“Life is interesting … but sometimes you have to help it.” – My friend and publishing partner, Tim Bitney
As a college freshman I enrolled in an English class. A biology major, I chose the class to meet freshwomen who didn’t consider formaldehyde perfume. I did, too. Sadly, they didn’t consider it a suitable men’s cologne either.
The class put us in grammar school classrooms, giving children techniques for writing poetry. Taught to expect frequent outbursts of poetic genius, because the sensibilities of the miniature humans we taught hadn’t yet been deadened by decades of oppressive teacherhood, I found the opposite: Unoriginal, mechanically constructed, second-hand ideas and third-hand imagery.
Children aren’t what our myths tell us they are. They aren’t born as geniuses, to be made stupid by our schools and their parents. If we’re utterly candid about it, they don’t notice very much or think very hard. Children’s art is primitive, less because they lack an artist’s mechanical skills than because they lack eyes trained to see details, such as, for example, arms.
The magic in children isn’t in their genius. It’s that the world hasn’t yet happened to them. They experience it without preconception, seeing, hearing, and smelling everything fresh. We see details because we know to look for them. Children sometimes see things we miss, specifically because we know what to look for.
Children lack proportion. When they’re happy they radiate pure joy; when they’re unhappy their hearts shatter; when they’re afraid they experience utter terror.
I had the privilege of seeing pure joy in each of my daughters when they were young. But Kimberly now has her driver’s license. I don’t see pure, unalloyed joy in her eyes anymore, although I do see utter terror in those of nearby drivers.
Erin was a Doowop Girl in her high school’s production of Little Shop of Horrors (the world has definitely changed!). I don’t see pure, unalloyed joy in her eyes either, but she’s a helluva singer and dancer, even if the plant did get top billing.
The world has happened to them. At least it’s started to. Experience has given them a sense of proportion, as it does to us all. It’s adulthood: It’s our experience that fits each new situation into a larger context. Minor fears don’t drive us to panic, small annoyances don’t drive us to rage. The price we pay is that small pleasures are just that — small.
A long straight drive off the eighteenth tee is, of course, another matter entirely.
Experience is a tricky thing. Ignore it and every day you’d make the same mistakes and misjudgments. Pay it too much attention and you limit your vision to your personal past. The future, not having happened yet, has more potential than that; so does the world beyond your horizons.
All progress comes from our ability, as human beings, to learn from experience. As Sir Isaac Newton described it, we stand on the shoulders of giants. All progress also depends on our knowing what of our experience (and that of others) to ignore — from, as Sir Thomas Huxley explained, the absolute rejection of authority.
As technologists this matters to us every day. Knowing when to apply our experience and when to accept the possibilities that lie beyond it requires both wisdom and luck.
Nor is ours unimportant work: We each play a small but real role in helping the world progress. It’s easy but fallacious to trivialize technology, giving preference to spirituality and ethics. People are, after all, far more likely to be spiritual and ethical if they’re first well-fed, sheltered, and secure. Technology has made the world both a more convenient place, and one in which it’s more convenient to be spiritual and ethical — a meaningful achievement.
For children, pleasure and fun are enough. For adults, meaning matters. Many of us achieve meaning through our careers — it’s our way of accomplishing something with our lives. Nobody ever dies wishing they’d spent another day in the office, but many die wishing their lives had meant more.
Meanwhile, last night we had our niece and nephews for a sleep-over. The youngest, Jacob, was sure monsters lurked, and was terrified. In the end there was nothing else for it: I slept on the sofa; he in the adjoining chair — for a fellow his size, easily big enough to serve as a bed. We assured him my snoring would be more than loud enough to scare any monsters away.
Both satisfied — me at having a useful role to play, Jacob with his protection from all the threats of the nighttime world — we slept.
Enjoy the holidays …with small children if you can.
Unalloyed joy rubs off on the spectators.
I’m taking a week offâ€”see you in 2005.