There’s a wonderful little book of essays by Christopher de Vinck entitled, Songs of Innocence and Experience. It radiates what its title suggests, both innocence and experience, a rare combination.
Innocence and experience are indeed a rare combination. It’s hard to find in one and the same person a certain purity, trust, childlike curiosity, freshness, reverence, and respect, living peacefully alongside a mature awareness that life isn’t simple, that sentimentality isn’t always a virtue, that safety too can be a danger, that people are inextricably sexual, that life is best entered into without undue fear and timidity, and that we shouldn’t pretend that all is always rainbows, sweetness, and God.
It’s rare to find both reverence and sophistication, idealism and realism, purity and passion, inside the same person. And yet, to my mind, that’s one of the keys to life. Though it’s also a formula for tension. One of the great tensions in life is the ongoing battle inside us between innocence and experience.
On the one hand, something inside us yearns always for innocence, purity, freshness, and trust. If we lose these, we soon find ourselves cynical and disillusioned with an unhappiness that comes precisely from being over-sophisticated, from having been around, from having had our eyes opened, from having knowledge without innocence. As Albert Camus once said, when we first plunge into experience (partly as an unconscious vengeance against the fears and restraints of our childhood) it feels like a liberation. Soon enough, however, it turns into disappointment and defeat. Like Adam and Eve after eating the apple, our “minds are opened”, but we find out too that we’re naked and don’t trust each other, and our innocent happiness is gone.
And real innocence isn’t easy: There’s a pressure inside of us to distance ourselves from it because we fear it as a naivete, a timidity, a frigidity, a hiding one’s head in the sand, a failure to look life in the eye. We have an innate resistance to what’s unsophisticated and frightened. At the same time, there’s a pressure inside us to idealize innocence. We like to put innocence on a pedestal, yearn for it, but then see it as a simplicity and asexuality that is as impossible for a full-blooded adult as it is undesirable. We see this over-idealization, for example, in our unwillingness (and flat-out incapacity) to see Jesus as being in any way sexual, to see Mother Theresa as complex and subject to temptation, and in our inability to conceive of the feminine except as either virgin or prostitute.
Just as we long for innocence, we also long to give ourselves over to all that life offers without undue fear, frigidity, and taboo. Our better instincts tell us: Experience is good, so keep your head out of the sand, accept the pathos and the complexity of life, don’t be in denial about sexuality, and don’t be overly sentimental about childhood and innocence because sentimentality itself is an over-emphasis on innocence.
And here too we feel all kinds of pressures that can easily warp our perspective. On the one side, the pressure comes from fear (fear of confusion, of getting hurt, of losing ourselves, of being misunderstood, of being betrayed). This can make us timid and reticent, at the door of experience but too fearful to enter. We fear precisely having our eyes opened. On the other side, especially in Western culture today, the pressure is to embrace experience as salvation itself, namely, to idealize experience in a way that denigrates innocence (“Get beyond the nonsense you were taught as a child!”) and plunges us into experience without proper checks and taboos so as to make sophistication, knowledge, and pleasure the meaning of life itself. Like Adam and Eve, this soon enough opens our eyes, but, experience without innocence, is a formula for unhappiness – cynicism, distrust, sarcasm, arrogance.
Experience and innocence need to be held in a proper tension. We need to sing both songs. But that’s no easy task, given all the temptations there are to resolve this tension too easily towards one side or the other.
The road forward, I believe, lies in what is sometimes called “second naivete”. This refers to an innocence that has already incorporated experience, gone beyond it, is post-sophisticated, has looked life in eye, tasted it, and decided that some things are worth reverencing, that a certain purity is always needed, that we have to unlearn some things even as we learn others because children have a secret worth knowing.
Allan Bloom, the great American educator, used to tell his students: “You’ve had a rich experience. You’ve seen and done a lot of things. I respect that sophistication. But, I’m going to try to teach you how to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny again so that you’ll have a chance at being happy!”
Jesus taught that too. In essence, he said: “Be childlike, without being childish. Learn again, without denying experience, the innocence that makes for happiness.”