One of my grandsons has just reached the age where he enjoys movies, and I love to take him. Hearing him laugh is one of the great pleasures of my life.
There is an old Greek myth that children live in heaven until it’s time for them to be born. When they first arrive on Earth, the memory of heaven is still with them, and that’s what gives them that wonderful glow of innocence and wonder. Children are indeed wondrous creatures.
Sometimes, when cynicism and despair scratch at the door of my heart, it is the thought of children that makes me keep those wicked creatures out. As long as there are children there is hope. They provide us all a motive to keep trying to fashion a better world. We might have forfeited our right to a decent world, but the children haven’t.
Growing up during a war in a tough part of the country and in a tough family, I have never cared much if adults wished to kill each other. It is the suffering of children, however, that makes me hate war. Wars were once fought in a more civilized manner, soldiers against soldiers. Modern war, however, is war against everyone and has brought us that odious euphemism “collateral damage.” What it means is the death and mutilation of innocent children, women, and noncombatant men.
During World War II, we deliberately started a firestorm in Tokyo that, according to a Japanese source, consumed the lives of more than 200,000 people, all but a fraction of them civilians. Then we obliterated tens of thousands of more innocent lives with atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think that if I were Japanese, I wouldn’t be able to forgive that. And we killed thousands of civilians in Europe with our strategic bombing and artillery barrages. A huge majority of the 55 million people who died in that war were civilians.
There’s no point in arguing the right and the wrong of it, or who started it. The dead are just as dead for all that. And I’m perfectly willing to concede that virtually all heads of state are evil, differing only in degree. It’s so tempting for heads of state to play the great game as if the human beings far below them were merely chess pieces on a board.
Ah, well, let’s hope we can at least avoid a global war in the 21st century. It would be grand if the whole world could live in peace. Even peacetime living is tragic enough, with accidents, illnesses, and just running out the old biological clock. But it’s wonderful to watch children, who are sheltered from all that, at least for a few years.
Both Christianity and Zen urge us to return to a childlike state so that we can experience the wonder and the beauty of the world. Our memories of childhood are so vivid because then we lived in the present moment, encumbered neither by memories nor worries about the future. Most Christians tend toward the gloomy side of their religion, but I did meet two Tibetan Buddhist monks some years ago. They are the only Buddhists I know who I’m sure were really enlightened, and they were like children, though one was in his 40s and the other in his 50s. The hardships and dangers they had experienced in the past as they fled across the mountains from the Chinese invaders had left no mark on them.
One afternoon, they were wading in a lake and suddenly started shouting. Their host, fearing they might have crossed paths with a moccasin, rushed out. They had found a frog. “Look, look,” they said, “at this beautiful green frog!”
If you’ve read Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis, you will recall that at the end of the book the English intellectual who had gone to Moscow to witness the revolution receives a telegram from his old friend, Zorba.
“Come quick,” the telegram said. “I have found a most beautiful stone.” It would do us all good if we could appreciate a frog and a rock or, like my grandson, the wonders of an earthworm or a butterfly.