I told a lie. That was bad enough, but to think that my kids heard me. I was paying for tickets and children under 7 were free. She had only JUST turned seven. It seemed harmless enough. It was the kind of lie that adults call white, to help us sleep at night, but a seven year old is color blind when it comes to her parents’ actions.
When I turned around and saw them standing there listening, I was devastated. If eyeballs had jaws, hers dropped that day. It was like one of those cartoons where the eyes pop out of the head and slingshot back again. “Dada you told a fib.” Innocence was lost.
It’s a look I’d seen before, like when I had to hold down my two year old son for a medical procedure and he looked at me with betrayal in his eyes. I wanted to tell him what Atticus Finch told Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird, “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.” We all go through it at some point. The garden paradise we had expected turns out to be overrun with weeds. Circumstances are cruel, nature strikes without warning, people you trust betray you, parents lie.
Comedian, George Carlin, was less patient than Atticus Finch. He said, “I’m tired of hearing about innocent victims; this is an outmoded idea. There are no innocent victims. If you’re born in this world you’re guilty, period. Your birth certificate is proof of guilt.”
I’m sure that some people do NOTHING to deserve their tragedy; victims of rape, war and abuse? It’s not their fault. Things happen, awful things happen. Its the price of admission into the reality of life. But even if you suffer innocently there are parts of you that can never be anyone’s victim. They remain within your choice and power – things such as your attitude and your thoughts. Give this up, and you are choosing bitterness. This is not to say it’s easy, because it’s certainly not, but it is possible to rise about trauma and regain lost innocence. Every time you love again after being betrayed, tell the truth again after being mocked, you regain your innocence.
Innocence the way I’m talking about it has nothing to do with naivety. An ancient proverb says, “Innocence plays in the backyard of ignorance.” You can’t live your life with blinkers on. We tend to think of innocence as a childish quality, like evolutionary bubble-wrap that keeps you optimistic for long enough to fit in, before the rot sets in. I’m talking about innocence more like the calm after the storms of life try to make you bitter, and you refuse to give in because you see beneath it.
What is the alternative to innocence? A life of bitterness or loneliness where you can’t forgive, can’t trust your own judgment, can’t believe in your own dreams? Is that living? It’s no accident that the Hebrew word for innocence is “Tam”. When Tam is spelled in reverse, it forms the word for death. The loss of innocence is the beginning of death.
I believe that innocence can be regained. For me, this innocence is neither a childlike faith that needs to be protected from reality nor is it an adult bitterness that is blunted by life experience. It is mature innocence, sharpened by experience and shaped by reality. Innocence is at least one half of wisdom. It is the half of wisdom that refuses to follow fear’s lead. Fear turns experience into unchanging beliefs about yourself and the world. Innocence doesn’t lock into unchanging beliefs. It looks around, almost playfully, for reasons to stay hopeful.
In a sense, innocence is the essence of your inner sense that all there is is love. All the energy spent trying to defend, trying to protect, submitting to fear, blinds us to the fact that anything that needs to be protected is not ours to begin with. Innocence comes from the part of you that can’t be lost, only buried. It’s so easy to forget this along the way. Love exists despite overwhelming evidence – thorns have roses, tears have heart and trauma has wisdom, and innocence will help you find it again.
Maybe innocence isn’t childlike at all. Maybe innocence is something we spend our whole lives trying to be young enough to experience fully. As Pablo Picasso said, “It takes a very long time to become young.”
This sort of innocence doesn’t expect perfection. The people you trust most will hurt you again. Trauma will strike somebody, somewhere, if not you. Parents will lie. Life will be hard. But underneath it all, you have a spirit that remains open to it all, prepared for the worst but still able to enjoy the best. It is resilient enough to withstand any hardship and gentle enough to cradle your innocence like a new born baby. This innocence can never be fully lost. Only forgotten.