Recapture the Wonder
- Thursday, November 13, 2003
The tragedy with growing up is not that we lose childishness in its simplicity, but that we lose childlikeness in its sublimity.
It happened again the other day as we were in one of the teeming cities of our land. My wife and I were walking hurriedly to keep an appointment. We were elbowing our way through the mass of people, bobbing and weaving, a step here and a turn there, making the best speed we could. When waves of humanity descend from every direction it is inevitable for one to feel like a minute drop in a mighty torrent-unobserved, unimportant, almost nonexistent. It is the way with crowds. Such settings at once multiply and diminish the individual.
Yet one man stood out, and we could not help but find our gaze, almost with guilt, riveted upon his stooping figure. Our pace and, yes, our heartbeat, irresistibly slowed. We were both silent as we watched him-unkempt, unwashed, unshaven, and, I suppose, uncaring-as he burrowed through the garbage can on the sidewalk, tearing open any paper bag that might contain remnants of food. This is sobering to see anywhere, yet even more so in a land whose name is synonymous with abundance. But there he was, foraging almost like an animal for any edible morsel and stuffing it into his mouth.
Whenever we see a person whose whole being reveals the marks of such impoverishment my wife remarks, "To think that he was once a baby, held in the arms of his mother while she dreamed great dreams for him." I suppose that only from a mother would these sentiments flow at such a sight. Her words conjure up the image of a mother lovingly cradling her tiny infant and stroking his face while she sings to him about his future. Being human we assume that hopes and dreams are made for us and that we are made for them. In some cultures parents consult astrologers and determine the baby's name according to planetary alignments, and they celebrate with endless ceremonies to ensure a wonderful future. A baby throbbing with life is embodied promise. The birth day gives birth to more than a life-it gives birth to new hopes.
Some analysts of human psychology even go so far as to say that it is this distinctive of the human mind, its grand potential for dreaming and pursuing those dreams, that sets us apart from all other entities. We look into the future not just whimsically but with purpose and design. Our imaginations encourage us to aspire, hope, express ourselves, long for the fulfillment of dreams, wish, and plan. First, others dream for us; then the dream is our own. First, we see circumstances; then opportunities. And so, when we are confronted by a sight such as this pathetic, elderly man searching for sustenance in a garbage heap, we conclude that his life has fallen short of the future he could have had.
Skeptics would use a tragedy like this to point to the absence of God in the human experience. "Where is God in such disfigurement?" they will argue. "How can one blame this man for seeing no purpose and fulfillment in being alive?"
I think it is here that we make our first very subtle mistake, both in our logic and in our experience. It is shallow reasoning to deduce that because pain or unfulfilled dreams have brought disappointment to experience, life itself must be hollow and purposeless. In fact, this conclusion may miss the deeper problem within our common struggle to find something in life of ultimate purpose. Let me change the illustration to make the point.
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