Why I Listen to Children (and Birds before Dawn)
One morning a kindergartner named Bianca, on her way into school, gave me a beautiful poster with many drawings and colors. She pointed out herself (the biggest figure) and the other students. She pointed out the school building, the sunshine, the trees, the flowers, and her mom (slightly smaller than herself). Letters across the sky spelled: “CHILDREN’S DAY SCHOOL.” At the end of her narration she pointed to the bottom of the picture and said, “These are the houses for the fairies,” and then as a conspirator, she said, “I think there are fairies in the dirt.”
I said, “Bianca, I am sure of it.”
Bianca and I are not the only believers. There is, in fact, a fairy village in one corner of the playground where there is an abundance of sticks, stones, moss, dirt and other building material. The kindergartners and first graders keep developing the fairy village year after year.
CEO or chef, gardener or garbage man, parent, poet or all of the above, we are at our best when we bring our whole selves to our activity. Yet, this is often not that easy.
We are divided selves. We have a known self and an unknown self. One of the wonderful things about children under seven is that the membrane between these two selves is still permeable.
The known self is our executive director. It plans, strategizes, makes decisions, and tries to understand, explain things, make sense and keep everything under control. It knows it knows how to cook, take care of others, clean up, draw pictures and write. It acquires, sorts and categorizes information, knows right from wrong and can tell you the names of things.
Our executive director has an impossible job, though. It is responsible for a whole self of which it is mostly unaware. All those experiences I have forgotten or repressed, the data that came in when I was paying attention to something else, the stuff I didn’t understand, my inadequacies—all this and so much that I only get hints of comprise my unknown self.
A big part of my unknown self is my imagination. Most of what exists in the civilized world from airplanes to zippers was not part of “reality” until someone imagined them. My imagination has at its disposal infinite possibilities. Diseases have been cured by focused imagination. A “para phenomenon” is a reality that science doesn’t understand.
We get glimpses of this unknown self in dreams, crazy notions and inspirations. Challenges we are nervous about taking on, urges to do things our director tells us we are not ready for, a voice that says “Do it” even though we fear we’ll fail, these messages come from … where?
There are many names for it. I call it our genius. Our genius knows us more than we know. It loves us more than we think we are loveable, it expresses itself in a wide variety of ways. When we are “playing out of our head,” working with abandon, or “in the flow,” barely conscious of what we are doing, our two selves are in partnership, and we are not afraid.
If we want to make good decisions with people we are responsible for leading, if we want to make the meal a work of art, if we want to love the work we don’t feel like doing, if we want to see our children in a new light or write something beautiful, then we need to be in touch with parts of ourselves that we only get inklings of.
Bringing an undivided self to a situation requires two sets of disciplines. Self-control, persistence, critical thinking, decision-making, and the other disciplines of the pre-frontal cortex are one set only. The disciplines of evoking, mobilizing and keeping us in touch with the unknown self are equally critical for us to thrive. Sometimes survive. The relative not invited to the Christening becomes the evil witch bent on our destruction.
There is much we can learn from children and one of the most important is how to stay in touch with our genius. Fairies, monsters and Santa Claus are functional partners in their lives. My daughter Katie had a partner whose name was Dentrum. We say “imaginary;” to her he was real.
One of Lizzie’s friends was Goofy, and he lived in the Goofy Hotel. Once as we drove by, she said, “Stop. I want to go see Goofy.” After hesitating for a second, I pulled up to the curb in front of the “hotel,” got out, went around the car and opened the door for her. She started to undo her seatbelt, and then thought better of it. She said, “That’s okay. We don’t have to see Goofy now.” We left. We never went in.
The healthy brain has a barrier between the conscious Self and the rest of Self. Something inside Lizzie kept her from breeching the barrier. An educated mind knows that fairies and Santa Claus are not empirically verifiable realities. Confusing the difference between real and imaginary is a good definition of psychosis.
At the same time, a mind that is unaware of its inner potential, a mind that is in denial of its secret longings, a mind that does not understand “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” a mind that is not touched by myths and cannot see the fairies in the dirt, will not bring its whole self to the table and cannot thrive.
“Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”