One difficult aspect of writing a book as a series of blog posts is that each blog post needs to stand on its own to at least some degree, while still fitting into a larger whole. Thus, I have titled this post Wisdom of Children even though it is merely a passage from Chapter 2. I hope that makes sense. At any rate, I hope it makes enough sense for you to find it enjoyable reading. Here goes:
Part I, Chapter 2 – After The Fall (first continuation)
Each of us recapitulates the evolutionary achievement of self-awareness over the course of our normal human development. The undifferentiated oneness of early infancy gives way to our first inkling of a world that is other than our very own body, and from there we begin the inexorable march toward the fully individuated ego strength of adulthood. Neurological development becomes the ground for psychological development, and psychological development, in turn, becomes the ground for further neurological development. In this way, our body/mind continues to grow and adapt from day to day and year to year; and in this way our fall from grace mirrors that of all of humankind. The child who knows becomes the child who knows that she knows, and it is then that she begins to fall. For just as the evolved self-awareness of early humankind rose like a third dimension out of the “flat” consciousness of the rest of the animal kingdom, so self-awareness arises within the developing individual – changing them forever.
Once self-awareness has become manifest within our individual existence it is difficult to think of life as being about anything other than its experience. Whatever joys, sorrows and reflections follow on the heels of this milestone of development then become incorporated into our conception of what life is “all about”. Rare is the adult who, upon contemplating the entirety of his or her existence, concludes that life is “all about” remaining in that oceanic state, nestled in our crib watching light and shadow, form and color kaleidoscope overhead! Instead, we tend to think of these bodies that we inhabit as we do a flowering plant. Just as the roots and stems and leaves of a rose bush, for instance, seem to exist for the sole purpose of producing an exquisite blossom, so we think of self-aware consciousness as the raison d’etre of the human organism.
The development of self-awareness, then, tends to have us identifying more and more with our thought processes and less and less with the organism that makes them possible. We begin to speak of our bodies and their constituent parts as we might speak of the house and the possessions of the homeowner living inside. But while we might cut the rose blossom from the rest of the plant and place it in a vase of water for a time, the human mind is impossible to separate from its roots and stems and leaves.
‘Mind is what the brain does’ is a phrase often used by neuroscientists in describing the relationship between the mind and the brain. But the brain doesn’t merely do what’s inside of the cranium in which it is housed. The brain is connected by nerves and blood vessels to all other parts of the body, checking their orientation in space and sampling whatever biochemical information they might have to convey. It would seem then that the mind is not just what the brain does; the mind is what the body does. But why stop there? The brain, via the various sense organs that it innervates, monitors everything that the body comes into contact with. Despite the 93 million miles between the sun and the eye, for instance, they still combine to create vision; and with that vision the mind begins to reflect upon the light, and wonder about its nature. Thus, it is not so outrageous to say that ‘mind is the entire world’, although such a statement might take some getting used to given the way that we normally think about such things.
Considered from the perspective of infancy, however, ‘mind is the entire world’ makes perfect sense. In that oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness the infant does not yet perceive any separation between self and other. In fact it has no conception of self yet for there to be anything other. It is only with subsequent neurological development and the opportunity to explore his or her surroundings that the infant begins to conceptualize self and other. Fuzzy at first, the boundaries become crisper with time, and once-tentative conceptualizations related to our body, our mind, our life, our world, and our possessions begin to take on a sense of absolute solidity.
I’ve long been intrigued by the ability of very young children to withstand all manner of hardship that the more mature individual would find thoroughly devastating. How is it that young children are able to respond with such inordinate resiliency to life-threatening disease and natural disaster, poverty and war, disfiguring accident and disabling trauma, the loss of a parent, etc.? The answer, at least in large part, is that young children don’t yet possess the strong sense of self-awareness that leads to such suffering in those of us who have already fallen. Yes, the pain and difficulty of whatever harsh circumstances the child might face are present, but absent is the anguish born of perceived inequity, or the foreshortening of an imagined life, or a loss of faith or existential meaning. Absent is the suffering rooted in a strong sense of self.
The wisdom of our childhood lies somewhere in between the oneness of early infancy and the hardened sense of self that we create after the fall. We don’t think of ourselves as wise at the time, though. Instead, we think of wisdom as something that older people possess – after having lived a long, long time and after having gone to school a long, long time. But it is precisely the absence of belief that she possesses anything at all that makes the wisdom of the child all the more exquisite and profound.
Photograph of girl in the woods via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank