One of my favorite writers, Christopher de Vinck, once wrote a series of essays entitled, Songs of Innocence and Experience. Those two words, innocence and experience, don’t easily go together. No matter who we are and not matter how pure our intentions, experience always threatens our innocence, even when we don’t want it to. Each of us has his or her own story on this.
When I was 17 years old and a novice in our Oblate novitiate, while horsing around in a lake with my fellow novices one afternoon, 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 that evening, there was letter waiting from my mother (who wrote every week). It was her usual note, full of motherly concern and of the various details of our family’s life. 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.
Re-reading that letter recently triggered a flood of thoughts and emotions. Nearly forty years have passed since that near fatal day, my mother has been dead for more than thirty years, and the years too have changed me. And so my thought was: “Had I died that day, so many years back, what would have died?”
Looking back now at myself at 17, I 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 and surely more innocent than the man of today
But that comparison itself can be a false romanticism, the catcher-in-the-rye nostalgia of J.D. Salinger’s famous novel. Nobody grows into adulthood with his or her childhood innocence intact. Real virtue and purity of heart are post, not pre, critical, and the task of living is to achieve adulthood, not to remain the puer or puella. That requires a certain death.
A child dies when an adult is born and an adult no longer looks nor feels like a child. As adults, all kinds of wrinkles, blemishes, and stretch marks begin to leave scars, and not just in terms of a sagging body and greying hair. More deeply, complexity, hurt, and moral failure begin more and more to sully our baptismal robes and chill our hearts. Had I died at 17, I would have died less blemished, physically and morally, but I would have died a boy, not man.
And still there is more than simple romantic sentimentalism in longing for the simplicity and purity of one’s youth, despite its naiveté. As we grow more adult and experienced, we progressively lose, in more areas than in just our sexuality, our virginity.
I remember a remark I once read by, Faye Dunaway, the Hollywood actress. 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.”
Then there’s the tragic, biblical story of Saul who, when he first became the 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 take his own life.
And there is too a soul-searing admonition in the Book of Revelations where God tells us that he likes most everything about us, except that now, as adults, we “have less love in us than when we were young!” (Revelations 2,4)
For good and for bad, we’ve all come a long ways from the little girl or little boy we once were.
J.D. Salinger once wrote a short story entitled, Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut. It’s the story of two 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, gossip, and harsh judgments of others, betraying the type of street-smarts that must have characterized Adam and Eve after they ate the apple and had “their eyes 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 everyone 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?