“Dragons live forever, but not so little boys.” – Puff the Magic Dragon.
I’ll cut straight to the thesis.
Nostalgia and youth-fetishism are bullshit.
I remember a friend saying in high-school (I can’t remember who, and if it was you, I’m sure you you won’t take offense) that the thing they missed most about the past was “their innocence”. I don’t know what they meant by it, and it could have meant nearly anything, some of which I might (MIGHT) now agree with. But my reaction in that moment was “what bullshit.”
There’s a temptation to idealize a time when you didn’t know about the evils of the world, and you didn’t have responsibilities. Ok, you’re welcome to it. But my attitude is that, unless you’re somehow going to arrange an idyllic sheltered environment to live out the rest of your days, what would be gained even if you could take a hypothetical blue pill? Say you want your “innocence”, however you define it, back. Say you can get it.
Why? Remember all the pain that came from “losing your innocence”? Wanna repeat that? Sleep on it.
“Innocence” isn’t anything to idealize. If ignorance is bliss, it’s a fragile bliss vulnerable to minor shocks.
If you know me, or have read this blog, you KNOW I’m not advocating cynicism. If there’s any category of person most perfectly insufferable and punchable, it’s the world-weary cynic. (I’m not someone who advocates violence,but tell me you don’t have to restrain yourself in the face of a self-satisfied misanthrope.) Here’s a secret. Cynicism is not the result of having seen the world as it is. Cynicism is the result of having seen the world as you hoped it wasn’t, and never having gotten over it. (I’m not even trying to keep track of my tenses.) Cynicism is the scab that grows over a wounded “innocence.”
I’m advocating something I didn’t have a name for, and could only wave at in high-school, in that formative moment when I thought my friend was full of shit. Something I didn’t have a name for until second year university.
Flashback, spring of 2002. (Could have been fall of 2001. Don’t sweat accuracy, I’m setting up parenthetical life events. I’ll bear out by the end of this post.) I was about to turn 20. We’re entering the poetry part of my Poetry and Short Stories. We’ll be studying Margaret Atwood (yawn) and William Blake (double yawn), and we’ll have to write an essay on one or the other. Womp womp.
Then it turns out Blake is AWESOME. My then years-old roiling hatred for the “innocence”/cynicism (which Blake calls “experience”) had me bracing for a pearl-clutching proto-Victorian lamenting fetishism of “innocence”. I was wrong.
The deeper I got into Blake, the more I loved it. Blake described “innocence” and “experience” as a two aspects of the same force. They are both means of self-deception. He believed we were born “innocent”, became “experience”, regained our “innocence” by whatever means we could mobilize to stave off the horror, until our expectations were again obliterated, and “experience” set in again. Continual cycle, with no escape. Sound familiar?
But there’s a way out. Blake believed that you could escape the cycle. He described a “higher innocence”, in which we fully understood and accepted the horror, but from a place of peace. Again, familiar? So I wrote a trite and too-easy essay positing that Blake was influenced by Eastern philosophies, and happily turned 20 with my A.
Looking back, that class, or at least that moment, gave me a framework that I was grasping for the 5-ish years since my guttural rejection of “innocence”. Don’t ever let them tell you you won’t learn anything from your English pre-reqs. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like such a big revelation. But I’ve had ten years to meditate on and integrate that idea. Besides, back then I was listening to a LOT of The Smiths, and a glimmer of hope was a big deal.
So, what I like to do is drop a 600 word unrelated introduction in front of an otherwise simple point.
My point is that we tend to devalue our growth. We look back on our past selves and think “if only I could send my past self a message. I would have saved so much time and pain and struggle.” This point came up this week when I had coffee with Sarah of Piece of Cake Communications. Her said, and she was right, that no matter what we could have told our past selves, it wouldn’t have made a difference. We weren’t then ready for the message, or we would have gotten it. And what happened in the mean time to make the difference? Yup, all the mistakes and pain and lost opportunities and messes along the way.
Wear your wrinkles, your grey hairs, your thinning hairline proudly. They’re trophies of your growth. When you wish them away, you wish your power away.
Tanya just interrupted, telling me that I’m now (legally) 30. Yup, it’s 12:01 AM, April 6, 2012. I’m the kind of pedant that won’t call myself 30 until 3:35PM PDT, but she’s right.
I don’t like to talk about the past in this blog. I’d prefer to do this Obama-as-President-Elect style: not about the past, but about the future. But indulge me.
I grew up in the era of Reagan, Mulroney, and Thatcher. I didn’t hear about organic food until the mid-90s. I was environmentally aware and super-earnest when CFCs were banned, leaded gas was phased out, and McDonalds abandoned styrofoam in its burger boxes. I grew up in the generation that never ever expected, or even wanted, a lifetime job. We are the generation that is living out the Baby Boomer identity crisis that exploded in the 90s. Their worst fears are our reality.
And you know what? It’s pretty sweet. My generation may be the first since colonial agriculture hit its peak to INCREASE the proportion of farmers in our population. We may be the first since industrialization NOT to aspire to make more money than our parents. We may be the first generation to synthesize Smith and Marx into an economy of pro-environment small-business distributism. We may be the first generation since the explosion of fossil fuels to INCREASE biomass.
Maybe the best part of getting older is that every day, every year, every decade, I get to see the future, revealed slowly, moment by moment. Ten years ago, I was contemplating the implications of Blake’s “higher innocence” in how I lived my life. Today, I’m enjoying the moment, facing squarely into the future. Marching toward it. Or maybe strolling up to it.
I’ve been looking forward to 30 for a few years now. Here it is.
And just where I’ll be at 40.