Baby Geniuses vs. Immortals

Everybody knows how innocent, invincible, and intelligent a child is. He accepts the world as is, he knows no fear, and he sees things that adults can no longer see. Even I must have had those days (sadly or luckily, I do not remember any of them).

Then we all lose the magical super-kid ability as we grow up. Few people clearly explain why. It must be the brutality of modern society, it must be the pressure from his family and teachers, it must be his own fault for not staying in touch with himself… For me, those aren’t truly convincing. There must be something essential about becoming an adult that loses our wonder-kid ability. We might just want to avoid touching that taboo because potentially it has the power to veto the very idea of becoming an adult.

I was taking a dance lesson the other day and reminded myself, time and again, the brutal reality compared with the fantasy I carried in my head. Aside from the degrading physical ability to move my body according to my will, I never entirely got out of fear through the courses, mainly from knowing how I performed compared to others.

I wondered why I couldn’t go back to when I had just started to practice dancing, when I was happy moving around on the floor, never caring at all how I performed. Back then I was almighty in my head because I wasn’t experienced enough to see the true gap between me and more experienced people. I even commented on how some people weren’t correctly shaking their hips or biceps or whatever (oh my).

I was, in a word, a child: innocent, invincible, and intelligent—in my imagination. I just wasn’t good enough at dancing to see the real difference between my movement and others’. I only saw how I moved (in my head), and then saw the others move. It was only later when I developed the habit to watch my real move next to my teacher’s that I started to feel the tremendous amount of fear and shame—Oh sxxt.

The same idea applies to being a child, I think. The wonder-kid is invincible because he does not see himself objectively yet. He sees the world as a flat plane with no separation, especially the difference between himself and others. As he reaches school age and starts to play with other kids, he gradually sees who he is in other people’s eyes. It is an inevitable process of growing up, but it also robs him of superpower.

Therefore, it isn’t about age; it is about separation, or duality in religious term, between us and the world. It can happen to anybody at any stage. Ken Wilber’s iconic book, A Brief History of Everything, states this point succinctly by introducing the experiment by Piaget and Inhelder. (The book explores this subject in an extremely deep yet relatively easy way—highly recommended.)

If you take a ball colored red on one side and green on the other, and you place the ball between you and the child, and then ask the child two questions—“What color do you see?’ and “What color do I see?”—preoperational children will answer both questions the same. That is, if the child is looking at the green side, he will correctly say he sees green, but he will also say you are seeing green. He doesn’t know that you are seeing the red side. He can’t put himself in your shoes, or see the world through your eyes.

The challenge of an innocent child is to know the difference between himself and the world: the fear of separation. He slowly accepts the fact that he isn’t invincible, and takes on a new challenge of accepting the imperfect self and the world and moves on.

A child is immortal because he doesn’t know he is mortal. An adult knows he is mortal and has limited ability, but at least he can manage his fear as his ally because it tells him he has limited opportunities and time left on this earth. I still choose being a mortal adult with fear.