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Narrowing, Learning

This piece from ten years ago reflects what I have organized my entire life around for 22 years – my children. 

When a child first opens its eyes, it has no idea what it is looking at. All it has are bizarre images and an imagination that works to make sense of it all.

In between is a sense of wonder, the deep feeling that it all makes sense somehow if you just keep drinking it in. That, and keep playing with it.

I never use pictures of my own children, to respect their privacy.

Watching my children grow has been a great experience that can’t be matched by anything. I know I was once in their place, but somehow so much of it has been forgotten. It’s as if understanding the world was a goal that, once achieved, allows you to look back on the journey with nothing better than a memory fogged by embarrassment. But that journey is what being a kid is all about, and in one way or another what being a parent is about.

Every child starts with a tendency to pick up a paintbrush and paint with broad, sweeping strokes. In kindergarten, every painting is a landscape, a vast panorama of the mind. By the time they learn to write, however, the tight grip on a pen turns their art into detailed works much smaller in scale. They no longer need large pieces of paper, but can doodle on nothing more than a post-it.

The same thing happens with their toys. They start out large enough for clumsy hands to grab, but gradually become smaller as the kids become bigger. That may seem to run backwards, but the kids themselves stop playing airplane and start playing airport; they go from cars to racetracks, from dolls to tea parties.

In all of these cases, the proper development of a child is seen as an ever-tightening focus on details. That’s reasonable enough, but what about that vast imagination that held the whole world in outstretched arms?

We all start out with a mind that can understand the bigger picture of the world, but lose it to all the finer skills needed to be “civilized”. This is a big part of why we develop what I call Cultural Autism, which is the inability to understand the spray of information that is fired at us every day. The bigger picture of imagination and wonder is the only hope we have to make sense of the wider world being thrown at us as if we were all toddlers once again.

It’s all something that works best from the guts, the part of our mind that once propelled a large paintbrush across a tremendous sheet of paper. When he as asked what it takes to be a great painter, Pablo Picasso said, “A clear mind, a firm hand, and the eyes of a child.”

That’s also true of being a good human being, too. We’re all born with the right skills, but they are trained out of us. The result is a limited ability to keep learning with the part of our brain that is capable of making sense out of too much information. The best we can do is to re-learn it from our kids as they grow up later. It’s a good second option to not forgetting it in the first place and remembering that the goals and journeys aren’t such terribly distinct things.

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