"He who lives as children live -- who does not struggle for his bread and does not believe that his actions possess any ultimate significance -- remains childlike. "
F. Nietzsche, "Daybreak"
"The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars." -- J. Cash
Back when I was in graduate school, one of my professors (a Freudian psychoanalyst whose primary mode of pedagogy was delicately nudging and spinning thoughts as, perhaps, a mineral collector does late at night, hopeful that an old crystal lit from just the right angle might gleam with a new shade of light) told me something that stuck with me. He said quite matter-of-factly after one of us had made some sort of comment about childhood: "Remember that childhood is an adult concept."
This professor's point was the relatively simple but often unthought truth that children have no need for the concept of childhood. Childhood is a concept constructed in response to adult life which therefore may in fact have more to do with adulthood than with the actual experience of being a child. When we think of childhood or watch children at play -- and especially when we long for a return to childhood -- often what we do is simply conjure up an image of what adulthood would feel like without its, well, adult responsibilities: the struggle for bread, the struggle for meaning.
In other words, the immaturity of childhood is simply a negation of the idea of the maturity of adulthood, which required hundreds of educable moments, more than a few punishments and setbacks, and a lot of fucking hard work to achieve. When we look at children, we look at a being who has not yet undergone the more-difficult-than-you-might-think process of becoming civilized. And we kind of envy them for that, while also forgetting the fears, lack of control, confusion, injustice, weakness, and unpredictability that is also part of the life of a child.
The concept of childhood is the reason for adulthood, as our primary responsibility as citizens and parents and simply as adults is to create a better world for the children who are about to grow up into it. And, paradoxically, it is also the dream of an escape and relief from adulthood.
I guess these thoughts came back to me now because the high school team I help out with is about to run at the state meet, and one thing that we've been struggling with as coaches is how to get these young folks back to childhood, for at least a moment. These are good kids, from a good school, and their main problem is that they are too good -- too much like adults already. Too stressed, too conscious, too analytical. They've been racing tight, and battling themselves too much, instead of battling the competition.
Running is simple, and we run best when we find a kind of animal state of innocence that is akin to childhood. The good race has none of those adult feelings: no shame, no anxiety, no stress. If we get ourselves in the right mood, we perhaps recall an ancient memory of ourselves before we became civilized. We get natural; we get intuitive; we get cruel and competitive; and we release the beast. We run simply, we run dumb, and we are able to inflict pain upon ourselves without relenting.
"Wait!" you are probably saying. Childhood is a type of beastliness? Of course it is! I think any parents could tell you that. But beastliness is not all bad, just as civilization is not all good. When Johnny Cash speaks of a war within, he is being literal. Our civilized selves tame the beast and train the beast, and this is not without consequence or loss. In fact, our civilized selves have to become quite beastly towards our inner beast in order to cage it in those frail and fragile bars. They make it cower, hold it into a corner, and even make it feel itself to be something shameful and unnatural. These are the tactics of adulthood.
You can see this in a competitive situation when the athlete "gets tight." He or she begins running consciously and becomes so intent on running according to a plan or meeting a certain goal, that she forgets that she needs actually the help of the beast to get there. The runner tries to shame himself into a good performance or berate himself into a good performance. But this never works. The controlled and civilized part of us is, after all, only part of us. To reach our full potential, the beast and the controller, the child and the adult, have to figure out how to join forces and run together.
This is difficult to do, probably impossible to completely accomplish. But we can do better. Most of us denizens of late modernity (or whatever they are calling us today) and especially the readers of a blog like this one are overcivilized. The tendency to control, tame, organize, and understand has run wild, become somewhat beastly and needs, itself, to be tamed. Our enemy on race day is clear. It's not childhood or childishness; it's not ignorance and uncontrolled power. It's the forces of civilization; i.e. knowledge and control. To run and race well, we have to become more child-like, more beastly. We have to let go, which means letting the animal inside us lead us.
So, in your next race, give your adult self a break. Let the kid tow him along for a little while, do some of the work. Because after all, it's children, not adults, who have all the energy these days. Their power and work ethic is tremendous, but too often we miss this aspect of childhood. We miss it because the child's goal is different from ours. It's not to become civilized. It's to play.
Children have no need for the concept of childhood because they are too focused on just being to reflect about who they are. For overanalytical runners in an overanalyzed times, our best race strategy might be no strategy at all.
Just run, baby!