The Darkness of Childhood - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 5 - The Darkness of Childhood

For the most part in these pages I’ve painted a picture of childhood as a universally idyllic stage of life – a time of incomparable lightness, wonder, and grace; a time of immersion in a natural world from which we’ve not yet declared ourselves separate; a time of freedom from the worldly concerns of self-preservation that await, and a time of freedom from the very idea of a self in need of preservation in the first place. Sure enough, self-awareness is present during our childhood, having begun to precipitate out of the fundamentally fluid nature of human consciousness from the moment we first open our eyes, but it has not yet crystalized into the fragile sense of self-hood that we end up carrying around as if it were a piece of priceless crystal for the remainder of our adult lives.

Of course, I also understand that childhood is not always so idyllic. For some, what light exists must shine through the narrow cracks that open up in between bursts of gunfire and falling bombs. For others, wonder is a luxury that they can scarcely afford in a world where the struggle for self-preservation begins the moment they’ve grown old enough to hold out their hand on a bustling city street or scavenge in the local dump for something to sell or trade for food. For still others, the blossom of childhood grace can’t help but whither – rooted as it is in soil made barren by physical abuse and emotional deprivation. For most of us, though, the darkness of childhood is not so extreme. It falls upon us incrementally as the already fallen adult world beckons with ever-increasing insistence.

My own fall from grace took place in the fairly privileged environs of a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I recall learning for the first time that there are burglars “out there” in the world that break into homes and take things. Most of the time they wait until the people who live there have gone away, but every now and then they’ll break in when someone is still at home. Such an awakening to the darker realities of the world might seem rather quaint from our already fallen perspective, but imagine for a moment (or remember, as the case may be) what it would be like (or was like) to suddenly learn that the world is not really as safe as you’ve come to believe. In, fact, the world can be a downright scary place. I remember the recurring nightmare that followed on the heels of my brand new awareness of that fact: A shadowy face was outside my bedroom window – working with a pry bar to jimmy it open and climb inside. He knew that I was there, but he didn’t care. I had something that he wanted and he was going to take it.

Some readers may have little patience for such tales of innocence lost given all of the hardship in the world today. After all, we all need to learn the ways of the world some time, don’t we? It’s dangerous “out there” and it would be irresponsible for us to let our children grow up without ever learning of the danger that potentially awaits them. Indeed, but this is also how our self-awareness further crystalizes into something brittle and fragile; for along with our newfound realization that there are forces “out there” that can do us harm “in here” comes the investment of psychic energy into the erection and maintenance of the boundary between the two. As such, the pace of our fall begins to quicken.

I can already hear what some parents of young children might be thinking: You mean we should raise our children in protective cocoons and then throw them out into the harsh, cruel world without any tools or defenses? No, I don’t think that we should do that. We are a fallen species. We’ve created a fallen world, and each of us in some measure helps to perpetuate it. Yes, we need to wake up to the harm caused by our over-developed sense of self and, yes, there might be some ways to give our children a head start in that regard, but that doesn’t mean that we should “throw them to the wolves.” Maybe all it means is that we look for ways to keep our children from falling as hard and as far as we have fallen; and they, in turn, might be able to do so for their children. In the meantime, though, we’ve got to gain a better understanding of the nature of our own fall. Toward that end, allow me continue.

I had yet another recurring nightmare as a child: There were dinosaurs out there on the horizon. I could hear them roaring and howling in the night. I could hear the destruction that they wrought just beyond the Nursery’s eastern boundary. Homes crumbled and trees crashed to the ground. It must have been deafening for those in the midst of it, for it was loud enough for me tucked a mile away in the safety of my bed. Hopefully they would stop before they got to the Nursery and our little neighborhood on its western boundary. If not, perhaps they would at least veer in another direction like a storm blown by the winds of its very own fury.

Of course, I can now see quite clearly what brought on this second nightmare. Although one might think it would have been inspired by an accidental viewing of a Godzilla movie, I actually don’t think so. Our television viewing was pretty closely guarded in our family; such scary movies would have been off limits to us at the time. I’m inclined, instead, to think that what inspired my nightmare was what inspired the creator of Godzilla in the first place – namely, the conflation of the erstwhile reality of the dinosaurs with the present day reality of a natural order that has been thrown off-kilter by the actions of humankind. No, I didn’t yet know of the nightmare of nuclear radiation, but I was learning about the “terrible lizards” of long ago, and I was learning of the destructive power that can be let loose in our very own neighborhood right here and now. I’d seen with my own eyes just across the street how the earth movers tore through the tree roots and deep into the earth. I’d seen our vineyard playground churned under their tracks for the sake of something new.

Apparently one never knew when such things might happen, and one never had any say whatsoever when they did. Our beloved realm, the Nursery, might be similarly plowed under. After all, it was not really ours at all. The Gerhardt’s owned it and could do with it what they pleased. It was all very troubling to me.

Yes, I was a sensitive child; but, then again, was I really any more sensitive than any other? Perhaps I simply recall those tender years with greater clarity than many others might. My burgeoning awareness of the workings of the world – the reality of “progress,” the destructive potential inherent in even its most ordinary endeavors – only hinted at the potential destruction yet to come. As I alluded to in the very first chapter, the Vietnam War would soon be looming just over my horizon and the realization that I could be plucked from my home by the powers that be in order to be dropped into a jungle with a machine gun in my hand would begin to cloak my mind in darkness. The world outside was truly frightening. It feigned civility, but that civility was but a mask behind which lurked its true horror. Nothing was as sacred as it was out there in the Nursery. Nothing was inviolable. Nothing could be counted on to ever stay the same. Nothing could be counted on but myself. Nothing could ever save me but myself.

Image References

Tyrannosaurus edited by the author from the original by Mistvan via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank


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