Being a human is a really weird thing. But I don’t think we get that. After all, we are born into a family of humans, a culture of humans, and world filled with humans, all telling us stories about human life from humans’s perspective, so that we’re literally inundated with humanness. We are never able to step back and see, for example, how an ant may see us—which is to say, what our lives may look like from the outside. And that ignorance fascinates a few of us quote/unquote artists (named as such because we are more concerned with the thing itself that finding out how the thing may work, people who favor a pencil over a test tube) so that that fascination often drives us to make up stories about humans from an ant’s perspective (e.g., A Bug’s Life—which is actually from Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, a “fable” being another genre of art that’s trying to explain a part of life to us from animals’s perspective). And kids really love this stuff because they are wide-awake, un-touched by the ruinous force of adulthood in the 21st century. Adults though…well we’re a different story.
To get right at the core of this weirdness, I think we just have to ask the question Why, like kids do. Vicious Infinite Regress or not, the question of Why is what makes us more human because it allows us a further step back from the closed-minded, ego-centric view that comes with the American adult aphorism “crazy-busy.” To be crazy busy is to be on autopilot, serving the dictator called Time. And the only things that can serve a dictator and be happy are ants, and, I guess, robots.
The question of Why isn’t always about how the thing may work. I’m not asking you why your car accelerates down the road when you press the pedal and expecting you to break down the internal combustion engine. If I were, I’d go find a technical manual and learn how the system worked. What I want to know (and what all kids want to know) is how come it all ends up working? Sure the spark plug ignites gas in a mind-numbingly fast sequence and rotates the drive shaft and etc etc, but how come humans decided that would be a good idea and what do we now have to show for it? Were there other options at the time we decided on spark plugs? This is just an example.
What we want more than a scientific definition is meaning. Kids love to ask Why because they love meaning—they’re little meaning connoisseurs. They crave rich, juicy meaning to sink their teeth into. Some parents laugh at them (or worse–and infinitely more pathetic–scoff at them) because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to live life for the sheer joy of it. They have been ruined by the evil in the world which has destroyed fairy land. So much so that “growing up”–in their minds–has become synonymous with cynicism and disillusionment and, the ultimate bottom-line, pragmatism. To jump up and down when fresh cookies come out of the oven isn’t acceptable for adults, because we’ve learned to curb our enthusiasm, because we know cookies make us fat, because everything that tastes good always comes at a price, because, in the end, life is meant to be weighed and balanced, not enjoyed.
Adults have been trained to believe a lie, but it’s a pernicious lie. It rings true to the world around us because we live in a world that’s fallen with a capital-F. It’s true. Cookies will make you fat and bad guys do abduct little children playing in the street, and love does come at a cost, and in the end, nothing really matters all that much anyways because when you die, the world keeps on turning, no matter how much you think you may have accomplished. Simply put, adults think meaning is an illusion and so in an act of true maturity and foresight, they learn to replace meaning with the bottom-line, which, in our culture, is materialism and productivity. Adults have become more robot than human in their coming of age in a world devoid of meaning and purpose and heroes and saints, and they have become desensitized and therefore de-fascinated by things like, say, ants, internal combustion engines, and spark plugs.
But adults have become something less than their children. They have become less human. And this is why being human is weird. In no other species is it better to be a child, but when it comes to being human, children possess qualities more pure and untainted by the world around them. Since humans are psychological creatures, we are apt to change. Adult ants don’t hit mid-life crises and become disenchanted with the world. Adult humans do.
This is just one example of why our Lord lifted children up as a pattern to us, even to adults. Their wonder is unbounded. Their desire for meaning is uninhibited by the so-called sobriety that comes with maturity—or should we say, the sobriety (meaning grumpiness and skepticism) that comes as a byproduct of the maturation process in our fallen world. But true maturity is very much like childishness. Cynicism isn’t maturity; hope is. And children have hope. Adults mostly don’t. Somewhere in between, in the angsty coming-of-age stage of life, we all began to think for ourselves and learn how to navigate life for our good. In the smallness of our minds we thought it best to tone down our dreams, to get “realistic” about life, and to see childish dreams as inferior, idealistic, and weak. But what we don’t know is that weakness, in God’s world, is often the way.