Poems are meant to provoke you. They are the spiritual home of a wordsmith as they require the effective use of both language and form.
A great poem will amplify an idea and make it transcendent. It should leave an echo within, the kind that causes you to see existence differently.
Take Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, used so effectively by Chris Nolan in Interstellar, or William Blakes’ The Tyger, a poem that still has scholars divided on its true meaning. Both are now timeless classics that I revisit time and time again, like a great song or painting when I’m looking for inspiration.
It would seem as though our willingness to live in child-like wonder is commensurate with our openness to experience pain when it comes.
I love a poem, and all art for that matter, that isn’t self-conscious. Meaning, I love art that points me to something bigger than me and Goldheart’s The Elder, The Infant is in that vein. It’s a wonderful poem, with a well-known Christian paradox at its center; in order to enter the Kingdom, we must become like children.
The writer, using allegory, tells a story to illustrate one of Jesus’ most profound teachings and by doing so points a finger at the enemy of childlikeness, cynicism. Cynicism, being that onerous mask we wear to hide our disappointments in life.
When I think of the word cynicism the word callous immediately comes to mind. Callous comes from the Latin word callosus, best translated as “hard-skinned.” I think that’s what we start to build around our hearts—figuratively speaking—when we experience disappointment in life.
If we’re not careful we can let our hearts get hard and slip into the habit of only remembering the bad things in life and not the good. Jesus knew all too well how detrimental that was for us, especially in light of the words and deeds He did to reveal His Kingdom, which was so contrary to the world’s kingdoms.
I once observed with a friend of mine how some of the t-shirts we wear seemed to illustrate our slow but steady descent into cynicism. For example, baby clothes will invariably have some positive statement emblazoned on it like, “Free Smiles” or “Love Made Me.” But then as we get older the t-shirts become world-wearier, “Need Coffee to Function” or “First of All No, Second of All No.” Yes, they’re funny but I think it points to something deeper–a slow rot–that we let creep in and muddy our perspectives as we get older.
And, yet, we can’t escape the reality that we do get older. A fact that the poem embraces in the fourth stanza by challenging the foolishness of youth. Being like a child is not an excuse to be stupid and God knows children can do some really stupid things.
I once heard someone say, “Yes, it’s wise to learn from our mistakes but I think it’s even wiser to learn from others’ mistakes.” How many of us watched one of our siblings electrocute themselves when they put their finger into a plug socket and decided, despite their tears, that it was our turn to do it as well? Some things in life are best learned from observation.
We’ve all experienced disappointments in life and they’re painful to have to go through. It’s in those times we’re prone to surrender the wrong way; we tell ourselves that it was a stupid idea in the first place or justify the disappointment behind bad theology.
So, what’s all this unto? I think the answer is right back at the start of the poem. In the second stanza, the story refers to a “garden of wonder” that the Elder is given care of. Clearly, that garden is the life we’re given to steward on Earth. However, there is no suggestion that the implied wonderment is a given.
A garden’s beauty is maintained by being weeded, pruned and watered. Leave a garden untended and all you have is disorder. Our hearts and minds are the same. If we leave them to fend for themselves, it’s not a question of if but when the disorder begins and we start to feel powerless to fix the mess we’re in.
That’s why I see a link between cynicism and apathy. We commonly associate apathy with laziness, which is an outworking of apathy. But if you look up the origin of apathy it’s defined as “without suffering” or “without feeling.”
What happens when you have a hard heart?
We’ve all experienced disappointments in life and they’re painful to have to go through. It’s in those times we’re prone to surrender the wrong way; we tell ourselves that it was a stupid idea in the first place or justify the disappointment behind bad theology. Both are useful ways to numb the pain or avoid ever going through it again.
So, what is the right way to surrender? The answer can be found in Proverbs 3:5 (NASB emphasis added), “Trust in the Lord with ALL your heart, and DO NOT lean on your own understanding.”
It took my wife and I seven years to get pregnant. It was painful. Especially when close friends were having their first and second children. We tried to walk through the pain but fell prey to placing our trust in a well-reasoned theology, “Well, maybe it’s not God’s time yet.” It wasn’t until that was challenged by a friend of ours that the levee really broke and we were able to fully acknowledge the pain. Wonderfully, as I surrendered a broken heart that could only say, “I don’t understand but I trust you…” I felt Him so close to me in a way that I wouldn’t have experienced had I not surrendered to Him.
Cynicism is born out of an unwillingness to entrust God with our hearts. It would seem as though our willingness to live in child-like wonder is commensurate with our openness to experience pain when it comes. You can’t have the one without the other. But don’t be mistaken, the Kingdom reality–wonder–is a far greater reality than the temporal one of pain.