Now far be it from me to disagree with an Apostle (at least until I’m the other side of the Great Divide), but Paul had a lot to answer for when he wrote that ‘when I became a man I put away childish things’.By that I imagine he meant all the negative emotions, such as envy or malice, that he saw as part of an earlier and less developed self. Paul was, of course, using the comparison to indicate growth in religious belief and understanding.
But that Biblical view of a child, as something whose thoughts are immature and less valuable, with imperfect understanding, has gone on growing ever since, and is deeply embedded in our culture. Why is it that ‘childish’, for example, is only now a derogatory term, used by adults to criticise or condemn? We so often regard the state of childhood as having no true intrinsic value; of being a land through which we pass on our way to a more finished self. By doing that, of course, we also make of our lives a single road of improvement and progress, which curves inexorably from the foothills of our birth to the moment of our death.
Students have the luxury of time: to pause on that road; to walk back downhill a little and question its route, to consider the real nature of the view. As mature adults, we rarely get to check back on signposts missed, or stopping points we have raced away from too soon. As I crossed Bloomsbury on my way to my first lecture last night, I found myself instantly transported back to those years when, as an undergraduate, I haunted the same libraries, bars and bookshops that were in front of me again. Nothing had changed – and yet everything had changed. I was bringing my much older, more experienced self to that landscape. It was a strange mix of emotions: relief that I was there again at all; sadness at some of the wasted time that had cluttered up my studies; amazement at how undirected my younger self had been, and excitement that somehow I had re-found my footsteps on that path.
But you see, to get there, I have had to step back, as well as forwards. I will have to relearn how to study, how to argue, how to focus my thoughts and my time on matters more esoteric than domestic. I have to use my older head to remind myself not to be intimidated by youth and ambition around me, but my younger self needs to remind me how to be part of that student body once again, now that who I am is no longer as important as what I can be.
That last thought seems to be the exclusive province of the young. I will have to stop being frightened of Time, and learn to ignore its presence in the same way that children find it irrelevant. The great joy of having a life at all is that we can, at any point on that road, reinvent ourselves. But we need the optimism of that earlier, less developed self to see it through. This time, I am determined to manage it without ‘the fags, whisky and all-nighters of my youth’ as my friend Kitty reminded me.
Early work for my MA is focusing on what it means to be a child. That is even harder to find than the student…further back down that road, in a place where my recollection is truly faded and worn. Those of us looking at loved and battered books from our childhoods in last night’s seminar found it hard to recall exactly why the magic had been there at all; so difficult it is for adults to see back to that time and remember those childish feelings without the filter of our ‘grown up’ values and opinions. Maybe that’s because we forgot to value those ‘childish things’ as we should have done, and instead raced on to ever newer experiences. And raced away from our childhood, and never saw the loss.
What were those thoughts, books, toys, comforters, that were with us when we were children? Did we take any part of them with us when we moved on? Does it matter that we forget how to be young, and that we encourage our children to forget in their turn?. Is it really an emotional landscape that we should never check back on, for fear of being thought ‘childish’?
You will be glad to hear I draw the line at resurrecting my student wardrobe or lifestyle. For one thing I now have much better taste in clothes, and I become a pumpkin after midnight. But I rather like standing at the edge of the road, looking both ways, just for once.