This is my first holiday season with no children at home. So enjoy this piece from 11 years ago, when my life was very different. Consider this a note to my future self, now being repeated.
This time of the year, the holidays bring back memories that allow us to see the world, once again, through the eyes of a child. This is not some sentimental side effect of the rituals we go through, but is in many ways the reason they are important. A few moments spent contemplating this over a swirling mug of cocoa can show that seeing the world through the eyes of a child is actually a vital lesson.
The world around us is supposed to make sense, and things happen for reasons. A tilting axis points our hemisphere away from the sun once a year, and that is why it gets colder. a cold front winds up to the west, and we can expect snow. It all happens in a logical way, one step after another. We reserve our intuition for the mysteries of life, even as life itself remains unexplainable.
Similarly, we tend to believe that we are a rational species and that the acti
ons of humans are as explainable as the spinning of the planets. People do things for reasons as well, and our social lives are supposed to make roughly as much sense as the behavior of the universe at large. Life may not always be perfectly predictable, but it is supposed to be understandable.
Naturally, this doesn’t always work out as we plan.
There are two fundamental problems with the Sensible Assumption, which is that all things social and economic and governmental are supposed to make rational sense. The first is that it implies a certain degree of equilibrium where change is not so rapid that the rules are constantly under negotiation; this is obviously a problem in a world with increasing communication between people. The other problem is less obvious, but it is that the Sensible Assumption is based on a tremendous amount of cultural cohesion, which implies that people understand the actions and motivations of other people.
A world where people of many different cultures live next to each other is a world of constant misunderstanding. Basic norms of greetings, values, and motivations can be completely different and utterly unknown between neighbors. One person may believe that someone is going to act in a certain way, according to their own inherited values, and be surprised to see them do the exact opposite. This gradually breeds mistrust, and if unchecked can develop into hatred and possibly a power struggle. What is everyone fighting about? When it reaches that stage, many things in government, the economy, and life in general will appear utterly inexplicable. This may even be taken as fundamentally immoral, as it violates the unspoken Sensible Assumption.
The Sensible Assumption is basic to most cultures. In ethnic minorities, it is rather common to assume that the pale power system is monolithic and acting in ways that make sense to it. The continuous refusal to empower minorities is often seen as a sign of some vast conspiracy for this reason; it must be rational. The truth is most of these disputes start as callous indifference rather than an organized, brilliant scheme. The people involved are just jerks, and most are not intelligent enough to hatch a decent plot. Empowerment is simply not a concept that crosses pale people’s radar when they supposedly live in a world that makes sense as it is.
In a truly multicultural world, the first critical assumption that has to be ditched is the Sensible Assumption. Things will not always make sense, at least on the surface of it. That may sound defeatist, and it would be if there weren’t an alternative way of looking at the world.
Pablo Picasso once said that to be an artist one has to have a clear mind, a firm hand, and the eyes of a child. I happen to think that he was talking about the art of living as much as the art of painting. Look at how children see the world, so many parts of it for the very first time. They are often struggling to make sense of it, but the Sensible Assumption doesn’t kick in until they have been socialized through a steady diet of routine and organized learning. Mostly, what a child does is drink it all in and build connections gradually between the magical moments that fill their lives.
If you are building a magical experience for a child this month, please take the time to see the world through their eyes. Forget everything you know and accept the moment for what it is. If you can carry that spirit through the rest of the year, you might be lucky enough to build a few magical moments of your own. Our lives can make sense, but only if we don’t force it and understand the Sensible Assumption has terrible limits. We are a rational species, but not always in the way our conditioning assumes. The eyes of a child can see it, and so can all of us if we try.