Wednesday, May 1, 2019

I Still Feel Like a Kid "Inside" - Is That OK?

May is here.

Life is bursting out all over the place. Spring is a natural "festival" of renewal. But the feel and smell of the air is the same as it was twenty, thirty, forty, and - yes, I can now speak from my own experience - fifty years ago.

Often I still feel like a kid inside myself, and I think there's something true about that.

On the one hand, how much time is a half-century, really? Even in human history it seems like a small dot on a long line (not to mention cosmic history). Being 56 years old means I have "self-consciously experienced" life - more or less consistently - for the past half century.

Supposedly I have not only "grown up" over this time; I have even begun to grow old.

But the process of maturity is obscure and uneven for human beings. We grow in some ways, but we can also "revert" (at least in the sense of forgetting what we have learned), and in some aspects of our psychological and emotional development we can just "get stuck" - often a traumatic event inflicts inner wounds that atrophy certain capacities to experience and engage reality.

Or there are ways we don't grow because affluence and ease have allowed us to escape challenges in certain areas of life (or perhaps poverty and marginalization have prevented access to those challenges, or caused us to give up on the possibilities for growth).

Even in our unhindered maturity, however, how can we not recognize our smallness? I am supposedly an educated man, yet the older I get, the more I realize that I actually know very little (and the few things I might reasonably claim to know, I don't know very well).

So there are many aspects to this experience of "still feeling like a kid." Time is a funny thing. It seems to go so fast, and yet we have a vast store of memories that we can "bring to mind" in such a way that they seem vivid and "present." Remembering can be a melancoly or a happy experience. Very often, it's a strange combination of both.

We remember things when we feel the Spring air, the smell of flowers, the warm sun, the long evenings. After 50+ years these memories and their associations are full of life's beauty and tragedy, of many people we have known, of our successes and our failures. Even when we don't call anything particular to mind, it's all there, somewhere - at the edges of our consciousness or submerged under it.

At the same time, every day contains new possibilities. Reality is deeper than we know. If illness or age bring limitations in certain aspects of life, they also provide the opportunity to enter more fully into the richness of what remains at hand, and discover the wonders of so many things we ignored in the haste of our youth.

Here especially is the reason we can still have something of childhood within our hearts: we bring a life full of memory into the freshness of every day, of every moment. There is potentially a large space for the play of inner freedom, for understanding and compassion.

There is also a drama at this time of life: temptations to brood over the past, to "hoard" what we think we have achieved, to nurse grudges, seek vengeance, or be consumed by envy.

Above all, there is the temptation to cynicism. Focusing on our failures or else simply tired of life, we can withdraw into a protective fortress of routines and diversions, or sink into discouragement (something different from being afflicted by depression, a psychological illness that can affect people of all ages).

We must fight against these temptations and continue to nurture that fundamental fascination with reality that most fully expresses our humanity.

This is one aspect of Jesus's insistence that we must "become like little children." Of course this seems complicated on a natural human level; it is above all a matter of grace and the Holy Spirit. Even while grace takes us "beyond" all we can imagine by giving us a share in God's own life, it also validates and fulfills everything that is proper to our humanity. Thus, "spiritual childhood" corresponds to and vivifies the genuine human reality of maturity even for those who have already lived a good stretch of their earthly lives.

As we grow older, I don't think we "outgrow" things but rather we "grow into" new things, deeper things. Our whole lives are "still alive" - all the good we have done or experienced keeps growing, and our failures can heal because we can find forgiveness - if we are willing, also, to forgive.

At my age, the tendency is either to begin to fall (more or less willingly) into bitterness and cynicism, or to begin to find wisdom.

I'm always trying to sort one out from the other, honestly.

I think the challenge is to keep forgiving people - we have enough experience to know their limits, to know that they can't give us everything we feel like we need from them.

We may find that we don't like so many people anymore. But we have to choose to love them. This is not just a matter of blind willpower. It involves a realistic intellectual judgment that leads to appropriate forms of tolerance, acceptance, and affirmation.

People are different. People are all more or less weird - some are better at hiding it from others, and all of us are remarkably good at hiding it from ourselves. People are flawed. People are sinners. (Some) people are jerks. 

Love them anyway.

We don't need to turn into super extroverts, or run around going to parties and joining clubs (unless we want to). The "quiet life" may suit us better. But let's be open to people - it's reasonable to have "boundaries" and privacy out of respect for our own dignity, but let the criteria be drawn from a rational love for ourselves and those who have been entrusted to our responsibility, and not from self-shielding anger and frustration with others, which can so easily degenerate into a hidden contempt.

People will not be perfect, and they will vex us sometimes, but we cannot withdraw into isolation. We should trust in God and welcome people, accept them, accompany them. We might even take the risk of a little vulnerability with some people; we could reach out to befriend them and accept their friendship, and we could "forgive them ahead of time," so to speak, for (inevitably) disappointing us in some ways, for not measuring up, for trespassing against us. 

But really it's not all such a grim business. If we have a mature, realistic openness to people, they will surprise us. They will show us their talents, their ideals, their ardor, and their need for us to affirm them and mentor them. Their strengths, experience, and maturity will help us. We will begin to see them with compassion and understanding, and with a healthy dose of good humor.

Above all, we have to forgive the people who have hurt us in the past, to let go of the often unacknowledged tendency to "nurture" the pain and the anger, to take silent interior vengeance against the other. It will never give us peace.

(I should note that our forgiveness and openness and realistic judgment must not be naive; it should take full account of the need to protect ourselves from physical and mental abuse. Let's keep our eyes open, and if necessary get help to recognize these situations and not allow them to continue.)

We also need to "forgive ourselves" (which is so much harder than it sounds). We have to let go of the frustrations of the past and of our own failures. Most of us have a lot of stuff to let go of. We need to do what's necessary for our own healing and freedom.

All of this can be hard, but it's good. It reawakens our hope and our capacity to be surprised by life - to see all the good there is in reality and in other people.

Life is full of its deep down promise. We need to embrace that "kid inside us," which means we need to keep living, loving, and hoping ... every day.😊