“I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted
to the earlier years were not far the most interesting.”
– CS LEWIS, “Preface” of Surprised By Joy
It took me a few tries to read this sentence. Was he saying that the early years were boring, or that they weren’t boring or…? Well, I pulled the ole “pull out the contrasting contractions” trick and it made sense.
Isn’t it true, though? Yes, in biographies we like our adventures or romances or humorous anecdotes, but aren’t the childhood tales the most “right”? Though another person’s childhood might differ from us in many ways, we all experience the same emotions, fears, desires, and hopes. When you read of another person finding friendship, dealing with a parent’s death, struggling through school days, etc. the words jump up off the page at you, causing you to call out “Yes! I agree! Of course! I hated that! That happened to me!” Or, as Lewis put it- “What! Have you felt t hat too? I always thought I was the only one.”
We all start out as children. There’s no skipping over those years. They are our formative years. I spent them in England and Norway.Where were you?
This is why I love to hear about other people’s childhoods– the TV shows they watched, the games they played, the books they read, the friends they had. It’s so much easier to find a connection from those days because that was when we were so ready for friendship. We bonded over pudding and kickball and Nickelodeon and colors. It is the smallest things we share in common. When we get older, we pursue the large issues at hand, trying to pledge ourselves to a group or system or company, becoming a majority or minority or somewhere in between. We like swimming in the sea with a million others when its just as fun (if not more) to sit on the shore and find shells. The little things.
It is the little things that affect us and make us who we are. Lewis describes three small moments in his childhood that carried with him for the rest of his life. They come from reading and remembering, simple thoughts and memories. But for Lewis…
“The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.”
In those little moments, he experienced something larger. He calls it Joy. He was surprised by Joy. Hence the title.
He goes from talking about Joy to talking about pain, grief, sadness, mourning. His mother has died and he experiences the loss, though different from his father, in ways that are very real and very heart-wrenching.
In childhood, there are the small things. But we do not escape the monsters. Death is real. Joy is real. Life is real.
Many wish to hide children away from big problems, scary monsters, depressing times. Some think that the happiness a child experiences from hearing his mother tell a story is low and sentimental, not the true happiness which philosophers seek. Yes, children grow. Yes, they are developmentally different from adults. But God does not withhold his hand. He sends rain on the evil and the good, whether child, adult, or elder. Every good and perfect gift is from above, and he gives them to all, not just those who are ready to comprehend them. He spoke to Samuel as a boy and called teenage Mary to be the mother of God. Children experience Joy. Children experience Sorrow. Children meet Evil every day and every night, and when they applaud the fairy tale’s happy ending, they are cheering on the Good they know is real.
“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fearof childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing For Children”
Childhood. It is short, small, but highly important. It is the stem that forms the apple, the stream that flows into the river, the word that changes lives. We must never forget its value.
Dessert: Mister Rogers spoke a lot about the real-ity of childhood. He comforted kids and helped them know there are no such thing as real monsters, but didn’t pretend that those real real monsters didn’t exist: Death, Pain, Loneliness, Loss.
“Almost all of us who have been parents have had the feeling of wanting to give our children perfect lives, lives without pain and sorrow, but of course none of can. There are many times in life when we can’t solve our children’s problems or get rid of their fears. Perhaps all we can do is to provide a safe, loving place and a willingness to listen.”
Being there. Love. Doing the little things that matter ever so much.