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  • Jan Flynn

I’m All Ready For My Second Childhood

And I’m pretty excited about it

Image by Rainer Maiores from Pixabay

Second childhood gets a bad rap

We’ve all heard that term. It makes me cringe. In two words, just four syllables, it conveys everything there is to fear about aging. Loss of dignity, loss of self-control, loss of independence.

Loss, loss, loss.

Even Shakespeare takes this dim view in the famous “All the World’s a Stage” speech from As You Like It:

. . . Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Thanks a lot, Will.

Taken that way, “second childhood” sounds like an inevitable descent into helplessness and decrepitude. A repeat of the reasonless, incontinent days of toddlerhood, only this time with a wrinkly butt.

Childishness, as Jacques says, but without the cute and cuddly perks.

No wonder the global anti-aging industry rakes in over $37 billion a year. When it comes to selling skin serums, jade face rollers, hair dye, and all the other stuff we could honestly live without, nothing works better than fear. Not even sex comes close.

There’s another way to look at it

What if a second childhood means a stage in life when you’ve already met the intense demands of young and midlife adulthood; when all of your time isn’t consumed by building a career, a family, a home, or an identity?

What if it means you have the space, time, and freedom to once again become not childish but childlike?

What a difference a word ending makes. Childish: self-centered, immature, irrational, unreasonable, untrained, unformed, unhappy. Childlike: open, curious, adventurous, joyful, expansive, growing, playful, fun.

Notice that a person could be any of those things at any age. The daily news feed is stuffed with examples of childish conduct by people in the supposed prime of life — politicians, billionaires, former presidents, the Real Housewives of You Name It.

Assuming you’re as weary as I am of adult tantrum-throwers shrieking for attention, I’m giving them a time-out. I’d rather focus on becoming more childlike.

Not that I want to be an actual child again

Been there, done that, and I like calling my own shots. But I’ve had practice being a kid and now I have more experience. I also have more perspective. The second time around, if I stub my toe I’ll understand that it’s not going to hurt like that forever. If I drop my ice cream cone I can get another one. I’m a grownup. I get to do that.

Since I’m no longer tethered to a full-time work week plus raising kids plus running a house and on and on and on  — what I aspire to is that open, curious, adventurous, joyful, expansive, growing, playful, fun little-kid spirit.

Which, I think, is a matter of changing my attitude about a few basics:

Time

World-weary grownups see time as a finite resource, a commodity. We manage it, maximize it, spend it, waste it. The clock is always ticking toward something.

Kids don’t think much about time at all until they have to. When you’re a child, you don’t have much past to try to rectify and the future is a hazy concept, not something breathing down your neck. Whatever is going on right now is the whole point. And it can keep being the point until you get bored or hungry or tired, or some grownup tells you it’s time to do something else.

That’s the sense of time I want to recapture. The time is now, and that’s all that really matters.

Attention

Childlike attention is direct, full-on, total. It might last a second or way past bedtime, but whatever has a little kid’s attention in the moment, it has all of it.

Sadly, now that it’s the prime target of the attention economy, that kind of pure focus is under assault. You pretty much have to be a very young child, or living off the grid (in which case you won’t be reading this), or practicing mindfulness — a skill we all need in our fractured, attention-deficit world, but that’s another topic — to maintain it.

Just like little kids need protection so they can explore and grow, so does our attention. So that’s what I aim to do.

Wonder

A sense of wonder at the world around us, especially the natural world — it’s one of the things that makes young kids so delightful to hang out with. We see a snail and think the damn thing is after our plants unless we’ve got grandkids or the neighbor’s four-year-old nearby. Then we get to marvel at a creature that moves around on its stomach while carrying its house on its back.

Wonder makes the commonplace new again, as it should be. It allows us to remember what we’ve forgotten amidst all the distractions: that we’re surrounded by miracles.

Trust

Unless a little kid has suffered grievous trauma, abuse, or neglect, that child will operate with a set of unspoken assumptions. Their needs will be met, the world makes sense even if they don’t understand much about it yet, and they’re not all alone. If they’re frightened or hurt, comfort and reassurance are always available. They simply need to seek it out, which they do without hesitation.

Someone or something larger than themselves is in charge. Whatever or whoever that is is benevolent, and has got this.

Very few of us reach adulthood unscathed. Our sense of trust is mightily tested along the way. Sometimes we end up thinking that our trust has betrayed us, that we were foolish to ever think we were safe or protected by anything that we can’t understand or command or pay for.

As for love, we believe that’s something we have to earn or attract. We’ve misplaced the trust that we’re innately worthy of it. And if we run into trouble, we assume we’d better figure it out for ourselves. We don’t want to look needy, after all. We don’t even trust ourselves to connect with people with whom we’ll be safe, who won’t see our vulnerability as weakness.

So we try to go it alone, especially when we’re lost or wounded, and then we wonder why we feel alienated and empty. Either there’s something wrong with us, or the world is out to get us. Who knows? Life’s a bitch and then you die. Let’s have a drink.

Trust is a big ask. Restoring it requires a lot of tuning out the negative noise that bombards us, as well as the voices we’ve internalized that tell us we’re not good enough, or that we’re no good at all, and we’d better not let anybody else see that if we want to survive.

But without trust (and you could replace that word with “faith” if you wish), we end up adrift, separated from the childlike nature that is every human’s birthright.

I intend to reclaim mine. It’s spring, which is perfect timing. There are tadpoles to find and baby birds to watch.

Want to come along?

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus: Matthew 18–3 (NIV)
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