My wife and I have twins, just over a year old now. They nap a lot, but when they’re awake, they’re really awake to the world in ways that make me wonder if I’m not partially asleep most of the time. Without thinking I flick the switch to turn their bedroom lights on every morning, but it took my daughter’s squeal of delight as she hit the switch for the first time to make me see the bizarre magic of this morning ritual. A flick of the switch here and light there: presto. But even my momentary, "Huh, interesting" was superceded by my daughter’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to flick the lights on-off-on-off. Light-Dark-Light-Dark. Over and over, dozens of times, each time bringing a new smile at the joy of this small miracle.
But it’s not just lights. Breaking the seemingly solid rod of water as it flows from the tap, following the trick of shadows as they race across our yard, watching the heroics of squirrels as they leap from the poplars; although they can’t articulate it, I think my children know this world for the playground it is better than I do on my best days.
It reminded me of Chesterton’s idea that an ageless God is just as easily the playful child as he is the wise old man: as worlds continue to turn and turn, God laughingly demands: "Again, again, again." If it’s not too unholy of a suggestion, perhaps God’s Genesis declaration, "It is good" is more the squeal of delight than it is the cold, stoic pronouncement I often hear read.
But we don’t keep this up—we can’t, can we? Why is it so easy to become blasé? Why do we, over time, become impenetrable to the weight of glory that seeks at every moment to penetrate that thick shell we have built around ourselves? In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book of stunning riches, Annie Dillard writes:
An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startling set down, if we can’t learn why.
I think Dillard’s right; it’s easy to be the false, cocksure squatters, it’s much harder to be vulnerably curious children. But why? If a child’s delight is really a product of ignorance, shouldn’t this be easy? They’re taken aback by a dog’s bark or the inexplicable fact that they possess a bellybutton: they know almost nothing about themselves, the world, and their place in it. Such a state of being should be easy to recover.
Maybe the best way forward, then, is to learn nothing: remain ignorant and the world remains a mystery. Simple. There’s an anecdote (and I’ve forgotten where I read it, so bear with the summary) of a student who asked Martin Luther if, as all the wise men proclaim, the end of all knowledge is only to realize one’s ignorance, what’s the point of learning?
In a way, it’s a good question, but I have a hunch that the ignorance which ignites curiosity and sets us off a'wandering, is not the same as the "ignorance" we find after all our searching. Perhaps we need a new word, or perhaps it’s simply the difference between true ignorance and true mystery. Maybe T.S. Eliot gave the best answer though, when he wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
Awaking to the wonder of where we are is not simply awaking to the miracle of the natural world as the romantics might have it; it’s also awaking to the miracle of the built world in which we find ourselves. It’s awaking to the mysterious fact that there are tortoises who have been around since Napoleon, and also temples since the Babylonian empire; there are trees older than Christ and systems of government older yet.
Just look around you. What is this place you’ve found yourself in? Who are the people you’ve found yourself surrounded by? What are the institutions—churches, schools, families, governments—you’ve been thrown into? In short: where exactly are you? It’s a rather odd set of questions, more odd the older we get, but probably questions my two children wordlessly ponder every day.
At Cardus, there is a lot of talk about social architecture, a word which speaks to the built-ness of the places we find ourselves. As a think tank, most people who work at Cardus—and I mean the 'on-the-ground' researchers, not the 'head-in-the-clouds' editorial assistants/bloggers—know the work it takes to explore the chartered and uncharted territories of the places many of us inhabit.
But if all this exploratory research anesthetizes us to the fact that this world is more a playground than cubicle, maybe it’s time to wake up and see the world, again and again, with the insatiable eyes of a child.