For many years, and perhaps up to the present, the half-bathroom of the home of my maternal grandparents had a frame with a piece of artwork that I had made with green paint and small hand prints during my time in elementary school, at about the age of six or seven. Little did I know or suspect that such a modest piece of artwork would have any kind of resonance with anything of scholarly or historical interest, or any kind of larger questions about art or human agency. And yet a few weeks ago while doing some historical research, I came across a painting that is reputed to be one of the oldest human paintings that is not too different from my own childish work. Who knows what those ancient artists meant by putting so many hand prints on the side of a wall? Who knew what I meant as a young child when I did the same thing? Was it simply an aesthetic appreciation of the way the paint made the lines of my palm stand out in such intriguing geometric shapes? Was there some deeper statement that I (or the earlier artists) were making about free will and identity? Only God knows. Nevertheless, to see a connection between my own childhood art and the early history of mankind is something that I find remarkable and also deeply meaningful, as well as more than a little troubling, as if to say that for all the generations we have lived, at our core we can find striking similarities in our behavior, even if the motivations for that behavior is mysterious.
As human beings, we are faced with the sometimes tragic tension between our immense longings and imagination and the miniscule reach of our influence and control. We are likewise faced with a tragic tension between our narrow limits of understanding and the immense and often horrifying extent of the unintended consequences and repercussions of our actions. It is well for us that for now we are limited to this earth and its immediate environs, because like small children in a sandbox, we are all still having growing pains as moral beings and do not yet have the maturity or insight or restraint to be able to handle the sort of power that would result from our conquest and terraforming of other planets. We were made stewards of this planet, and we have not done a very fine job of that task to date. The widespread sentiment of our cultural and scientific elites appears to be that we do not have much time to learn at this late hour , one of the few areas where futurist interpreters of Revelation agree with the world’s leading environmental scientists (a profession that scarcely seems more accurate or more optimistic than being a prophetic hobbyist).
I often have a hard time really understanding how much of an adult I really am. Falling into the unpleasant gap in the society where I spend most of my time between youth and the sort of age where people start treating one with respect, and being sometimes rather unaware of and unresponsive to the fact that a lot more time has gone by in my life and in the outside world around me than has gone by in my own internal world and perspective of myself. Although I am certainly intellectually aware of the fact that it was half a lifetime ago that I was writing sad poetry of my own adolescence and having my first serious crushes and dealing with all of those stresses of trying to make a better life for myself through education, in many ways I have neither forgotten such matters nor have I often felt far advanced from those concerns yet in my life. I don’t see myself as immature, but all the same I simply don’t know how the years have gotten away from me so completely.
I think I can speak for most people in that we share an appreciation and a joy in the innocence of little children. This love of little ones, a desire to protect them and an enjoyment of their smiles and their hesitant attempts at mimicking the behavior of the big people around them is not thanks to anything that the little children have done. In fact, most little ones cannot do very much at all, and certainly nothing that we cannot do vastly better ourselves. Children seem more joyful than the elderly about not being able to do much of anything because they have no memory of their past strength and past independence, and so there is no gloominess about the loss of what once was, but rather the freshness and newness of everything that they experience. For me, and for many others, that newness and the enthusiasm of youth, is infectious, even if there is a wisdom that comes from painful experience that makes life a bit less enjoyable for many of us. To retain a sense of wonder and joy about our lives and surroundings while also becoming wise and reflective is a tricky balance to maintain.
One aspect that ought to help is that in God’s eyes, we are all little children, all babies, all unborn little ones in the womb awaiting our birth into eternal life as the beings we were created to be, and even little caterpillars who have no idea what life will be like as butterflies if we manage to endure and enter into His kingdom. There is nothing that we can do for ourselves or for others that God cannot do better and more quickly. But for us to strengthen our wings, and to develop His nature, we still have to act anyway with our sometimes ineffectual efforts and our hesitant first steps and our clumsy attempts at art, like my early hand prints. Sometimes the point is not that something needs to be done the best that it can be, but that everyone learns to improve their capabilities, learns to do better, and develops the patience and humility and character that come from acting out one’s beliefs and from learning and growing in new areas, even if the first efforts are not the most elegant or the most accomplished. For virtue never came about without a great deal of practice, no matter how small or our maladroit our hands.