The fireflies were blinking about when I took out the trash, so I sat down on my stoop and watched them for a while. It was one of those perfect summer twilights, full of still air and heavy quiet, and the living lamps flitted about their hidden tasks. They sure don’t seem to do much when they are blinking.
Those evenings make me feel childhood again; since I had a pretty good childhood by most standards that’s a happy thing for me. And soon this summer we are due for a cicada season, which casts a Jungian spell on me and makes me five years old again. My clearest and fondest memory of childhood on 33rd St. in Mt. Rainier is collecting the locust shells that covered our yard–psst, and the neighbor’s yard too, don’t tell anyone I hopped the fence!–and listening to the lullaby of the cicadas.
Every time I’m around for a regional cicada season, whether that be in Ohio or Maryland or Virginia, I remember the giant tree in our backyard and the dozens of little alien monsters I collected for play with my toys. And something just puts me into a cozy, happy fog and time bends back on itself and I’m in two places. I love cicada song, far more even than I love firefly evenings.
Here’s the weird part: I don’t typically like dwelling on my childhood. If anything, I’m one of those people who callously moves on to the next thing. I don’t go back to reunions. I don’t hold onto or track down old friends separated by time and space. I’m perfectly happy to see them again and reconnect, but I’m not a nostalgic or change-resistant person.
But yearning for and holding onto childhood does seem to be a major feature of our society. I think the drive to stay young, to reconnect with our youth, to find things that make us feel young again, plays a central role in our secular morality. We use the happy past–obviously an idealization–to escape our failures and anxieties, to refresh our spirits, to heal from our sorrows.
Yearning for childhood is the secular version of going to confession, thought I as I sat on the stoop. Peter Pan as sacrament.
The human spirit requires a happiness unmoored from time and the past provides a ready answer to that need. We cast the soul out of the prison of the present and find a shining realm of peace and warm fuzzy light. It certainly wasn’t that transcendent the first time around, but memory is a powerful thing when it comes to…”editing.”
I suppose I should put my cards on the table and just call that falsification. The secular version of confession is a substitute for what we really need–direct contact with eternity and the happiness of final rest in the last end–and insofar as it replaces it is evil. Yearning for childhood is just another version of running from the hound of heaven; prettier and more idyllic than most ways, perhaps, but running all the same.
In some ways Little Orphan Annie blew up this false god because, hey, sometimes life is so full of sorrow that no amount of “editing” can get us to go back to the past for our happiness. But the precious little red-head gives us an equally destructive counterfeit eternity: tomorrow. That’s when the sun comes out!
Sure, why not use the not-yet as an alternative to the already-been as our escape from now’s prison? The human spirit is restless, groaning in travail to burst the bonds of the present for a reality that transcends time. And if the past won’t work, there’s always the future! The obstinately horizon-oriented do the same thing I do sitting on my porch listening to cicadas: touch a happiness outside of time.
Except escapism is bad, even in small doses. What we need is healing and relief and a better life so we can get on with the task of growing virtues. Abandoning the now–the one place we actually are and need to be–is trying to cash in on a promise we’re not ready for. Why do you think Jesus rebuked Peter when he suggested the booths?
Confession is different because it is a sacrament and sacraments are graces–they are gifts of God With Us, beyond our control and providing us exactly the foretaste of eternity we need without causing us to forsake our time. In them time itself is redeemed. Reconciled to God, reconciled to ourselves, we are reconciled to our time. We are liberated from the prison of the present–and the past, and the future–without abandoning it in a sentimental virtual reality.
But neither is grace the overthrow of the sentimental. Grace lets us enjoy the things of the world rightly, a truth we have fled relentlessly since our first parents pointed fingers and put on fig leaves. Refusing the world’s medicine does not make us indifferent to the good; putting it down we regain it and the more so. It is the graspers who lose in their anxiety, as our first parents know to our universal lament. Whoever loses his life for my sake, etc.
The cicada song and the glittering possibilities of the future are goods, real goods, to be enjoyed and not twisted into idealizations. Timelords are we become by grace, comprehending our past, present, and future without division or loss. To move gracefully through time, unburdened by fear or shame–surely this must be part of the life our race lost long ago, an earthly perfection that shadows eternity. That eternity is our horizon, and our place of safe refuge, and the one place we will no longer be restless.
Don’t find your happiness in the past or the future. Find it in Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.