“In My Childhood, I had No Childhood,” He Said

“In my childhood,” Anton Chekhov famously said, “I had no childhood.” He said it “famously,” of course, only because he was famous. For lots of people, the idea of childhood raises wistful sadness of something we were cheated out of.

If the bliss of childhood is something we sometimes fail to get but regularly wish we had, the second infancy of advanced old age is something we regularly hope to avoid but will probably have to endure. How ironic to suffer the worst of both possibilities: to miss out on childhood but have to endure the creeping debilitation of old age.

In between, we get the broad landscape of the adult: independent and all-powerful; no longer the child, at the mercy of others, but not yet conscious of advancing time and attrition. Adults are grown up but not yet grown old.

These views of life’s stages are prototypically modern, a function of the hubris that set in with science, the Enlightenment, and the machine age, all of which promised ultimate salvation by and for “can do” adults. Adulthood, we imagine, is time set aside for achievements that we list in a c.v. like notches in a cowboy’s gun. “What do you do?” we ask adults whom we meet for the very first time. When you get too old to “do” anything, we retire you to a “rest” home as uninteresting.

This fetish for achievement is a modernist critique of medieval Christianity, helped along by capitalism. The medieval church had done its best to convince human beings that they could never accomplish anything worthwhile; that we are all sinners; that being born into serfdom or royalty, poverty or wealth, was God’s will to be endured; and that deliverance arrives only in the afterlife and only for those without pride of self. With no possibility of accomplishment, the point of life was just to get through it and make it to rebirth on the other side of death; hence the idea of life as a “cycle” – from birth, to adulthood, to old age, and, then, to rebirth (a progression evident in Christian iconography of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries).

The capitalist influence attracted a host of early theorists. Max Weber (1864-1920) named Calvinist Protestantism as the force that cast doubt on the medieval narrative: Protestants accepted human sinfulness, but thought that God predestines some people for salvation in the world to come and signals that choice by allowing the predestined chosen to multiply wealth, power and achievements here and now. Werner Sombart (1863-1941) thought Jews the more likely candidate: excluded from medieval guilds, Jews opted for a competitive system that rewarded entrepreneurial individualism. More likely, Ferdinand Toennies (1855-1936) was right in seeing capitalism as a function of individualism and modernity per se. In any event, individualism and capitalism inherited the vacuum opened up by the shrinking medieval sacred canopy, giving us the unquestioned view that life’s purpose is to pile up achievements, preferably quantifiable – enough to fill long obituaries that prove we were once worthwhile.

This rapturous sense of adult possibility takes its toll, however. At the very least, the endless search for achievement comes at the fearful price of never having enough and being only as good as the last healthy bonus, satisfied customer, enthusiastic client, or rave review.

No wonder we romanticize childhood as the innocent time we never got. Did we really never have it or do we just wish, sometimes, we could get it again: abandon the burden of adult achievement and retire – not to old age, of course, but back to childhood, where we still have boundless energy, but don’t have to accomplish anything.

Other cultures and eras carve up life’s promises differently. Classical Judaism, for example, honors aging as a goal, not a falloff from one’s prime. When Rav Ashi, the most cited rabbi of the Talmud, is invited to offer a public prayer but is not sure what prayer to say, he looks to an old man (hahu sava) for confirmation, because elders have what mere adults do not: wisdom. And Judaism values wisdom as a guide to what counts for real achievement and what does not.

To be sure, achievement matters for the Rabbis, who are hardly passive about the world. But they know better than to think that all things are humanly possible, and they had read Ecclesiastes, the very epitome of wisdom, for whom the endless quest for achievements is “vanity of vanities”; it leaves you “pursuing the wind” (Ecc. 2:11). So the achievements they advocate are those that wisdom recognizes as lasting and satisfying, available yet ultimate: acts of kindness and righteousness.

Here is a vision of achievement where childhood is not frivolity nor old age doddering. Childhood inaugurates the search for wisdom and the art of dealing kindly and righteously. As adults, we seek to model such a life. In old age, we are still kind and righteous, but surprise of surprises – freed from other demands of adulthood, we are free to master wisdom.

Why do people label religion irrelevant? The Jewish view of growing up and growing old is as fine a model of life as I can imagine.

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