that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

To see like a child

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My wife and I live in a two-story row house in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market district, about 200 feet from Ninth Street, which is where the market is.

That happens to be only a few miles due south of where I spent the first eight years of my life, when my family lived in North Philadelphia, in a two-story row house at the corner of Sixth Street and Sedgley Avenue.

Across the street from that house was a scrap yard, and behind that the railroad (one of the less tony stretches of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s vaunted main line). It was a neighborhood of row houses and corner stores, factories, warehouses, and vacant lots. Our house boasted a tiny garden, and I can still remember helping my mother plant flowers there when I was about four. The flowers, I learned later on, were French marigolds and blue ageratum, and I always plant some in the tiny city garden I now have.

Sometimes my family would take the trolley that ran down Sixth Street to the very market I now live near, and recently I wondered just what trolley line that might have been.

Today, of course, it’s a bus route. When I looked it up, I found that it was the 47, the very bus that runs up Ninth Street now. Only that, to be precise, is the 47M, a supplement to the real Route 47, which still comes down Eighth and goes up Seventh, coming down Sixth on its way back, right past where our house in North Philadelphia still stands.

Silly as it must sound, I find it fascinating that the house I am likely to end my days in is just a block from the same public transportation route that the house I started life in was. The parochial range rather pleases me. It makes me feel at one with mankind. After all, today’s highly mobile society is the exception to the historic rule. A medieval peasant knew little of the world beyond the environs of his native village, and the same, I suppose, can still be said of a good many people around the world today. In Philadelphia, when I was growing up, if you asked a guy where he came from, he was likely to tell you the name of his parish.

I don’t pay much attention to my early childhood — or to my past generally — unless it has some bearing on what’s going on now. Otherwise, I let it lie.

On the other hand, “unless ye become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Thus spake Jesus. It is one of those utterances that everyone nods to in agreement without ever seriously thinking about it. Which no doubt explains why it has spawned so much sentimental tosh.

After all, who would want to be a child again, given all the things you have to learn and put up with, to say nothing of the people you have to deal with — some of the worst your fellow children — the dependency and impotence of it all?

I think what Jesus was getting at had nothing to do with some make-believe innocence, but rather with looking at things as you might if you had never laid eyes on them.

As toddlers, we are like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. The grotesque scale of that initial encounter with the world, however modified by subsequent experience, must exert a lasting influence on us. Interestingly, when I think of that trolley that ran past our house in North Philadelphia, I always see it from a distance. I take that to be an adjustment of scale. At a distance it harmonizes with what my experience of it is now: It doesn’t loom so large.

Nothing is simple about childhood. It is an inchoate mass of urges and impressions. We haven’t sorted things out yet and, from the outset, we have nothing to go on. No one ever does. There is perhaps no more perfect image of the human condition than the look of consternation and perplexity one sees sometimes on the faces of toddlers. Somehow, over time, we get a handle on things, and it would be nice to know what combination of sense and judgment we employed to do that.

We must get a lot of things wrong, and the things we get wrong must figure in whatever arrangement we eventually settle on. How enlightening it would be to look upon the world and life once again from that primary perspective.

A good bit of it would probably be unsettling. Our initial experience of being must be one of almost complete incomprehension. We go on to be taught things by others, and to learn some things on our own. But do any of the facts and figures we accumulate over a lifetime, and the theories we build upon them, really serve to dispel any of life’s fundamental mystery? Maybe what Jesus was trying to remind us of is the sheer givenness of being, as well as the otherness of it, the sense it conveys of our having had no hand in its making or maintaining (theists and atheists alike can agree on that).

Rudolf Otto said that religion derives from a primary experience of what he called the  “numinous,” which he said has three components, summarized best in the Latin phrase mysterium trememdum et fascinans. The mysterium is “wholly other,” completely beyond our ken. It evokes in those who encounter it both terror (tremendum) and attraction (fascninans).  It is what our distant ancestors experienced as, increasingly, they became aware of themselves and their surroundings in a new and more powerful way.

It sounds an awful lot like how things must seem to us when we come into the world.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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One Response to “To see like a child”

  1. Frank, this is a wonderful and thoughtful post as usual. You probably know of Orwell’s great essay, “Such, such were the joys…” He recounts his British public school experience and brilliantly describes how children (and adults) get everything wrong in trying to understand each other, as a result of which children function under absurd misunderstandings about the world.

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