Childhood

Prefacing his analysis of Wes Anderson’s films in The New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon writes:

The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”

There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.

Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.

The opening paragraph struck me as great. But then I remembered acclaimed children’s writer Maurice Sendak’s completely opposite take on childhood:

My friend lost his wife recently, and right at the funeral his little girl said, “Why don’t you marry Miss So-and-so?” He lookeat her as if she were a witch! …But she was just being a real kid, with desperate day-to-day needs that had to be met no matter what.

People say, “Oh, Mr. Sendak. I wish I were in touch with my childhood self, like you!”

As if it were all quaint and succulent, like Peter Pan.

Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth! I say, “You are in touch lady–you’re mean to your kids, you treat your husband like shit, you lie, you’re selfish… That is your childhood self!”

In reality, childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious, and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things…But I knew I mustn’t let adults know what I knew…

It would scare them.

See the fantastic 1993 New Yorker comic strip this comes from here.

Maybe we shouldn’t talk about “childhood” in essentialistic terms anymore than we should talk about “womanhood” or “manhood” that way. Despite the charming appeal of Chabon’s and Sendak’s mythologies and exaggerations, not all children have the similar enough childhoods at all for tidy narratives of “Childhood” to be terribly helpful.

Your Thoughts?

For the curious, I discussed my own childhood in these posts:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

My Experiences of Bullying, Growing up as a Weakling and a Physical Coward

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira

    These are, indeed, two deeply interesting quotes on childhood and maturation. I can see the justice of both observations. There is a sense in which, as a child, I was unaware of the brokenness of the world and also I was capable of astonishing degrees of selfishness and (strangely innocent) cruelty.

    I think this may go along with the process of creating a self from the inner resources, cultural choices and observations of the personalities of those around us. That is childhood’s task, after all.

    Now, as a mature person and a Buddhist, I am engaged in very deliberately disassembling this constructed self. Isn’t that strange — to take ten or twenty years making something, and then perhaps the same amount of time to take it apart? It seems very wasteful of time and effort.

    And yet I’m not sure there is another way. Without a functioning self, could we understand the needs of other people? (That is, in scientific terms, can theory of mind be developed without falling for our own desires and wishes?) Without a sense of the harm our own desires can do, and an awareness of the justice of other people’s needs, would there be any reason to step onto the Path?

    It occurs to me that I could ask the bhantes (the ordained monks from Sri Lanka) who lead my temple about what it is like for child monks. Perhaps I will do that.

    Thanks for giving me some very interesting things to think about!

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira

    will erase in a minute…

  • Charlesbartley

    I have always been struck by Orson Scott Card’s portrayal of children. I see myself in the kids in Battle School (Ender’s Game). I think he does the best portrayal of ‘wicked smart but ignorant (and self-conscious of that ignorance)” of anyone that I have read. I fund many of his views repugnant, but he got that aspect of my childhood.

    My evolving theory of people is that for any given trait there is a multi-dimensional scatter graph with a broad distribution with some high-density clusters and some lonely outliers. I don’t think you can apply ‘normal’ to people (only to washers and driers). Real people have some traits in common with lots of others and some other traits that are really rare. In leaving fundamentalist Christianity of of my greatest joys is leaving a system that forces rigid labels/roles/paths for often times bad reasons. Now I can find the paths that work best for me. The kink community talks about this. ‘Your kink is not for me, but that doesn’t mean I think there is anything wrong with it.”

    I can’t think of a single actual binary aspect to people. Every trait, everything aspect is complex… And that is so damn cool!

  • smrnda

    The most distinctive thing I remember about my own childhood was that I realized adults were pretty fallible early on, so the idea that the ‘brokenness’ of the world is some kind of shocking discovery is a type of childhood I didn’t have, but perhaps that’s why Chabon responds to the feelings of nostalgia that you see in Wes Anderson’s movies.

    I don’t think ‘childhood’ is now or has ever been a uniform experience; across times, cultures, regions and class childhood isn’t the same thing for everyone. Perhaps the feeling that childhood is a universal experience comes from the fact that, as children, we don’t have the ability to realize that other people’s lives are that different from our own.

  • BubbaRich

    You didn’t really want my thoughts? I posted a thoughtful agreement here Tuesday, but you never approved it. You should be more specific about whose thoughts you want.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      No, apparently your comment just never went through. I didn’t trash it (I almost never trash anyone’s comments) and it’s not in the spam.


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