The Inner Child and the Nude Politician

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischThe 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:

“My dear,

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.

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Comments

The Inner Child and the Nude Politician — 17 Comments

  1. This might be the correct quote: “I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up: that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived” (Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?)

  2. The earliest instance found by Google of the sentence in the original query is around 2003; a slight variation on that dates from at latest 1999: “The creative adult is the child who has survived.” This is from a collection of quotations compiled by a math professor in Massachusetts: see http://www.westfield.ma.edu/math/faculty/fleron/quotes/ . It is unattributed there except for UKL’s name, but perhaps the professor would be open to inquiries.
    Yet another page, http://www.hewj.org/inspiration/ursula-le-guin/ uses this version, and attributes it to one of The Left Hand of Darkness, The Wave in the Mind, or The Language of the Night. This last seems to corroborate Meelis’ findings.
    From 2001 on, the quotation is all over the internet, the acceleration due in large part to sharing via Twitter (usually with generic attribution to UKL).

  3. I think Meelis is right, that’s where the “quote” began.

    Thank you for another vote on wise children and wise adults. I’ve tried hard to make no one group stupid or unworthy in my Night Calls books. But in truth some days it’s hard to keeping writing them, because the preference for dystopias of brave, smart, loving children and evil adults is so overwhelming.

    And thank you for reminding me of “Ode.” I have not read it since high school. and it struck me like a fresh breeze, like something I had never seen before. Clearly I’m long overdue for a visit. In the intervening years, I have learned some of the soothing thoughts. I’m ready for another lesson from Wordsworth.

  4. Oh, I love this! I’m so tired of the rebel as the ultimate hero. Yes, every society needs rebels to cast light on traditions that grow stale or oppressive, but the idea that only rebels are truly free is the type of overly simplistic thinking that we’re assaulted with daily. I particularly love “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.”

    And, Ursula, if you happen to read this, I owe you a profound thanks for your essay, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Writes the Book,” which was a beacon of hope to me many years ago when I was young mother with small children. I wanted to write, but, in our chaotic household, could not often find time or energy. I cannot express to you how much that essay helped and sustained me.

    When I read the Earthsea Trilogy some years later, it took my breath away. And when I listened to it decades later on audio, it took my breath away again. I am an ardent fan. 🙂

    Susan Kroupa
    http://www.susankroupa.com

  5. “I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up: that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived.”

    From the essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons,” printed in The Language of the Night. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1979 (first edition): page 44.

    Here’s the full paragraph: “So I arrive at my personal defense of the uses of the imagination, especially in fiction, and most especially in fairy tale, legend, fantasy, science fiction, and the rest of the lunatic fringe. I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up; that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of the most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.”

    You can read the essay online via Simon Fraser University with a simple google search.

  6. As some tough feminist used to say, in response to the overuse and misuse of the phrase: “Whenever I hear about an Inner Child, I recommend abortion.”

    Clearly, the above-mentioned essay seems to be the origin of the misquote. And obviously things can be traced back to Jungian influence present in “The Language of the Night” – Jung developed an idea of the Child arcehtype and had a lot to say about creativity and imaging as central faculties of human mind (although what he meant by that evidently has little to do with what corpospeak made of these concepts), see a very interesting note by Paul Kugler, http://books.google.pl/books?id=5dZUM7ogtQYC&pg=PA77&lpg=PA77&dq=paul+kugler,+psychic+imaging&source=bl&ots=WI1NmzGsAp&sig=ciEYunit1FQoZd0kFUvtqZbBtFM&hl=pl&sa=X&ei=ePxXVMryJNbfatL6grAO&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=paul%20kugler%2C%20psychic%20imaging&f=false . Yet Jung and Jungians should not be blamed, they were very careful about depicting negative aspects of the infantile attitude in adult life: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puer_aeternus .

    From evolutionary perspective, the prolonged childhood and neotenic traits seem to serve us well: “Man’s circle of horizon becomes smaller and smaller, and as the radius approaches zero it concentrates on one point. And then that becomes his point of view” (attributed to a famous mathematician David Hilbert).

  7. Thank you all so much for locating the source! I should have thought long ago of asking BVC readers for help on this. Knowing that the “Creative adult” sentence is either a misquote or a wrong ascription is a real relief, and it’s also good to know that what I said at least made sense, even if nobody puts it on a T-shirt.

  8. I read this essay in Turkish. “Amerikalilar neden ejderhalardan korkarlar?” (Why are Americans afraid of Dragons?) It was collection of Leguin’s essays, published under the name of “Women, Dreams and Dragons” in Turkish. (Metis Publishing). This essays has nothing to do with “inner child” or something. It was about growing up. You wrote that you felt grown up at the age of 31.
    “an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived.” May be nobody put it on t-shirt, but this essay helped me survived.

    This is the Turkish translation of the quote: “Yeti?kin ölmü? bir çocuk de?ildir, ya?amay? ba?arm?? çocuktur.”

    lots of love
    Goksun

  9. Read your interview in Salon and sent the link out to my friends and network with the tag
    “‘All I can do is keep on going as I always did, in the direction that seems
    to promise the most freedom.’
    “That’s Ursula K LeGuin, always lighting out for the territories.”

    Then I come here to direct some of the responses to your blog to find this:
    “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.”

    Wrote back to one friend, a teacher and novelist, who was happy you were getting an award, that I suspected some people probably treat you as Becky Thatcher when you are actually more like Huck Finn.

  10. I really enjoyed reading your blog. Brilliant ! I hope I think as clear as you do when I grow up. An Original Mind is hard to find in this world thank you for not becoming polluted. Aloha !

  11. Thank you for ‘waving from the grave’. The Earthsea “quilogy” is among my favourite books. I am ashamed to admit that I have not read all your works, however, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this insight into creativity, adults, internet ‘chinese whispers’ and Wordsworth. I shall be back to read more. Thank you once again for not giving up.

  12. As as child I was wildly imaginative, free spirited, high flying bird who was also selfish, uncompassionate and vain. Growing up, encountering many hardships, struggles, disappointment and triumphs I’ve changed. Having two boys and constantly exercising kindness and tolerance towards them (which is very very difficult sometimes) made me into a different person. My creativity which is part of my profession came bursting into bloom after 10 years of latent sleeping and dormancy while I was raising them and helping my ailing husband. This kind of creativity is similar and yet so different from the one I had while I was a child. It is non possessive, easy to share, and easy to let go of ideas and results, as they are not as important as a feeling one get from pure high of just living. As an adult I get to have that duality of feeling by living and enjoying the moment all the while appreciating that I have a chance to experience it. Could not have that as a child. I completely resonate with everything Ursula K. Le Guin said about the inner child and the absolute necessity of the life’s honing for it to shine.

  13. I really enjoyed your Post and I can wholeheartedly say that I am relieved. Relieved of the pressure to see my childhood and adolosence as the best part of my Life. I am 17 years old and I simply refuse to stop believing that the best is yet to come. Not that I complain about what did already come. Actually, this posts message is quite similar to the Book “Why Grow Up?” by Susan Neiman I relished. It reminded me again, that I should not fear to grow up. On the contrary, never reaching Maturity should be feared.

    Having said this, I can happily return to read “Tombs of Atuan” now.

    Amos

    (Please forgive eventual grammar and/or spelling mistakes because english is not my first language. However, feel free to correct them 😀 )

  14. A pertinent essay for a man who has been trapped in the mind of a boy trapped in the body of a man. Thank you for another fine piece of art.