The faith of a little child (Part 3): Some conclusions
In my last couple of posts, I’ve talked about the confidence of children in the existence of things that don’t actually exist (part 1, part 2).
In this post I’d like to reflect on what it means to have a child-like faith, and what we as dignified, grown-up, rational adults can learn from it.
Sometimes, we view “child-like faith” as blind trust and acceptance of whatever a child is told. And that can be true. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we also associate children with asking lots of “Why” questions, and with some amount of pushing the boundaries. That’s not blind acceptance. That’s learning about the world they are in.
To really understand this child-like faith, we need to think about these opposites. If anything, blind acceptance comes because they know less about the world and need to start somewhere. This also allows them to take people at face value and have confidence in what they are told, because they haven’t had bad experiences where their trust was misplaced. But that lack of knowledge also allows them to ask questions and be open-minded. The wide world is still relatively new and wonderful, and they can see things about it that we mature adults stopped observing years ago. Blind acceptance and open questioning are both consequences of having a simpler world-view, a safe environment to explore, and less pressure to conform. And I suspect even some of their fictional ideas are taken on the authority of adults. For example, if their parents tell them “We’re going to visit Winnie-the-Pooh’s house”, that could be taken as an endorsement of Winnie-the-Pooh’s existence. Even if it wasn’t intended to be.
I don’t know if it’s universal, but I was interested to see that all my examples had an anchor to reality:
- Winnie-the-Pooh and the Manx fairies had physical places they were known to visit (Ashdown Forest and the Fairy Bridge).
- Father Christmas lived at the North Pole and came to visit Oxford the night before Christmas.
- Harry Potter started with an ordinary Muggle life tied to real places in England. In fact, he was at the busy King’s Cross station before being whisked off to a mysterious castle in Scotland and a different world.
- For Middle Earth, apparently I felt the need to invent a scientific, “real” connection between that world and ours (though the true connection was not to a place in space but to a different point in time).
Even where there is no explicit connection in time or space, there are usually anchor-points such as human-like behaviour (on a completely different world) and language (have you ever wondered why animals, mythical races, and aliens all speak English?)
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when myths are anchored in real places, times, and human behaviours. Particularly if we have the urge to make our own anchors when they are not present. And maybe that’s part of why myths and fiction are valuable: because they end up anchored in reality, they are able to tell us something about reality.
Sometimes fiction is characterised as pure escapism: no value other than escaping from the hard reality of life. And yes, the stories can be more entertaining and exciting than real life. But I think there’s much more to it. The connections we make between fiction and the real world can help us deal with the real world. And even that’s not considering the effect fiction has on developing lasting concepts of right and wrong.
It is possible that a focus on myths takes us away from truth. But going to the opposite extreme can be dangerous as well. Take Dickens’ example of teaching children to concentrate on facts and reject fancy (from Hard Times):
In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!
You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use, for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.
I certainly would not consider that a good education.
(in passing, I’m not sure that mathematically inspired artwork is any more objective or right than other artwork…)
Bringing it back to the children, here are some responses I see when watching children:
- Amusement: That is what started me on these posts. Children can be quite different from us, and that can be funny.
- Admiration: We can see advantages in the way kids approach the world, things that we have lost. This could even lead to us trying to copy and learn from them.
- Superiority: If we are confident we understand the world better, we can be tempted to feel superior to children.
- Alarm: We can worry about their confident acceptance of things that aren’t true: How will they ever know the difference between fact and fiction! Or their confidence in authority: They’ll be indoctrinated! They’ll just be a copy of their parents! They won’t ever learn to think for themselves! Or perhaps about their curiosity and questioning: They won’t conform! They won’t fit in! They won’t accept the simple answers we gave them! Curiosity killed the cat!
While we could have all these responses at different times, I think they can form opposite ends of a spectrum. For example, the more we are amused the less likely we are to be alarmed, and the more we admire children the less likely we are to feel superior to them. Even when it comes to being alarmed, the more we are concerned by their confidence in authority the less we are likely to be worried about their curiosity, and vice versa.
So, do we have real problems here? Well, if a child genuinely cannot distinguish between story and real life, and if they are making important life decisions without understanding that boundary, then that’s a problem. But I’m not sure how common that is. Even children with a strong imagination can grasp the difference. They may passionately want something to be true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they believe it to be true, nor that their belief will cause them to make dangerous life decisions. We can also presume they will have adults watching over them and making many of their life decisions for them. What we see, time and again, is that as children grow up and take more responsibility for their actions, they usually grow out of beliefs like Santa Claus or fairies without harm (unless the loss of those beliefs is itself a harm).
But can we take this belief on board ourselves? I think the example of Tolkien is worth remembering here. He lived in the real world and took it seriously, but he also wrote letters from Father Christmas to his children. He wrote an essay, On Fairy-Stories, giving his view of what a true fairy story is and why it is important. I haven’t ever read more than snippets of it, but skimming through it now I feel I need to read it more fully. He tried to distinguish the true fairy story from a story of travel or of high adventure. And he defended the importance of the realm of Faerie - a realm which he saw as perilous and filled with wonder. Yes, he said, many children liked fairy stories. But that was because children were human, and humans liked fairy stories. They met a desire in human hearts that mere fact could not. Children might have more difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction because they knew less about the world. But they were still able to distinguish between the horses that they saw and the dragons that they never saw. He, like many children, liked the idea of a world with dragons in - but he did not want to go hunting a dragon himself, and when asking whether it was “true” he really wanted to know if there was any fear of being eaten by a dragon while he slept.
C.S. Lewis was a close friend of Tolkien and shared his view on the importance of fairy tales. I love this quote:
When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
I too read things that might be considered “childish”, and I think that those who don’t are missing out (just as one data point, I saw a child’s letter at Winnie-the-Pooh’s house because I too was on a pilgrimage to visit Pooh’s domain). Of the responses to children I gave above I am much more likely to go for amusement and admiration than for superiority or alarm.
I will never again be a child. I will never again have their seemingly boundless energy, their freedom, or their simple outlook on life. In some ways, I envy that outlook: being able to see things with confidence, and to view a large and real imaginative world. The ability to leave adults in the room to make the real decisions, and not to have to reckon with constant uncertainties - uncertainties that plague me. But at the same time, I don’t really want to go back. I’m sure life was simpler then, but I can’t put away the urge to dig deeper, to understand, and to be in control of my life. It’s part of me, and has made me who I am.
Children will grow up in their own time. They will ask questions and find answers. They will find joys and sorrows aplenty, and will probably end up with a more nuanced and less certain view of the world. I don’t want to force them to grow up, put away fiction, and embrace a cruel, hard world. If they are able to experience joy and provide joy for others then I guess things are going OK.
Yes, I want them to be able to grow to a maturer and better understanding of the world. But I also want them to still be able to trust people, to stay curious, and to explore. To be able to tell the difference between fact and fiction, but also to accept the importance of both. To know the difference between right and wrong, and to be able to follow what is right.
Most children who read about heroes won’t end up being the hero: the great dragon-slayer, the sports star, the pre-eminent writer, the master scientist, the successful (and honest) politician or businessman, the activist who saves the world. I certainly haven’t. But they can continue to have ideals, and to see the joy and wonder in our world and share it.
Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, my love of fiction is not related to my profession. I’m not a philologist or a student of legends: I’m a hard, rational software developer. Obviously, I don’t know exactly how my colleagues view me, but I’m pretty sure the description does not include “head in the clouds”. Writing is a part of my daily duties, but I’m meant to be writing reality, not fiction. I focus on fiction here because it is something I think important, and because I think it’s more likely to be considered childish, something to be given up when you become a mature adult.
Moving on from fiction, though, the desire to find out more and to see wonder and beauty is important in understanding the real world. And children get this too. If you ever talk to a child keen on their hobby, you may find they know more about it than any of the adults surrounding them. I’ve certainly learned from those far younger than me. In many cases I suspect they are forming life-long interests, interests that will affect the subjects they study, the career they choose, and the type of life they live.
We too have plenty more we can learn. Humanity’s horizons are now so vast that we cannot possibly hope to understand everything. We are able to seek through space and time, exploring things from the smallest subatomic particle through to distant galaxies, and times from the breaking event on the other side of the world to the very beginning of the universe. We can survey the history of life on earth, including the development of humanity. We can see the ruins of the mighty civilisations of yesteryear, and the great technical accomplishments of our current age. Of course, the further away we look from the here and now, the less we are able to be certain about what we find. But I find it incredible that we are able to know anything about these things so far outside the reach of our ordinary senses.
Richard Dawkins talks about “the spiritual joy of a rational, scientific understanding of life, and of the universe in which life finds itself”. I agree. We may no longer see ourselves at the centre of the universe, or as key cogs in some vast cosmic plan. But it’s still pretty incredible what we can learn and understand.
I don’t think we are overly harmed by fiction which focuses on humanity as central, or by science which shows us how small we are in a vast universe. Both are wonderful, and both repay exploration: we just need to be able to distinguish between them.
There is much of beauty in the world. For me, things like a glorious sunset, waves pounding against rocky shores, majestic views stretching off into the distance, stars filling the sky away from city lights, or even the city lights themselves. Really, if we want to explore, forget the universe: there is so much in this world that we cannot explore it all in a lifetime.
It’s easy to think there’s no time for it, and that exploring grand themes is only for idlers and children (I’m neither). What I find is that there is usually time if we make it (and sometimes children can be good at encouraging that…). Even if it’s just stopping work for ten or fifteen minutes in the evening to watch the sunset, or to take a quick walk around the block, or to play with the kids, or to read something. For me, most of my reading happens on the train to or from work (sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction). And much of my walking is to or from the station on the way to work or a quick walk during lunch break. And if you’re anything like me, time spent exploring places and concepts is not time wasted - even if there’s nothing obvious I could put on a balance sheet and say “This was the benefit of this activity”.
Back one final time to the child-like faith: if we had a child-like faith like I’ve described, it could allow us to trust others better, to question more assumptions about the way the world works, and to be amazed by what we can find out about how the world works (good luck trying to put all that together!)
When dealing with kids, be amused: they can be funny (even when trying to be serious), and they can bring joy to the world. But also take the time to think “Can I learn anything from them?”