There is a forgotten and quiet promise that someday, we might exceed clever and become wise. I think that when we do, it will be clear that we should have honored our innocence more.
Despite the facade of at-times brash essay writing, I am consistently gullible when in personal conversation and have been referred to a number of times as “innocent.” This is specifically in response to the way that I seem genuinely and even alarmingly “amazed” by seemingly trite ideas or news. I am always surprised by this, because I, like most people who have exceeded their teenage years, don’t feel innocent, and a part of me always longs for the simplicity and clarity of being a child. A clean slate. But the sentiment remains, and it causes me to wonder why this would stand out to others or surprise them in any way.
More broadly speaking, I fear a constant shift in my own generation and I harbor pangs of guilt and protection when I witness the experiences of my 16-year-old sister, who I dare say is a great deal more innocent than the common 16-year-old (and I say this with every bias imaginable). The shift that I fear, alongside this protective instinct, is a suspicion and observational understanding that we - all of us - are dealing with too many opportunities to not be innocent - to compromise our authentic, childlike sense of the world. There is no one reason; the list is long - but the usual suspects are what you might expect: media, technology, capitalism …
Innocence is so challenging because it is not something that we can build up through experience. We must instead preserve innocence and prevent grime from attaching itself to our innocent spirit - and we must avoid actions that might chip away at that core of our selves. In my own experience, I think what people point out to me is not so much innocence, but rather a mentality that resembles wonder - and which has to do with poetry, of all things. So let us move away from this idea of innocence, for it is too riddled with semiotic residue, and instead consider WONDER. For the purpose of this essay:
Wonder: a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. "He had stood in front of it, observing the intricacy of the ironwork with the wonder of a child"
We live in an era of hyper exposure and ‘online presence,’ hyper sexuality, and the deteriorating effects of not needing patience -- we simply do not need to wait for anything anymore. Not one thing. Technology and capitalism, formidably wedded, have made our lives so convenient that we need not wait or save or have any sense of gradual understanding or patience. This is a powerful force, especially when attached to our pre-existing glorification of youth. To summarize: our love for immediacy, rapid reward, and youth are all very much linked. These ‘rewards’, this ‘speed’ also means that we are losing our sense of wonder. If we never need to wait, and we strive always to be youthful, beautiful, agile … how will we a) pay attention to the mundane, lovely in its own right, b) cope with aging c) maintain any sense of appreciation, gratitude for our world and d) hold on to our innocence, which makes us so much more equipped to understand beauty.
In college, I turned a corner into the world of poetry and felt that I was locating, for the first time in such depth, a new dimension of existing that allowed me to protect my own sense of wonder. I think poetry is the key element in my life that makes me feel innocent, even as I greedily seek out new experiences. Poetry demands wonder in order to function; poetry is the effort of appreciating or striving to understand even the mundane in its glory - not in its lack of excitement. There is glory in our fingers wrapped around a warm cup of tea. There is glory in the wrinkles around our eyes when we smile. Poetry suggests, again and again: you are human, and the world you are in is rich beyond our understanding, but never beyond our capacity to feel.
When I consider the attack on innocence and wonder, I think of the potential of poetic mentality. I understand that poetry feels inaccessible to many, and I am not so obtuse as to not see why - but the broad decline in poetry’s role as a key cultural artifact is what really unsettles me. In other words, I do not know what has replaced poetry. What is the modern artifact that tells us about our own human nature? Is there one?