I have begun to view the world lately in terms of innocence and corruption, the two competing states of human existence. I suppose grief has offered me this new perspective. My mother passed away last February, one day after Valentine's Day. The day before, I had to leave my mother's side because my cat Tommy had another face swelling that demanded a trip to the vet for a prednesone shot. He was dying of lymphoma but we were able to keep him functioning and happy with medication. He passed a month later. I think both my 96-year-old mother and my 10-year-old cat represented the state of innocence to me. As frail as my mom was, she still made me feel like a child in her presence so once she was gone the world seemed less safe. And my cat Tommy was the embodiment of innocence: playful, inquisitive and noisily honest about what he wanted at any given moment.
The word "innocent" has many various meanings, especially in the moral and legal realms, but for my purposes it describes that state characterized by playfulness, wonder, and honesty that can only occur within a context of personal safety. "Corruption", its opposite, is instead a state fueled by fear in which the individual is dominated by what poet Max Ehrmann called the "sham and drudgery" of the world.
I think among many of those privileged to have grown up without school shootings and clown presidents, myself included, there is a strong desire to reclaim the innocence of childhood that often gets misdirected. Confusing it with youth, we seek out plastic surgeons and fitness regimens, or flashy cars, trophy spouses, even elaborate comb-overs. Confusing it with safety itself, some go to great lengths to ensure their own safety by acquiring more guns, or stricter laws, or greater wealth to build walls physical and metaphorical, to protect themselves from dangers real and imagined. Some may confuse innocence with obliviousness and seek it with alcohol, street drugs or the bespoke renditions of happiness promised by pharmaceuticals though the truly innocent are always wide-eyed and curious. But no one ever feels youthful enough or safe enough or numb enough, not until they let go of the "sham and drudgery" of the world, on which they may already be hopelessly dependent.
We can reclaim our innocence after childhood only by protecting and defending the innocent. That is the choice in heroic sagas, which are allegories for every individual's transition to adulthood. That transition is a rarely a single decision point but rather a series of choices that can either concede to corruption, as when we lie or cheat our way out of a fix, just "go along to get along", or side, instead, with innocence and take up the fight, even reluctantly, for our values. Only then can we know the bliss of innocence, those times when we feel the flow of creativity, or wonder at the creations of nature or humankind, or engage in playful activities with those we trust.
The surviving Stoneman Douglas students recognized that their cause wasn't over pure physical safety as they pushed back against school-shooting "solutions" like arming teachers, or transparent or armored backpacks, or keeping a bucket of smooth rocks in every classroom. Such remedies only offer another concession to corruption. Those students had the time and experience to prepare for their heroism, as they grew up in homes where innocence was protected, but the challenge arrived sooner in their young lives than expected, as it often does. And they recognized their own privileged histories, embracing the cause of inner city youth who have confronted gun violence most of their lives. Our denial of innocence to the poor and minorities is an ongoing tragedy, yet even the streets of inner cities and the dusty paths of migrant camps see children at play and adults in song and dance -- innocence, like life itself, is both fragile and remarkably resilient.
I've adopted this perspective since February and now I've seen it played out in an another unimaginably horrifying way. Both the misdirected impulse for unbounded safety that gives rise to fear of "the other" and the impulse to protect the innocent have joined in battle over the separation of migrant children from their parents. Clearly, opponents of Trump's policy are fighting to preserve the innocence of those immigrant children. We worry about the children's physical safety in these circumstances but more than that we worry about how it will mess them up for the rest of their lives. I think the irreducible impulse to protect the innocent is at play here. And I see in proponents of the Trump agenda an insatiable longing for a return to innocence misdirected into an excessive demand for personal safety.
As the rescue of children in northern Thailand played across the airwaves recently and held us riveted, TCM aired my favorite movie (and, I am told, Donald Trump's as well), the 1941 classic Citizen Kane, a film about a wealthy man who tries to buy everything, to own enough to feel safe and secure, yet what he really wants, even as death approaches, is a return to the innocence of childhood from which he was taken too soon. What someone called the "dime-store Freudianism" of the film's ending may offer some real insight. This impulse to protect the state of innocence, and to long for a return to it among those who fell into corruption along life's way, may serve as a useful prism through which to view the day's events. And maybe, just maybe, we might craft a strategy to fight corruption with this knowledge. We are all, even Trump supporters, only trying to get to that same idyllic bliss.
Innocence is worth protecting, it is important, not for moral reasons but possibly for the very survival of our species because without playfulness we would have no art, without wonder, no science, and without honesty, no trust, no community and no society to speak of. As we continue the Resistence, let's not worry about being civil, let's instead ask whether the next action we take protects innocence or promotes corruption; let's not demand safe spaces for ourselves but instead create them for others, on the streets, in parks, at Starbucks and Waffle Houses; let's go boldly through the muck and mire and carry that light and be the heroes of our own sagas. Like I said, it's important.