Growing Young (Or, Becoming Like Children)
“ ‘I’ll be darned!’ said Douglas. ‘I never thought of that. That’s brilliant! It’s true. Old people never were children!’ ‘And it’s kind of sad,’ said Tom sitting still. ‘There’s nothing we can do to help them.’ ”1
If you’ve read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine before, then you probably recognize this poignant surmise on aging. Ten year-old Tom’s insight is based on his interactions with the seventy-two year old Mrs. Bentley, a widow who moved into Tom’s town years back. When Mrs. Bentley tells Tom and his friends that she was once a little girl, the first thing they look for is proof: “ ‘Only way I’ll believe you were ever young’—Jane shut her eyes to emphasize how sure she was of herself—‘is if you have someone say they saw you when you were ten.’ ”2 Indeed, the children are so sure that Mrs. Bentley has always been about seventy, that even her mementos and pictures from childhood are taken for shams. Their insistent doubt brings her to the conclusion that “You were always in the present. She may have been a girl once, but was not now. Her childhood was gone and nothing could fetch it back.”3 And so Tom relates to his older brother, Douglas, that “Old people never were children.” While the boys’ understanding of age will continue growing through the book, this reflection brought to mind other reflections on what our age says about us.
In his spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy, Chesterton quipped of God that “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.”4 Chesterton’s analysis is based on the observation that “variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still.”5 Since we are all subjected to the effects of the fall, our age becomes, in effect, a measure of how much our fallen nature has caught up with us. We wear down with age because of sin’s corrosive effect. At this point, Mrs. Bentley comes back to mind. Why did she decide that “Her childhood was gone and nothing could fetch it back?” Why was Tom so confident that “old people never were children” and that, therefore, “There’s nothing we can do to help them?” If Chesterton is on the right track, then perhaps Mrs. Bentley and Tom were seeing an aged soul—an inner life withered and worn down by the effects of sin. Further, perhaps in small ways, we can see this in our own lives. Or, am I the only one who has felt growing cynicism and pessimism as my life has progressed. Obviously, the situation is more complex than this. Still, it is an example of youth’s innocence disappearing, and we all know that, however necessary, it is not wholly a good thing.
Alongside these thoughts, a throwaway line from C.S. Lewis comes to mind. While dedicating The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe to Lucy Barfield, Lewis laments that “girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales . . .”6 Again, we meet the effects of age and sin. Lewis though, does not see this as the end of the story, though. Instead, he continues with the statement “But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”7 With those words comes a breath of hope. Is it truly possible to repair the corrosion of sin and age and grow to be young again?
At this point, Christ’s admonition comes to mind: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).8 This statement comes in answer to the disciples’ enquiry, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1) While Christ will go on to answer their question directly, we would do well to pay attention to his preliminary explanation. Entrance into the kingdom requires becoming like little children. Christ explains the process elsewhere by saying that “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Becoming like a little, child, selling all we have—a pattern starts emerging. Entering the kingdom involves trusting Christ for everything, resting in his provision rather than our sweat equity.
But, how can this be accomplished? I, at least, do not naturally rely on someone other than myself. Tom’s synopsis drifts back into the picture: “And it’s kind of sad . . . There’s nothing we can do to help them.” If our own effort was the only factor, the outlook would be rather bleak. Tom’s analysis follows along Chesterton’s insight—there’s nothing we can do since our efforts to save ourselves from sin by definition push us further back into relying on self.
As Lewis knew, though, this is not the end of the story. We can grow old enough to be children again. Paul puts it this way: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). The Gospel brings us back from the aging effects of sin. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it raises back to childhood. Either way, coming back to Christ’s work is the next step for all of us. For some you, life so far has consisted entirely of resting on your own work to get what you want—all the while seeing the aging effect of sin that apparently can’t be helped. Christ calls you to rest in him—he begins the good work in your life. Turn to him in repentance, trusting him for the grace both to repent and to follow. Others of you have started down the path to childhood, but still play at being grownups sometimes. Christ again is calling us back to rest in him—he is the one who is completing the good work in our lives. In each case, the only remedy for growing back to childhood is the Gospel. There is no other way to be restored.
When do you most often find yourself playing at being grownup?
What does it look like to maintain a childlike attitude towards God and yet continue to mature and grow?