One afternoon this summer, my 6-year-old came running through the house to find me. His eyes were wild with excitement. “Dad, you’ve got to come look — right now. Come look, come look, come look! Hurry, you’re going to miss it!”
We raced back to the living room, to the big window looking out over our backyard. From the day we moved in, that window has been our favorite room in the house. My son’s eyes searched one of the trees, searching and searching, and then he saw it again. “Dad, there! There! Do you see it? Do you see it?” And I did. Probably 25 feet up in one of our tallest trees was the backside of a big raccoon, comfortably perched out on one of the branches.
I mean, at first, we assumed it was a raccoon (too big to be a squirrel, too small to be a bear, too fat and furry to be a bird). We sat transfixed, watching that rear end — waiting for the animal to eat, or climb, or fall, or even just scratch an itch. Then it moved. Its tail swung down where we could see it, with its trademark black and gray stripes. “Dad, its tail! It is a raccoon!”
As I looked in my son’s eyes — and there was so much in those eyes — I saw a wisdom I once had and now sometimes struggle to remember. For that moment, he was my teacher, and I was his son.
Monotony or Creativity?
For the “mature” like me, raccoons are almost immediately a nuisance. They make homes under porches and climb down into chimneys. They tear away shingles and break holes in walls. When we see them, we reach for the phone to pay someone to come and remove them. Within a business day, if possible.
When my children see a raccoon, they see an entirely different creature. They’re not worried at all about the structural integrity of porches or the possibility of a four-legged home invasion. To them, animal control may as well be the KGB (just watch any animated movie with animal control workers). No, when they see a raccoon, it may as well be a triceratops. They don’t see problems; they see curiosities. They ask questions (lots of them): Where did he get his stripes? Why is he sleeping during the day? Does he have any friends? Can I pet him? We see trouble; they see beauty. We see monotony; they see creativity. We see a nuisance; they see a story.
Oh, how much we might learn from them, how much more we might see through their eyes. G.K. Chesterton writes,
Children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. (Orthodoxy, 81)
What 6-Year-Olds See
I recently felt my flabby imagination when our family went to pick KinderKrisp apples at a local orchard. Having tasted apples every week of their lives, it was our children’s first chance to actually grab one from a tree.
You could see their minds spinning, trying to connect the dots — they knew both apples and trees, but could not imagine them holding hands like this. They stared up in amazement as branches like the ones they’ve found in our front yard now reached out, wrapped in bright green cardigans, and nearly handed them the juicy red fruit. And, of course, they tasted better than any we ever bought from one of those bins at the store.
“God made a world even God could admire.”
To our shame, my wife and I weren’t connecting dots anymore. We were just trying to keep our kids from throwing apples at each other or bothering the innocent bystanders filling bags around us. So which of us saw the actual reality of the orchard? Who saw the apples as they really are — the 6-year-old or the 36-year-old? Chesterton weighs in,
When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic. . . . The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched. (71–72)
Our decades-long familiarity with this magic doesn’t make creation any less magical.
That we’ve watched God do his magic over and over and over again, doesn’t make it less miraculous. That we can begin to predict what will happen — birds from eggs, apples from trees, rainbows from storms — doesn’t suddenly render any of it “natural.” As much as modern science might have us think otherwise, nothing in all of creation is on autopilot. No, the Son of God “upholds the universe,” every apple of every kind in every orchard, “by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3) — even the ones in those store-bought bins.
God Has Not Grown Old
In this way, our cute, “naïve” children are our theology professors. Watch as Chesterton traces a typical boy’s imagination into heaven:
Grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. (81–82)
Don’t believe him? Then let God tell you in his own words:
God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. . . . God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. . . . And God saw that it was good. . . . And God saw that it was good. . . . And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:3–31)
God made a world even God could admire. And we only assume he eventually got bored with it all because we’re not him, because we don’t see this world like he does — because we assume he’s like us.
“Give yourself some space to be curious again, to ask the questions you haven’t asked in decades.”
If you understand what Chesterton’s saying, you can’t see a sunset the same. It’s even more stunning when you realize (as a pastor once showed me) that God not only paints a new sunset for us every 24 hours, but that as the world spins, he’s always painting sunsets. He never puts the brush down. Somewhere in the world, right now, he’s ushering the sun below the horizon again, conducting her slowly with his brush, mixing in oranges, purples, and blues.
And as he does, his heart soars over what he sees. Because when it comes to sunsets, God is more my son than he is me.
Remember That You Forget
This dulling dynamic in adults is rooted in a subtle but dangerous forgetfulness. Chesterton warns us that, in the end, all of this is really not about raccoons, apples, and sunsets:
We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forgot. (74)
Have you been lulled into forgetfulness? Have you even forgotten that you’ve forgotten? Have the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things slowly choked out your ability for awe and wonder? Then find an orchard or a local park. Go outside at dusk. Take that walk you’ve wanted to take. Be on the lookout for the bunnies, squirrels, birds, and bugs you’ve trained yourself to ignore. Give yourself some space to be curious again, to ask the questions you haven’t asked in decades.
And if you happen to have one, take a 6-year-old with you.