Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
* * *
A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?
* * *
Looking back, it seems that the wisdom of simplicity was freely offered to us in our childhood. Through various nursery rhymes and songs, we were shown what was already intuitively known in our own simple silence. We sang along and celebrated this simplicity – and our freedom – without giving it a second thought (often without even a first thought). Fun was natural and effortless. We didn’t have to try, we just played. We flowed along with life, whether happy or sad, simply moving with the current.
So how did we ever lose touch with the simplicity of our childhood? How did we let life get so heavy? Where did our innocence and innate curiosity go? (It could be noted here that our compulsive ‘need to know’ or our presumptuous ‘right to know’ are far from the natural curiosity of childhood.)
In exploring our changing relationship with this sense of simplicity, we need not feel as though our innocence or curiosity are all-or-nothing affairs. Many of us keep in touch with these parts of ourselves into our later years. It feels quite natural that these characteristics wax and wane throughout our lives. It seems foolish to limit them in any finite way. Even complicated ‘grown up’ lives still have occasional pockets of peace and simplicity. But I sense that if we cherish these virtues, prioritizing our peace and honouring the simplicity of our lives, we can see our innocent curiosity continue to flourish throughout all our days, no matter whatever else may be clamouring for our attention.
Our exploration of growing complexity and fading innocence need not be a witch hunt, either. But it can be helpful to shine some light on a few probable culprits, if only to open ourselves to rekindling our sense of childlike wonder and gratitude. As kids, the joy of exploration was sufficient to inspire us. The fact that life is an incredible gift needed no explanation or qualification. Like many other joys of life, it was entirely self-evident. I feel it to be as true today as it was then, whether or not we have all kept in touch with it. For many of us, however, the magic of life fades at some point and we begin to want more. We carry on feeding this desire unchecked, most often unconsciously, seeking happiness outside of ourselves (the only place we’re guaranteed never to find it!). How did this ever happen?
Is it possible that we began losing touch with our innocence and simplicity when we started feeling like life owed us something? Is it also possible that some sense of obligation to the world began draining our joy somewhere along the line? Is not the gift of life freely given? Can we not receive it with the same simplicity? How did we tangle ourselves up in means and ends? Can’t we enjoy life for its own sake, connecting and creating together without trying to squeeze something more out of it?
Perhaps we can point out obstacles to this inherent joy and simplicity, and just by seeing them clearly as the illusions they are, we can restore our freedom and independence. The idea that we owe something to life can become quite a burden for us. This feeling of debt becomes easily tangled up in guilt and fear. These are two particularly tough walls to break through, and they seem to have built-in mechanisms for ongoing self-reinforcement – feedback loops of warped beliefs and behaviour.
But if we are left to our own devices, simply learning from our life experience, we’ll come to understand and respect balance quite naturally. Rules of ‘proper conduct’ need not be imposed upon us. Reaching out and supporting one another arises quite naturally on its own. Mandating any behaviour sows with it seeds of dissent. Just as when we were children, we want to be free to behave however we wish moment to moment. Being told to act a certain way, even if it makes perfect sense, triggers at least subtle frustration. We need to find out for ourselves. This is the only way for our behaviour to be authentic.
Imagine you are just about to go and shovel a heavy load of snow for your parents, purely out of the good of your heart. You are getting all suited up by the door and feeling glad that you are saving them the back-breaking labour. Just as you are about to open the door, your parents catch you and say, “Before you go playing in the snow I want you to get out front and shovel the driveway!” Just like that, a gift becomes a chore. You’ve suddenly been completely stripped of all spontaneity and generosity. Now you are merely complying with demands.
Freedom is important. It’s pretty simple. Understanding this in our interactions with one another – especially in relationships where we hold authority or influence – is vital to our collective well-being. Love grows all things. It’s not complicated. Modelling righteous behaviour is more powerful than mandating it. Ideally we would all be responsible for ourselves and thus better-equipped to serve and support our neighbours. I feel that we can grow into this self-responsibility while still cherishing our childlike instinct for play. Curiosity and innocence need never be lost. We can follow our hearts and do our part, playfully and freely.
Does this seem crazy? Is it a sign of a culture’s warped priorities when such simplicity sounds so radical? I don’t know. Honestly. Fortunately I don’t feel any need to solve it. I’m just curious. I hope you are too.