When I was 17 years old and a novice in the Oblate novitiate, one Saturday afternoon, while horsing around in the lake with my fellow novices, I almost drowned. I had already gone down twice and was unable to call for help. Only luck and the perceptiveness of a fellow novice prevented my death.
I was pretty shook up. When we returned to the novitiate in the evening, there was letter waiting for me from my mother (who wrote to me every week). It was her usual letter, full of motherly concern and of the various details of our family’s life that week. I was more touched than usual because, as I was reading that letter, I kept thinking how close I had come to never reading it and how my mother and my family would be feeling right now had I drowned.
I re-read that letter recently and it triggered a flood of thoughts and emotions. I am 25 years passed that near fatal day, my mother herself has been dead for 20 years, and the years have changed me. I kept thinking: “Had I died that day, so many years back, what would died?”
I look back now at myself at 17 and see a boy of uncommon naiveté, of much innocence, considerable purity, high intention, deep faith, and, happily, lacking much of the complexity and many of the neuroses that I carry today. Much as I hate to admit it, the boy of 17 was somewhat more hospitable, uncompromised, and innocent than the man of today.
I am enough of the realist to know that this type of comparison is, at a point, false romanticism, the “catcher-in-the-rye” nostalgia of J.D. Salinger. One does not grow to adulthood with the innocence of one’s childhood intact. Real virtue and purity of heart are post, not pre, critical, and the task of living is to achieve adulthood, not to remain ever the puer or the puella. This requires a certain death. The child dies when the adult is born.
And the adult no longer looks nor feels like the child. As adults, all kinds of scars and stretch marks (not to mention the wrinkles, middle-age bulge, and greying) blemish our bodies, while complexity, hurt, and moral failure sully our baptismal robes. Had I died at 17, I would have died less blemished, physically and morally, but I would have died a boy, not man.
Still there is more than romantic sentimentalism in longing for the simplicity and purity of one’s youth, in spite of its naiveté. As we grow more experienced and adult, we lose, in ways more than sexual, progressively our virginity.
I recall a remark by actress, Faye Dunaway, I once read. Commenting on her ups and downs in Hollywood, she said: “I went through the star machine and became urban, sophisticated, neurotic, cold, and all that. I’d gotten very far from my own heart and soul and who I really was: a little girl called Dorothy Faye from the South.” (Maclean’s, Dec. 21/87)
Then there’s the story of Saul who, upon becoming king, was the handsomest, best, most gracious and humble man in Israel, and who slowly and in a way that was imperceptible to himself, filled with a jealousy and bitterness that led him to suicide.
Finally, I there’s the admonition given in Revelation within which God tells us that he likes most everything about us, except that we now, as adults, “have less love in us than when we were young!” (Revelations 2,4)
For good and for bad, we all come a long ways from the little girl or little boy we once were!
J.D. Salinger once wrote a little short story entitled, Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut. It’s the story of 2 women who had been childhood friends and who meet after many years. They spend an afternoon drinking, reminiscing, and crying to each other about broken relationships, frustrations, and wounded lives. Their dialogue is full of bitterness, malicious gossip, and harsh judgment of others, and it betrays the type of street smarts that must have characterized Adam and Eve after they ate the apple and had “their eyes were opened.”
At the end of the afternoon, very drunk and tired, one says to the other: “Remember when we first came to New York, and I had that dress that I used to wear in high school, and I wore it and they laughed at me and said nobody wore a dress like that in New York, and I went home and cried all night … I was a nice girl then, wasn’t I?”