When considering what it means to experience a second naïveté, my thoughts generally center on the mechanics of seeing. That is, what it means to see with fresh eyes: to be privy to the kind of penetrating and revelatory perception that is capable of discerning the magical in the everyday. A kind of unitive, playful, poetic perception which is not only inherently (and obviously) childlike, but which is also requisite for transforming the tasks of everyday living into creative, awe-inspiring, aesthetically vibrant rituals, which may, in some cases, border on the mystical. But it wasn’t until recently (as I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time outdoors, soaking up the rhythms of nature as I contemplate issues such as this one), that I began thinking of the second naïveté less in terms of perception, and more as a return to a much profounder, more soulful kind of innocence.
And while I know I’ve got a great deal more to grapple with on the topic of an adulthood return to innocence, I feel a sort of intuitive pull to put this post together now. At this early stage in my thinking. If only as a means of working through preliminary definitions. Here are some thoughts on what it means to fashion our lives in a mode of innocence, or to practice the art of innocence as an adult:
Innocence is intelligence.
It is less a characterological, or personality, trait than it is a capacity. A way of knowing, perceiving, understanding that is, it appears, so seldom attained—and consistently fostered and maintained in adulthood—that we tend to think of its attributes as almost magical. Mystical. Otherworldly. Or absurdly naïve. But, the more I consider it, the more convinced I am that the capacity for innocence is one of the most rudimentary. And the most human. It’s how we communicate with nature. What links us to other creatures. And our ability to perceive the sameness in them. The single thread of life that runs through us all. What Thoreau refers to as a matter of natural intelligence: an innate ability to grasp the “indescribable innocence and beneficence of nature.”
Innocence is the ability to perceive life.
And is, to my mind, the simplest, most unjaded, most holistic form of perception. Although, it is more than just perception. I imagine it is also the epitome of being that form of perception allows us to attain. Self-actualization, full functioning, or soulful living by any other name…But, with regard to innocence as perception, I imagine it is as Maslow’s suggests: inherently creative and “non-rubricized.” That which isn’t conditioned. Which remains wild, untamed and so refuses categories, labels, concepts, and other abstractions of social importance. Certainly, this is the same kind of perception that allows artists to continually reinvent the everyday—through image, metaphor, or sound. That which resists conformity and strives to maintain its essential nature.
Such people can see the fresh, the raw, the concrete, the ideographic, as well as the generic, the abstract, the rubricized, the categorized, and the classified. Consequently, they live far more in the real world of nature than in the verbalized world of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes… – A.H. Maslow
It also occurs to me that even the most innocent among us are not fully immune to a deadening of this kind of perception. And that, at the heart of innocence as art (as a capacity we can each work to hone and keep), is the need for newness. To keep our eyes fresh and maintain that sense of wonder. When I think in terms of my own life, I imagine my innocent eyes would become (and have historically become) markedly jaded when I stop imbuing my daily activities with life. With creativity, thereby continually making them new. Holistically engaging and sensorially alive. Indeed, I think I’d find it impossible to perceive the life in all creatures if I could not experience the vibrancy of my own, which leads me to my final point…
Innocence and self-reliance go hand-in-hand.
And by self-reliance I mean not only the willingness to do things for oneself but also the willingness to use the full range of our human capacities for their own sake. Without tethering them to secondary outcomes like increases in status, income, or social approval. It’s the innate satisfaction that comes from doing what feels good at the deepest levels of our being. That’s the reward and that’s characteristic of innocence. This is the same fusion of means and ends that Maslow repeatedly talks about.
Capacities clamor to be used, and cease their clamor only when they are well used. That is, capacities are also needs. Not only is it fun to use our capacities, but it is also necessary for growth. The unused skill or capacity or organ can become a disease center or else atrophy or disappear, thus diminishing the person. – A.H. Maslow
I envision innocence as a figurative return that is also a way forward. That is, if we were able to fully experience the life that both surrounds us and exists within us, we’d probably be overcome by it. But, I also imagine that catching glimpses of such sublimity would stop us from chasing empty pursuits like happiness, meaning, and self-mastery. And might even be the thing that saves many of us from ourselves.