Innocence Isn’t Lost, Only Forgotten
No matter how disenchanted we feel, we are always home.
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore; –
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”
– William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
When we reflect on childhood, most of us remember that the world was brighter, somehow more vivid. It’s not necessarily that the circumstances of our childhoods were good, but that the innocence we lived in, regardless of our surroundings, brought us into easier connection with the world around us. We felt an aliveness and buoyancy in things. At some early enough point, we felt safe, contained, and enchanted, if only by the universe itself.
As children, that vibrant innocence is our default state. Across all societies we sense that it is somehow sacred, and highly value, socially and legally, its protection.
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.”
As young children we are inadvertently connected with the deeper self. We act naturally and spontaneously, without concern for how it makes us look, or for constructed identities.
As we grow older we become lost in ego – in the unconscious mental and emotional frameworks that divide us from the the deeper self and the world around us. We become lost in fixed ideas about ourselves and everything, and often act out of them, strengthening our sense of separateness.
As adults, we are not so natural or connected, unless we make the conscious choice to look inward. We can always make the choice to return to the essence of innocence – not by going back to the past, but by moving so deeply inward that the conscious awareness that we truly are dissolves our pain and egos. So we see that all of the separation and complexity of adulthood has been a sort of waking dream, a mental and emotional projection of our accumulated inner division. So we see that the essence of innocence was never really lost, nor could it have been. It’s just been covered over by often thick layers of mental and emotional complexes. As we release them, we realize that we’ve never really left the state of innocence, only disguised it.
“Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never”
The return to innocence, then, is not exactly the rediscovery of innocence, but something deeper. What you didn’t realize you knew in childhood, and gradually abandoned or lost touch with, you now realize. You experience the depths of innocence, and its value. This is the deeper meaning of wisdom.
So the whole trajectory of human realization is to live as children in unconscious innocence, then as we grow to fall away from that innocence in unconscious paradigms, and then in wisdom to choose to relinquish those paradigms and prioritize the return to the ground of innocence always underlying. So we are born from “the immaterial” into “the material,” lose ourselves in it, and eventually choose to realize our immaterial nature. That is in essence the whole play of human activity, and why we’re here. We are here to come to consciously realize and choose the ground of being out of which we were unconsciously born.
We can also see this in societies. Much of the world is becoming distanced from its innocence (not really losing it) right now, mixed up in increasing technological sophistication and complex paradigms of identity and division. So we distract ourselves and lose touch with that underlying nature, but we can always come back to it, even as a world, if we make that realization and resolution a priority. It is only a question of how much disenchanted adulthood our race wants to suffer before prioritizing wisdom and the inward return. How far do we want to venture out into complexity before we come back to unity?
As a world, that question depends on us all, but each of us is free to prioritize that inward return at any time, daunting as it may be, moving through pain and weight within us into clear awareness of the underlying innocence we’ve always been.
(All poetry excerpts in this article are from William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”)
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