is there was absolutely no way to know for sure.
Those few minutes were a powerful (and yes, anxiety-filled) reminder of how children get to enjoy life without worrying about the complexities adults often feel required to navigate.
In fact, maybe that’s one way to think of what it means to have childlike innocence: being blissfully unaware of the complexities of human relationships and natural randomness. So when we say a child has lost their innocence, we mean, then, that they have, tragically, lost that blissful ignorance, and have gained knowledge that one would have hoped they would be older (and perhaps more mature) before having thrust on them.
Yet being a mature adult means coming to terms with these complexities, doesn’t it? We would not think very highly of an adult who remained in the ignorance of a child: what we considered innocence would at that point be considered woeful naïveté.
And yet, from time to time we meet adults who, while clearly aware of the complexities of humanity and nature, are somehow able to approach life with a simplicity still, who see the complexities and yet are not overwhelmed by them — who seem able to cut through them to what matters, and do so far too frequently to be explained by mere luck.
I think of people like these as childlike: they possess the knowledge and maturity that a child lacks, and yet retain the ability to transcend that knowledge. And I really do take very seriously the idea in Christianity that there is potentially infinite value in being childlike.
I said earlier that there was absolutely no way to know for sure if those women were not responding to my race. Racial self-awareness, like every other form of self-awareness, is something that once we see it, we can’t unsee. But it’s taken me a while to come to terms with the fact that in such situations, being aware of the worst possible explanation does not require me to assume it.
That is, I think, the difference between being childish and being childlike: being ignorant of the worst possible explanation versus being aware of it but choosing to believe the best possible.
Ignoring, but not ignorant.
It’s far more difficult in practice than that sounds, of course. But that’s one reason I like being around children: while we are aware of all that could go wrong, they remind us of how much more delightful life could be when we give our attention to all that is going right.
They remind us to be in the moment.
As we head into the Christmas holidays, this is a good time to think about how we could live more in the moment, how we could, every now and then, put the complexities aside and ignore them for a bit, and just race a child for no other reason than that it’s fun, no matter what his parents think.
And as we take stock of the year that has been 2019, it’s also a good time to think about the best light we could look at the things we don’t know for sure, and while we are all too aware of the worst possibilites, choose to believe the best.
Where do you think you can apply this? Reply and let me know!