Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Consequences of a happy childhood - essay-review of the autobiography of "Christopher Robin" Milne

The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne*, 1974

This is one of the best autobiographies I have read; perhaps because it has a fascinating theme, satisfyingly discussed - as well as being very well written, by someone whose personality was sympathetic to me.

The main explicit theme is that of living (up to age 52 at the time of writing) with the strange and vast fame of being Christopher Robin from the four books published by his father in a four year period from 1924-8: two collections of poems - When we were very young, and Now we are six; and two volumes of Winnie-the-Pooh stories - Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

My own relationship with these books came in two stages. As a child I loved the poetry books, which I continue to regard as containing some of the best comic verse ever written; but I was ambivalent about the Pooh books. I liked some aspects of them - perhaps especially the characters of Piglet and Roo; but I found the tone to be what I would now characterise as 'arch': as a child I was aware that adults were being addressed over-my-head and that I was being laughed-at.

When my own children came to the books, I think the response was similar - the poems had a massive impact, but they did not want to hear all of the stories read-out, and didn't especially respond to them - despite that, by then, I had come to like them a lot more. On the other hand, they really enjoyed the Disney Pooh movies (and TV programmes) and watched them multiple times.

Nonetheless, I candidly acknowledge that these four books are all first rate classics of children's literature, and thoroughly deserve their reputation.

Christopher Robin's response to these books was positive as a young boy, but became negative as an older child, adolescent and young adult; mainly because he was an exceptionally shy and sensitive person (a trait inherited, with interest, from grandfather Milne, he tells us). Try as he might, he simply never got used-to the endless parade of people who made comments about this; and never was able to react spontaneously and appropriately - but became tongue tied and embarrassed. However, writing the autobiography was a coming-to-terms with the whole situation - and this provides a satisfying sense of closure to the book.

The implicit theme, which really gripped me, was the question: What to do with the rest of your life, after having a very happy childhood?

This was also the question that dominated the life of Christopher Robin's father - AA Milne himself; and consequently Christopher writes extremely well about the father with whom (especially aged 9-18, after his Nanny had left) he had such a close and empathic relationship.

It is also a question which has been very much a part of my own life trajectory; since I too had a very happy childhood including early-middle teen years, and I too felt (for a long time) that adult life did not remotely match-up. Indeed, according to the most vivid and cherished memories, one of the best aspects of being a non-child was the reawakening triggered by loving relationships with younger children - first my brother, later my own children.

Neither Christopher Robin nor his father ever came to terms with this, or found a way of regarding post-childhood life as anything other than a let-down - to be escaped-from to some extent, but never integrated with the world of work, chores, and shallow public interactions.

It is that matter of alienation again. As a child, especially a young child, we are not alienated because we are not self-conscious; we simply live 'in' our perceptions and feelings - we belong in the world; and when these sensations and perceptions are happy then we belong happily.

With the dawn of self-consciousness, we become aware of our-selves and that the sensations and perceptions are subjective, that we have a perspective, unique to our selves - and that survival and thriving in the 'external' world depends on living in an objective way that prioritises the 'external' view, and the separation of our-selves from Life.

As an adult, we are caught by an (apparently...) inescapable dilemma that we can only feel at home in the world by losing our self-consciousness; yet the more we attain this dissolving of awareness, the less we are aware of the situation - and the less we remember it. Adult Life becomes shallow, unreal, meaningless; especially when contrasted with the mythic depth of childhood.

Therefore, the happiness of a happy childhood is what makes of childhood something we are able to and want to think about; but this emphasises the inferior quality of adult 'happiness'... which seems merely a series of detached, separable, implication-less almost 'glandular' kind of 'pleasure' by contrast.

Here is centrally significant that both AA Mine and Christopher Robin were atheists (as adults) - because for the modern atheist this dilemma is absolutely inescapable; and the situation of adulthood can only get worse as (with age, and/or disease) feelings become blunted or unpleasant, and memories are distorted and/or lost.

True happiness is past, and the longer we live the more it slips away from us - even in imagination... For an honest and rigours thinker, the inescapable conclusion is that adult Life (therefore most of a full lifespan) is a waste of time, and worse than a waste of time: a horrible prospect with only one possible, miserable, ending...

It seems to me that very few modern people escape this fate; because the metaphysics of modernity enforces it. I mean, the fundamental assumptions of modern life ensure that this is the only outcome.

The situation is that childhood experience (for some people, anyway) feels to be the most valid thing experienced; yet the metaphysical assumptions of modernity has it that childhood experience and its memories are without validity. On the other hand; these fundamental assumptions are, indeed, assumptions; which means that they can be challenged and changed - but only by abandoning atheism and - first of all - becoming Christian. Christianity is the only positive, optimistic faith...

However, most Christians now and throughout history have been neither positive nor optimistic about mortal life. Happiness was deferred until post-mortal life in Heaven; and this world was pretty-much written off as a trial of temptations or even a torment. Hence the sense of being cut-off from God, from happiness; the yearning for death and resurrection among so many of the holiest Saints 

To escape this utter misery requires a particular kind of Christianity, with a very different metaphysical basis than has been usual. It is still Christianity, but the philosophical explanation of the religion is utterly different from that taught by most theologians past and present.

And that is the main theme of this blog: developing a Christianity that is capable of integrating our-selves with this world, and our mortal selves with our post-mortal resurrected life... A Christianity that makes it clear what this life is positively for, beyond mere avoidance of damnation...

A Christianity which includes both the un-conscious world of a happy childhood and the self-awareness of functional modern adulthood; which explains how that childhood is permanent and actively relevant to life here-and-now.

This is what is made possible by regarding pre-mortal, mortal and post-mortal life as theosis, and regarding intuitive and aware primary thinking as the divine mode of being, and this thinking as a real, true and external world in which we our-selves may participate.

If successful, this kind of Christianity will transform the bitter-sweet, down-trending Life-tragedy of a happy childhood seen from the perspective of alienated adulthood; into an unmitigated good-thing. Because we will know that nothing significant is lost and everything good remains objectively available - both now, and beyond the doors of death.

I wish I could have explained this to Christopher Robin and AA Milne; but it is simply too hard to explain; every individual must discover it for himself or herself; and for that to happen they must want it to happen and believe that it is a real possibility; and very few people will admit either, let-alone both, of these propositions.

*Note: I was impelled to read this book (which I have long intended to tackle), by the appearance of a new movie which is apparently 'inspired by' Christopher Robin's 'True Story'; which I will probably end-up watching, sooner or later... It seemed important to grasp the reality before it could be over-written by the 'inspired by'.


seriouslypleasedropit said...

I was talking to some friends recently, wondering aloud at how my eight-year-old-self would take me to task for failing to fulfill this or that aspiration. And in some ways, he'd be right.

But if I could talk back, I would sit him down and tell him the good news: that what he wanted most, but didn't talk about---namely, to be a hero---was not only possible, but desperately needed.

Ben said...

"But if I could talk back, I would sit him down and tell him the good news: that what he wanted most, but didn't talk about---namely, to be a hero---was not only possible, but desperately needed."

Really great.

Lucinda said...

This post led me to some really profound personal insights, which I don't have the skill to articulate.

But I did want to say that I think one of the purposes of childhood is to teach us the sweet things to look for later on, when our mortal experience really gets rolling. It's like when Aslan tells the children they will have to find Him in their own world.

I look at my own children, and sometimes my heart aches to think of the spiritual danger ahead, and yet the Good News is so good. And I am so grateful for them to be given experience that will teach them to rely on Christ, if they only want to. The final joy cannot be forced on anyone. It must be chosen, with real intent.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the comment Lucinda.

Duggus said...

This was a thought-provoking post. I suppose I'm not burdened by the quandary because I didn't have a happy childhood, and just about any kind of reasonably-productive adulthood would have been more satisfying. However, once I had children, I realized just how important it was for me to give them a happy childhood, for me as well as for them. It was a kind of therapy, and could have become actually harmful for them if I had let it only be a kind of therapy. As it is, with them in the home stretch, no sooner do I start to feel I've given them a happy childhood than I read this post, which got me thinking, "Why bother?" But I'm not sure it's all that hard, as long as you can hold on to faith in God and the spiritual nature of all creation (regardless of how mundane the rest of people try to make it), find some sort of connection with like-minded people (a wife and a small set of friends is really all it takes), and have something beside the rat race to pursue. After all, children for generations have sat through school and found life grand only after the school bell rang. Isn't it really the same with work for a lot of people? Accept, instead, they don't hold on to those grand things once the whistle blows. They just go home and fall onto the couch.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Duggus - You may have taken from the post something I didn't intend - I'm not trying to give advice for a maximally-happy life. That would be some kind of utilitarian approach, which I regard as both incoherent and counter-productive in the medium to long term: indeed leading to nihilism and despair.

I am trying to suggest what we could, and should, learn from the experience of a happy childhood contrasted with the spiritual desert of mainstream majority modern adulthood.

(If you don't agree that mainstream majority modern adulthood is indeed a spiritual desert - then that is where we part company!)

Duggus said...

I don't think I took it that way. It just got me thinking about my own life, my children's lives, and my efforts to give them something I didn't have. I agree that mainstream majority adulthood is a spiritual desert, and my simple solution about keeping faith and connecting with a handful of like-minded folks and some sort of pursuit that has meaning beyond just a paycheck is, in reality, not at all simple to achieve these days. I agree with you (if I understand you correctly) that there isn't one, utilitarian formula. In the cases of those with special callings, my suggestion wouldn't work at all. For example, the anchorites found joy well outside family and even company of any kind, and would've have found only misery if they hadn't pursued what they were called to.

Andrew said...

I had a similar experience, where I found young childhood as ideal, but through adolescence (which was often terrible and painful, I saw those young years as foolish and naive) until my own children were born and it was possible to participate in being a child again - with perhaps more perspective and experience of the world's dangers.