When we talk of teaching children, of forming their minds and hearts by suggestions taken from the experience of our own lives, we are often forgetful of the greatest truth which underlies all life.
We think of the children as new beings, as fresh, unmolded potencies, as young and tender plants, which we can bend this way and that; and, doubtless, if we are filled with a spirit of gentleness, tolerant kindness, and, above all, bright good-nature, our attitude towards children will help and strengthen the growth of their unfolding natures.
But in thinking of children as new, fresh lives, to be molded by us, we are making the greatest mistake possible. “Be not deceived by curls and dimples,” said Emerson; “the baby is a thousand years old.” And, indeed, every baby is a thousand years old, or even thousands of thousands. And I do not allude to the heredity of the child’s body, which is the latest growth of our ancient humanity, itself the outcome of ages of life gone by before man was man, though these long ages of life all play their part in the nature of every child and resist, stubbornly or gently, all our efforts to mold it to our will; I allude rather to the heredity of the child’s own soul, which is very full of age, and has, indeed, passed through infinite experiences before taking to itself a new body in its present birth.
The child, born today, does not come, as the song has it, “out of the no-where into the here”; it comes, rather, from eons of past life in this world of ours through all its ages, and in other worlds before this world of ours was yet woven out of the shining star-dust. The baby that seems to know so little, to grasp so feebly at the things of life, has really had a mighty history. He has passed through the life of the old lands, has seen the wars of the Middle Ages waged round him, in a body of flesh and blood, which he laid aside to enter this new body after a period of rest and refreshment in the paradise of peace. Before the Middle Ages, he lived through the Dark Ages, as history calls them, which were yet so bright with the life of saintship and faith; before the Dark Ages, that same child now crooning to itself one of the old, everlasting songs of man, lived through the magnificence of Rome, the glory of Greece, the power of Persia, the mystery of Egypt; and before that, in still older lands, in Chaldea, in India, mother of nations, that same child lived and struggled, sorrowed and rejoiced, loved and died. And in older lands, whose ruins now crown the hills like great challenging enigmas, in the oldest lands of the world, in Kopan, Palenque, Peru, or where the desert sands of Gobi drift over cities long buried, whose very names tradition has long forgotten to whisper through the dim halls of time—in old lands like these, and in days that are long since dead, that child lived a human life, full of joys and sorrows, and there sowed the seed of future life, some of which is to bear fruit today.
And there were yet older lands, now long since sunk beneath the oceans, or hidden under the ice-sheets of the poles; there, too, the child lived and saw the sunlight. And beyond that there are other vistas, dim, misty, vaporous, as mankind descended from angelic worlds and drew about him the first shining garments of mortality; long eons of hardly human life, where all was the innocence of Eden; there, too, the child of today has had a part.
And so the baby comes to this world again, heir to an infinite past, the heritage of his own soul; and, knowing this, we shall be less inclined to mold and change that nature with its rich store of potencies for good, its heavy burden of tendencies for evil, which the child itself must live out, watching the seeds sown long ago come to their fruition, their ripeness, their maturity; reaping the harvest of good deeds done; triumphing over weaknesses; conquering deep-rooted evils; rising above once darling sins.
We shall pause before trying to mold and shape a destiny, which Time himself has been molding and shaping through long ages, and which has its roots still firmly fastened in a golden past of the Eternal, before Time was. We shall know that wiser heads than ours would be needed to guide and guard that life with its infinite potencies; that even the wisdom of archangels would fall short of that high task, which is guided indeed by the child’s immortal spirit, the brooding divinity, in its turn enlightened by the Highest.
And wisely abstaining from a too officious interference in a work which has been going forward from the everlasting, we shall rather think it our one duty to let the genius of the child develop itself, unfold its destiny, as a tree unfolds its leaves in spring time, and gradually open to its fullness, like a rose in the sunshine; and, watching the new-old life thus opening, we shall come to understand that the child has far more to teach us than we have to teach the child.
And first of these lessons is that very lesson of our infinite past, for few children, indeed, are born into the world, who have not clinging about them some memories, dim or vivid, of days gone by; and, if we will, we can learn from their lips, which have not yet kissed the idols of earth we worship, many a secret of the vanished years.
They come laden with memories, and we, in our blind wisdom, try instead to crowd in on them our own superstitions, our sordid aims, our mean hopes, our false sciences. They come with a gleam of glory round them, some shining memory of the paradise of peace they have just left; and we, instead, teach them our own false doctrines, our religions of envy, hatred and all uncharitableness. They come with some of the innocence of the earliest human races, who lived when our planet wore another face, in dim, long vanished lands; and we hasten to wipe out these fair memories with our own low aims and ideals, till we have made of these new-born souls, beings as vain, as sordid, as earthly, as we are ourselves.
And, instead of bringing to perfection those flowers of the soul whose seeds were sown so long ago, instead of lightening that burden of evil which every soul brings with it—else it would not return to birth at all—we steep the new life in our own atmosphere of folly and darkness, so that it adds new burdens and ever heavier veils of illusions, which will darken, not lighten its future path.
If we allowed the children to be the teachers, we should long since have come into the clearest understanding of this great secret of re-birth; we should realize the long ranks of life that lie behind each of these children, and each one of ourselves; if we allowed the children to be the teachers, we should long ago have reached a certainty as to the oldest history of our planet, the earliest races of all, before sex-life had begun, for it is to this dim, mysterious past that every child-life reverts; if we allowed the children to be the teachers, we should long since have learned the secret of that paradise of peace between death and birth, which is the provision of Divinity for weary and life-worn souls.
This and much more might we learn, if we allowed the children to be the teachers and to suggest to us the wordless truths they know; and this we shall do in years to come, when a little of the sordidness of this our age is worn away.
And let it not be supposed that these lives of ours are too mean and insignificant for these high and celestial destinies. There are no mean lives among men, and none insignificant; but all are full of endless potencies for weal, endless potencies for woe. Can not the eyes of the meanest, the most insignificant, take in the whole blue dome of the sky, the broad beauty of the green earth, the radiant mystery of the sunlight, the starry immensity of night? Can not every soul that seems most poor and insignificant, feel something of the mystery of the twin angels of our world, of love and death? Will not every life, however mean and insignificant, be brought face to face with the eternal enigma, after a few days, a few weeks, a few months, a few years? Does not every meanest and narrowest heart of man contain within it that glowing spot of light, that has gleamed since the eternities, that dim “I am” which shall one day become one with the infinite Light?
Therefore no souls are mean, none are insignificant; but all are attuned to high destinies, fitted for abounding joys, tempered through bitter sorrows, and this very seeming of meanness, of the insignificance of our lives, is itself but the cunning veil of destiny beneath which our divinity, in silence, in secrecy, is weaving its perfect web, whose warp is infinite time, whose woof is boundless space.
That ancient divinity which moves so silently in our hearts, and from whose shadow we have created all the gods of our religions, has been for ages working out its perfect plan; shall toil at it yet for ages, before it be completed. And it is not among the wise and prudent of our worldly life, the men whose minds are full of the subtleties of sciences which are today, and tomorrow are forgotten; it is not in the ideals of those who have been stained and sullied by our sordid life, that we shall look for a sense of our divinity, but in the heart of a little child.