Originally appeared on Catholic Stand
Every year around this time, I notice a widespread, often implicit idea that Christmas is a particularly special time for children. Of course, this attitude follows logically if the occasion consists only of emptying packages and stockings under an explosion of lights and tinsel. Decorations and presents generally become less exciting as we grow older.
On the other hand, if one understands Christmas as anything more substantial—certainly for Christians rejoicing in the newborn King, but even for those who view it simply as a day to celebrate values like kindness and family—one should be able to take joy in that as an adult, instead of regretting the diminished excitement of the sparkling wrapping paper.
While this problem seems especially pronounced at Christmastime, it exists all year. Adults talk about the “magic” of childhood, and wistfully remark on its fading as they mature. The ability to greet life with wonder and delight seems to be widely considered the exclusive property of the under-age-twelve crowd.
This line of thought may be understandable, but does not work long-term. Nature shows us that children are meant to become adults; this is fulfillment, not degeneration, for them. From the added perspective of faith, God made humans to grow up. Lamenting His design for us hardly makes sense.
To offer a more effective, helpful response to this issue, however, we should first consider: why do people feel this way, and need they feel so?
On a certain level, it may be natural for children to be generally more easily excited than adults. For one thing, everything is new to them. They haven’t yet grown bored with simple pleasures like picking flowers or rolling in snow. Thomas Howard also reflects in Chance or the Dance? that adults tend to enjoy a given experience less because they worry about the time before and after it, whereas “it is in the nature of childhood to live fully in the moment, savoring the warmth of the sand or the dancing of the dust in the sunbeam or the new taste of raspberries.”
But these obstacles aren’t insurmountable. If we have fallen into habits of jadedness, preoccupation with worries, or taking joys for granted, we can work to practice the opposite. We can train ourselves to pay attention and give thanks for a bright, sunny morning, the smell of pine trees, a strain of music, or a conversation with a friend.
After all, these things really are wonderful and fill life with loveliness, if only we make ourselves notice. Learning to rejoice in them may take practice, but makes us much happier. Besides, gratitude is the appropriate response to God’s endless outpouring of love. “Rejoice always . . . give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
For another thing, this whole discussion seems to be of relatively recent origin. I’ve read a fair number of writings from before the modern era, and therein have encountered discussion of childlike innocence and simplicity, but never of the “magic” of childhood or the supposed dullness of adulthood.
This may offer another clue about the problem’s source. The generations that have talked this way are those that have grown up with materialism, being trained to see only empirical realities. This outlook effectively drains life of light and color. First, it excludes God, so that one has nobody to thank—a lack which, as Chesterton observed, may cause the worst sort of moment for the atheist who feels really thankful. Even appreciation without gratitude would be better than cold indifference, but the modern mentality removes this too, with its strictly material analysis. After all, beauty and wonder are hardly empirical terms, nor does any chemical equation show that we should be thankful.
To be fair to scientific advancement, it ought to have been yet another source of amazement and delight at the rich depths of reality, in addition to being useful. Instead, under the regime of new ideologies, it became a tool for arguing that nothing is more than its physical composition, nor is worth more than whatever practical benefit it can offer on the same material level. These twin philosophies, materialism and pragmatism, have created the ruthlessly flat, functional world that many of us associate with adulthood or “real life.” Even for Christians and others who reject these systems in principle, keeping them from infiltrating the imagination can be difficult.
But children, of course, are too young for ideologies. They continue to live by instinct, and human instinct tells us that the world is teeming with marvels and joys which should thrill our hearts, from the stream in the park to the sand by the sea. (On average, they also seem to complain as much as adults, but somehow they manage to make room for both.) Their elders want to join them in rejoicing, but something, too often mistaken for maturity, holds them back.
Need this be so? The short answer, of course, is no. More specifically, a sense of wonder and appreciation is among the things that should grow with us. We don’t see the world exactly as we did when we were children, and that in itself is natural and right; but rather than simply losing the ability to perceive splendor and joy in things, we must learn to affirm and practice it as adults.
In fact, I would contend that this shouldn’t be too hard. With the development of our brains and expanded areas of thought and experience, we adults should have more capacity for delight and thanks than we did as children—at least in some respects. For example, while vacationing in Florida last March, my family and I visited the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. My teenage sister and I were enchanted by the wild, rich, jungle-like world, and mentally filled the depths of murky water and tangled undergrowth with all sorts of magical creatures. On the other hand, the four-year-old mostly maintained an indifferent silence, while the eight-year-old made clear that she was bored. The beauty and mystery of the swamp were lost on them.
So it is with many things, if only we train ourselves to take joy from them and not get swept up in the businesslike rush that the modern mindset tries to impose. Far from hampering the instinct to rejoice in things, the growth and training of reason can and should be an aid to it. For me, the rewards of adulthood include books I could never have followed as a child, heightened appreciation of any sort of beauty, animated intellectual discussions, deeper and closer relationships with other people, and a more profound relationship with God. To return to Christmas, I’m not as wild for the presents as I was—though I do still like them—but singing at Christmas Eve Mass and contemplating the Nativity scene give me a deep joy that they never did when I was little.
Of course, some things will be less interesting to us now than in childhood—balloons, plastic toys, and some video games come to mind. These, however, are by no means essential to the “magic” for which adults sigh. What one needs to see this “magic” is the right outlook on life, not a desire for some particular amusements. To illustrate the difference, compare a person who says, “I don’t care for those jelly beans any more, but I love this sushi,” to another who says, “When I was young I enjoyed food, but now nothing tastes like anything.”
For a Catholic, or anyone who believes in God, the matter is clear: everything that exists is God’s creation, and shows forth some part or trace of His glorious goodness. When one sees the world in this light, it probably won’t be difficult to discover beauty and joy in all sorts of things, from stones to stars—not to mention people, of course, all bearing God’s image in their souls and so different in their gifts and characters.
But it’s not only believers who have some such idea. Human beings observing their world almost invariably feel the instinct to admire, to rejoice, and to give thanks, whether they actually hold that anyone should be thanked or not. This sense tells us that the world is more than data to be analyzed, that it is “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise,” as Pope Francis said in Laudato Si’ 12.
For example, when we look up at the stars, we don’t simply think about how much gas they contain or how hot they are; we start pondering deep thoughts, such as the grandeur of the universe and our own smallness. Or, in another context, we may perceive their beauty as romantic—a random association by any empirical measure. Despite everything our culture tells us, this instinct lingers, an innate witness to our own spiritual nature and, yes, I contend, to our need for God.
Some, the committed materialists, have made a concerted effort to squelch these impulses. Arguing with them is difficult, as they reject anything that cannot be proven according to their science. In the limited space constraints here, I have only this to say to them: Is this impulse that runs so deep in all humanity really only foolishness?
But perhaps the whole question doesn’t seem very urgent. Since most cannot understand nor satisfy their wistful desire for “magic,” they quickly push it aside again, and get on with life as if the thought hadn’t come. One might wonder, so long as we’re good people and reasonably content, does it really matter whether we go through life marveling and giving thanks or simply focusing on practical thoughts?
It matters more than we might think. The riot of beauty and goodness that constantly surrounds us, so easy to miss if we think only about work or worries or something on the Internet, is worth not missing. One may force oneself to settle for prosaic dullness because one sees no other choice, but it can become so easy to slip into ennui or focus on negative thoughts when one doesn’t see what’s wonderful in life.
Furthermore, cultivating an attitude of joy and thanks (which can be done, albeit with effort, even amid suffering) can help one to love and to give. After all, one is not absorbed with one’s own problems, and reflection on blessings received—even those as simple and seemingly obvious as sunshine—prompts one to give something in turn.
Finally, we who have faith are under special obligation to foster a spirit of praise. We can see so much loveliness if only we look around; and we hold that it all comes to us from an almighty and all-loving Giver, in Whose design the whole thing has meaning as well as beauty. This does not mean that we must be constantly excited, or that we can never feel or express sadness. It does mean that we shouldn’t be trudging through life as if it were dull and colorless, as the trending dogma would have us believe, when we know it to be “charged with the grandeur of God,” in Hopkins’ words. If we are to tell this gloomy, cynical age that we have reason for joy, we must first demonstrate that by being souls of thanks and praise.
A blessed and Merry Christmas to all . . . whatever your age.