Let’s try an exercise today: I’d like you to think of at least one person whom you think is immature, childish, or unsophisticated. Take your time; no rush.
Any come to mind? No? Perhaps this might help: Such a person doesn’t conduct herself according to her age or reputation or environment. Maybe laughs or talks in a weird way. Is brazen, doesn’t know when to speak, and when to shut up. May ask for, or share, too much personal information.
(As I write this, I’m reminded of Mater from the Cars movie franchise. That’s not weird I hope.)
Does anyone come to mind now? I think by now, you probably can recall one such person. It would be fair game to call such a person immature, right?
Now, what is my issue with such people? Nothing! My issue is with the thinking that makes us label these people the way we just did – as “immature”, “childish”, “naive”, “simpleton”, “impertinent”, and a host of other similar epithets.
It’s not that I think these terms are derogatory or anything. I’m not suggesting that we should just drop these words from our vocabulary. But what I would like is for us to take a moment to reflect on such an individual, before we just label them with these adjectives.
Specifically, I’d like us to consider the difference between being “childish”, and being “childlike”.
There are “childish” people in the world; no arguments there. These would be the people who can’t fully understand how their behavior might be viewed by those around them, what its consequences might be, what the appropriate behavior should be, etc.
But then there are those who are “childlike” – they understand these things, yet they choose to act the way they do. They embrace their inner child, and her innocence and simplicity. To an outsider, it may look like they are “childish”, because they act like a child, don’t appear to care about how others view their actions, etc. But, actually, they may very well understand those things – it’s just that they have moved beyond those concerns.
They have simply made a choice different than what most of us might make. Although, I’m against labels of any sort, if we had to label them, I’d say this makes them “quirky” at the most, but definitely not “childish”.
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The post title has three key words – “struggle”, “innocence” and “authenticity”. The above childlike behavior is the “innocence” part of it.
Now, why is maintaining this innocence a “struggle”?
I feel that people who are all “grown up” at heart don’t fully realize the difficulties of leading a life of innocence, of being a child at heart, in a world that’s always expecting you to “act” your age or position – at work, in relationships, and in the society at large.
All our actions are judged all the time. This is a nuisance for most of the “adults” anyway, but is even more of an issue for the “childlike” souls. If this “childlike” behavior is misdiagnosed, it can lead to many missed opportunities. If you, as a leader, had to delegate an important task, would you do that to such an individual, howsoever skilled she may be, or to someone more “mature”, even if she were not as skilled?
And it’s not just at work. More importantly, chances are high that these people might miss out on many meaningful relationships. So much rides on first impressions, and that is precisely where these individuals are at a loss. Without the time required to understand them and their actions, many people might be turned away outright by their seemingly “childish” behavior.
Facing these challenges on a daily basis, knowing the cost of keeping that spark of innocence alive, I think, that takes a lot of courage and strength to face up to. But it’s a struggle nonetheless.
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Lastly, about “authenticity”…
Earlier, I mentioned that these people have probably willingly chosen their specific approach to life. They understood what they were getting into, how they’ll be treated, but went ahead anyway.
But life can be long, and hard, and relentless. Forced to live in an “adult” world, and faced with the constant struggles of daily life (only a hint of which I’ve given above – just the tip of the iceberg), I think it’s possible that these “childlike” personalities may evolve and adapt over time. They might, consciously or unconsciously, start wearing “masks” to fit in with their environments, to be taken seriously by those around them. (Shameless self promotion: I’ve talked about these “masks” in a post before also. Head on over to read more about why we must resist them.)
And that’s where their authenticity starts getting eroded. Initially, it’s just about putting on the “act” of acting one’s age. But over time, it might become difficult to differentiate where and when the “act” ends, and when to switch back to “normal” mode. Such a “double life” is not a feasible option in the long run as it can be very tiring & frustrating. It will sap the joy and playfulness out of these people, ultimately costing them their innocence as well.
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But why have I been going on and on about this topic? What’s to be gained from all this talk?
Well, it’s hope – hope that someone reading this might recognize somebody from their life with these characteristics, and it might help them understand that individual just that little bit better.
And it’s not just for the benefit of these beautiful, “childlike” souls. It’s for our own benefit too – for not missing out on potentially great memories and relationships with some wonderful people, wherever we might encounter them, at whatever stage of life.
I’m all for such childlike innocence. In today’s world, where even children grow up so fast these days, it’s rare to find that innocence in an “adult”. But when we do see that spark in someone, I think it’s worth preserving and encouraging.
We all complain of life becoming more complicated as we grow older. Everywhere we look, there’s so much negativity and pessimism. But when we come across someone “childlike”, we often dismiss them immediately as “childish”. I think that would be a huge loss, as the world can do with a lot more of the wonder and optimism of these “children”.
As they say:
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
And maybe, by being in the company of such people, we’ll connect with that little lost kid within ourselves, too.
That wouldn’t be so bad now, would it?