Out of the mouths of babes

Think back to your early childhood and see if you can’t remember a time when an adult walked past you, looked down at you, and smiled. Perhaps you were with your father at a nearby park, or with your mother at the mall. Did you wonder why that stranger was stopping to smile at you? Did you wonder who it was?

I always used to wonder what they were smiling at, these adults who walked by. Were they laughing at me? Did I look funny? Had that lady just remembered a joke? If that guy didn’t even know me, what was it that could make him smile that way? Hadn’t he ever seen a little kid before?

But now, apparently, I’m that guy.

There is a daycare center near my apartment, and I pass it every morning on my walk to class. Because of the daycare center, there are always children in the area. Some of them are still in strollers, bundled up against the cold and pushed along by their parents, who drop them off at the daycare before heading off to work somewhere on campus. Others are old enough to walk on their own, tripping along with their hand clasped tightly in the larger hand of Mommy or Daddy, who makes sure that they don’t fall.

Most mornings, especially in the winter, I’m sufficiently bleary-eyed that the daycare children and their parents simply form a part of the early morning blur. The other morning, though, on my way to class, I came upon a little toddler who was walking with his father and doing his best to steer a remote-controlled car at the same time.

We were walking towards each other, and the little boy was too intent on maneuvering his vehicle to notice me. However, I could see that he was (unbeknownst to him) driving the mini car straight in my direction, so I decided to stop and wait. I did my best to step out of the way, but somehow the car ended up colliding with my foot and flipping over into the snow.

I looked at the boy’s father and winked. “Uh-oh!” I said, and knelt down to help set the car right again. Shy, the little boy stuck close to his father, but while I was still at knee level, I looked at him and smiled. “It’s a good thing everyone was wearing their seatbelts!” I joked, but they boy said nothing. Then, his father said something to him in a language I didn’t understand, and the boy laughed loud and hard.

As it turns out, the boy and his father (a researcher) were Lebanese, and although the father was able to understand me and carry on a short conversation, the boy was still young enough that he knew very little English. I said good morning to them and continued to class, a few minutes late but certainly none the worse for the wear.

As I continued walking, I wondered to myself what the little boy must have thought of me. Here I was, a tall adult in his eyes, and (to him) a foreigner. My foot had gotten in the way of his car and had caused a small accident, but he seemed more afraid that he had bothered me than annoyed that I had accidently interfered with his play. I must have been old enough or tall enough to make him shy, but he still thought that I was funny when his father explained to him the meaning of my words. In the end, I had made him smile.

It was in that moment that I realized that I am now one of them—those strange adults who smile at children for no apparent reason, the very ones whose sanity I had questioned as a young child. Now, instead of me wondering what that guy was smiling about, this little boy was wondering the same thing about me.

As such, I had to ask myself: what was I smiling at? What are all of us smiling at when we cross paths with a young child?

It has to be their innocence. Children are held up as examples of faith, of trust. They will believe anything and everything you tell them; they are human sponges. As they say in that old song, Blame it on My Youth, “If I believed in everything, like a child of three…” Perhaps we long to return to a time when everything was that simple—when Truth was whatever our parents said to us, and Lies were something that only naughty children told.

Yes, when it comes to innocence, little children certainly have the corner on the market, and I don’t know an adult out there who doesn’t occasionally wish that such innocence could be regained. As one of my friends recently asked, “When can I be carefree again?” Other friends’ responses? “Never. Adulthood sucks.” “Agreed; everything is downhill from here.”

The friends who were asking and answering this question are, at most, 22 years of age.

My own perspective is not nearly so depressing—I personally believe, perhaps too optimistically, that life only gets better with age—but such comments serve to illustrate a point: we smile when we see young children because we rejoice that any human creature can still be so carefree.

Our economy is in tatters, no one can agree about healthcare, politics are bitterly divided, people are dying of earthquakes and AIDS and hunger (if not all three), and wars seem to threaten wherever we’re not fighting one already.

And, through all of this, young children know almost nothing of it.

I recently attended services at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The service was beautiful, but the message—commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King and the many dead in Haiti—was a somber one. At some point in the middle of the sermon, I noticed a young girl in the row of seats in front of me. She was probably five years old, and in the middle of all that talk about tragedy and death and killings and discrimination and loss, she was taking advantage of “adult time” to write a letter to her friend. I took a look over her shoulder at the note.

Deer Lisa,” it said, “I am in the big church and God is here and it’s so prity.”

Yes, my friends, that’s why we smile.

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