I believe we are all children. I don’t mean that in some cutesy, kumbaya kind of way. I mean that the only difference between a child and a so-called adult is that the latter is better at rationalization.
I spent several years working overseas largely in Third-World countries and often with the very poor. It’s easy to start to feel like a parent in that atmosphere. But it embarrassed me. I wondered why. I would see people older than me looking at the things I had or the opportunities I could bring. They looked with these child-like eyes and had giddy reactions. It felt good but also bad because I felt like somehow I was demeaning them. It felt like their yearning for what I had was corrupting them. And also like they didn’t understand.
At the same time, I realized I had what I had not because of my cleverness but by the accident of my American birth. I would watch them work and figure and solve problems in their more agrarian lives and I knew I could never do the same. I would be eaten alive in their world. I wasn’t mature enough.
How could I be the parent and the child at the same time?
I realized we all want what we want. A child sees something shiny or bright or sweet and wants it instantly. An adult has the same reactions but understands there is a process of how to get the item. It sometimes takes years and detours that would seem to lead away from the target, but the wanting is still there.
The people in those poor countries wanted my baubles the way a child wants candy. But they also had an “adult” discipline that I lacked. I wanted things too, less important things than those of mine these people coveted. And my understanding of how to get such toys is rooted in my privileged place in the world, not in my maturity.
I now look around and I see lots of people wanting things. Some would pursue their desires at the expense of others and then explain that they are really serving a greater good, growing the economy, spurring others. They talk of work and sacrifice and how these are attributes of maturity. But those attributes are still aimed at getting what the person wants, be it candy or a yacht. All they really do is use their experience to spin the meaning of their raw desires. They want candy like anyone else, they’re just better at manipulating how others understand this.
The child wants candy because that’s as far as its experience leads. The adult wants a yacht because the grownup has already tasted the candy. The only difference is the price. It’s still a child grasping for what it wants.
Even altruists want. They just want to be recognized as altruists. Only children are honest about their desires.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.