This blog post is included in:
No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler
December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The Inner Child and the Nude Politician
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Last summer a company that makes literary T-shirts asked me for permission to use a quote:
“The creative adult is the child who survived.”
I looked at the sentence and thought, Did I write that sentence? I think I wrote something like it. But I hope not that sentence. “Creative” is not a word I use much since it was taken over by corporationthink. And isn’t any adult a child who survived?
So I googled the sentence. I got lots of hits, and boy were some of them weird. In many of them the sentence is ascribed to me, but no reference to a source is ever given.
The weirdest one is at a site called quotes-clothing dot com:
The creative adult is the child who survived.
The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them “grown up”. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world.
The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Falsely yours, Ursula LeGuin”
The oddest part of this little orgy of self-pity is “Falsely yours,” which I take to be a coy semi-confession of forgery by whoever actually wrote the rant.
I’ve looked through my own essays for the sentence that could have been used or misused for the quote, because I still have a feeling there is one. So far I haven’t found it. I asked my friends in a sf chat group if it rang any bell with them — some of them being scholars, with a keen nose for provenience — but none of them could help. If anybody reading this has a theory about the origin of the pseudo-quote, or better yet a Eureka! with volume and page citation — would you please post it below? Because it’s been bothering me ever since June.
The sentence itself, its use and popularity, bothers me even more. Indifference to what words actually say; willingness to accept a vapid truism as a useful, even revelatory concept; carelessness about where a supposed quotation comes from — that’s all part of what I like least about the Internet. A “blah blah blah, who cares, information is what I want it to be” attitude — a lazy-mindedness that degrades both language and thought.
But deeper than that lies my aversion to what the sentence says to me: that only the child is alive and creative — so that to grow up is to die.
To respect and cherish the freshness of perception and the vast, polymorphous potentialities of childhood is one thing. But to say that we experience true being only in childhood and that creativity is an infantile function — that’s something else.
I keep meeting this devaluation of growing up in fiction, and also in the cult of the Inner Child.
There’s no end of books for children whose hero is a rebellious misfit — the boy or girl (usually described as plain, and almost predictably redhaired) who gets into trouble by questioning or resisting or ignoring The Rules. Every young reader identifies with this kid, and rightly. In some respects, to some extent, all children are victims of societ:: they have little or no power; they aren’t given the chance to show what’s in them.
And they know it. They love reading about taking power, getting back at bullies, showing their stuff, getting justice. They want to do so so that they can grow up, claim independence in order to take responsibility.
But there’s a literature written for both kids and adults in which human society is reduced to the opposition Kids Good/Creative, Adults Bad/Dead Inside. Here the child hero is not only rebellious, but is in all ways superior to their hidebound, coercive society and the stupid, insensitive, mean-minded adults that surround them. They may find friendship with other children, and understanding from a wise, grandparently type of another skin color or from people marginal to or outside their society. But they have nothing to learn from adults of their own people, and those elders have nothing to teach them. Such a child is always right, and wiser than the adults who repress and misunderstand him. Yet the super-perceptive, wise child is helpless to escape. He is a victim. Holden Caulfield is a model of this child. Peter Pan is his direct ancestor.
Tom Sawyer has something in common with this kid, and so does Huck Finn, but Tom and Huck are not sentimentalized or morally over-simplified, nor do they consent to be victims. They are described with, and have, a powerful sense of ironic humor, which affects the crucial issue of self-pity. The coddled Tom loves to see himself as cruelly oppressed by meaningless laws and obligations, but Huck, a real victim of personal and social abuse, has no self-pity at all. Both of them, however, fully intend to grow up, to take charge of their own life. And they will — Tom no doubt as a successful pillar of his society, Huck a freer man, out there in the Territories.
It seems to me the Super-Perceptive Child Victim of Self-Pity has something in common with the Inner Child: They’re lazy. It’s so much easier to blame the grownups than to be one.
The idea that we all contain an Inner Child who has been suppressed by our society, the belief that we should cultivate this Inner Child as our true self and that we can depend upon it to release our creativity, seems an over-reductive statement of an insight expressed by many wise and thoughtful people — among them Jesus: “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Some mystics and many great artists, aware of drawing on their childhood as a deep source of inspiration, have spoken of the need to maintain an unbroken inner connection between the child and the adult in one’s own inward life.
But to reduce this to the idea that we can open a mental door from which our imprisoned Inner Child will pop out and teach us how to sing, dance, paint, think, pray, cook, love, etc. . . ?
A very wonderful statement of the necessity, and the difficulty, of maintaining a connection to one’s own child-self is Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality. The poem offers a profoundly felt, profoundly thoughtful, radical argument:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.
Instead of seeing birth as an awakening from blank nonbeing into the child’s fullness of being, and maturity as a narrowing, impoverishing journey towards blank death, the Ode proposes that a soul enters life forgetting its eternal being, can remember it throughout life only in intimations and moments of revelation, and will recall and rejoin it fully only in death.
Nature, says Wordsworth, offers us endless reminders of the eternal, and we are most open to them in our childhood. Though we lose that openness in adult life, when “Custom” lies upon us “with a weight, Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life,” still we can keep faith with
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake
To perish never.
I cherish this testimony particularly because it need not be seen as rising from the belief system of any religion. Believer and freethinker can share this vision of human existence passing from light through darkness into light, from mystery to endless mystery.
In this sense, the innocence, the unjudging, unqualified openness to experience of the young child, can be seen as a spiritual quality attainable or re-attainable by the adult. And I think this is what the idea of the Inner Child originally, or optimally, is all about.
But Wordsworth makes no sentimental plea to us to nourish the child we were by denying the value of maturity or by trying to be a child again. However conscious we are of the freedom and awareness and joyfulness we lose as we age, we live a full human life not by stopping at any stage, but by becoming all that is in us to become.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death;
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
(If, like me, you look at that word, soothing, in surprise, wondering how thoughts of human suffering can be soothing, perhaps you will feel as I do that such wonder is a key — a sign that the poet’s direct language contains immensely more than its apparent clarity reveals at first, that nothing he says in this poem is simple, and that though it’s easily understood, any understanding of it may lead on, if followed, to further understanding.)
The cult of the Inner Child tends to oversimplify what Wordsworth leaves complex, close off what he leaves open, and make oppositions where there are none. The child is good — therefore the adult is bad. Being a kid is great — so growing up is the pits.
Sure enough, growing up isn’t easy. As soon as they can toddle, babies are bound to toddle into trouble. Wordsworth had no illusions about that: “Shades of the prison house Close on the growing boy. . .” The transition to adulthood, adolescence, is difficult and dangerous, recognised as such by many cultures — all too often in punitive ways such as cruel male initiation rites, or the brutal eradication of adolescence in girls by marrying them off as soon as they menstruate.
I see children as unfinished beings who have been given a very large job to do. Their job is to become complete, to fulfil their potential: to grow up. Most of them want to do this job and try their level best to do it. All of them need adult help in doing it. This help is called “teaching.”
Teaching can of course go wrong, be restrictive not educative, be stultifying, cruel. Everything we do can be done wrong. But to dismiss all teaching as a mere repression of childish spontaneity is a monstrous injustice to every patient parent and teacher in the world since the Old Stone Age, and denies both children’s right to grow up and their elders’ responsibility to help them do so.
Children are by nature, by necessity, irresponsible, and irresponsibility in them, as in puppies or kittens, is part of their charm. Carried into adulthood it becomes a dire practical and ethical failing. Uncontrolled spontaneity wastes itself. Ignorance isn’t wisdom. Innocence is wisdom only of the spirit. We can and do all learn from children, all through our life; but “become as little children” is a spiritual counsel, not an intellectual, practical, or ethical one.
In order to see that our emperors have no clothes on, do we really have to wait for a child to say so? Or even worse, wait for somebody’s Inner Brat to pipe up? If so, we’re in for a lot of nude politicians.