Whilst sipping coffee and daydreaming during the afternoon, my thoughts wandered into the subject of innocence. Society places a great deal of importance to it–almost as some sort of virtue. The problem with such an ideological opinion is that innocence is directly related to ignorance. When we were innocent babes, we were ignorant of the treachery and pitfalls of the world. If we somehow retained our childish innocence, we would more easily fall prey to con artists and psychopaths.
Remaining ignorant is not virtuous, it is a temptation. Virtue requires the active cultivation and employment of passionate curiosity, skepticism, and wonder about life and our relationship with the Universe. These qualities are combined with compassion and gentle promotion about the general well-being of our fellow humans, creatures, plants, and the planet. How can a person remain innocent and cultivate ethical virtue at the same time? I cannot pretend to have an answer to the existence of such a state of mind.
Our mental construct about innocence centers around our perception of infants and very young children. They are irresistibly cute, adorable, and they require much nurturing. When we are mesmerized by a baby’s googly eyes and cuteness, we forget that she is ignorant, naïve, and exceedingly self-centered. Such aspects must be jettisoned so that the child can mature into a kind, virtuous, viable adult. The process of losing one’s ignorance is a journey of exploration and attainment of wisdom.
When subjectively pondering my own childhood, I remember being endlessly curious about everything I encountered. I took for granted that adults could satisfy this curiosity. I was also fortunate to have parents who provided for my physical nurturance, protection, and guidance. At school, the teachers seemed genuinely concerned about me and my young peers. In some respects, teachers acted like parents of a different sort. With each advancing school grade, more of my ignorance was discarded. Likewise, non-familial, non-school interactions with other children and adults taught me more vitally important lessons about how to get along and thrive in the world.
“Innocence is thought charming because it offers delightful possibilities for exploitation.”–Mason Cooley
Although the five-year-old version of me was fairly happy, carefree, and naïve, I have little desire to return to that stage of childhood development. Such a level of innocence would leave me dangerously ill-equipped to function in society. Such ignorance is deeply unappealing. That said, the older version of myself still has a fair measure of naïvete about humanity and the world. These remnants of innocence leave me vulnerable to sophisticated forms of fraud and deception. The valuable habit of skepticism needs more personal practice.
There is a different type of innocence that seems universal. That is the innocence of the essential self. Some people call this aspect soul or spirit. Such innocence is a concept we have about our hopes and positive dreams. This type of innocence is where we believe that most of our fellow humans are just as good as ourselves. This innocence is a place of mindful surrender to an undefinable inner peace. This type of innocence is a refuge for our better selves.
No, I do not wish to return to childish innocence. However, the desire for the other type of innocence is one I share with most everyone else.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes author of young adult fiction, Margo Lanagan. “There’s this assumption that all children have the luxury of a childhood where their innocence is always respected and their main occupation is pleasant play–at the age of 18 or 21, they are then thrust into the real world and shown its uglier side, but not before.”