When I was around 4 years old, my mom stopped a friend on the street and began to chat her up for minutes on end. This friend had a much younger son with her, around 2 years old I believe. My brother and I walked off ahead, farther down the block, and this little boy followed us. Bored, and with no one paying attention to us, my brother and I decided to turn the corner and relieve ourselves against a nearby wall.
It's a boy thing.
And we were 3 and 4 years old apiece, remember. Laughing, the little boy tried to imitate us, but he had a hard time getting his pants down. I helped him, pulling them down to his ankles for him. And then I noticed that his shoelaces were untied. I honestly don't know what came over me next, but I suddenly got it in my head that it would be a funny prank to tie them together. Afterward, I grabbed my brother's hand and urged him to race back to our mom--knowing full well that this little boy would take off after us! He did, with his trousers still down and his shoelaces tied together. Laughing, he made it only a few feet before falling over onto his stomach. Next ensued so much crying and screaming. I remember thinking I would be in trouble for that; and sure, I did receive a beating from mom later on as a result. But in that moment .... the image of that annoying little boy falling flat on his face, scraping his knees and bawling? In that moment, for the oddest of reasons, the 4 year old me found it the funniest, most satisfying sight ever. And I *knew* that I had done that.
Yesterday, as I walked home from the subway after work, I came across two toddlers straggling behind an older woman who might have been their grandmother. A boy and girl, around 3 years old each. I assumed they were either siblings or cousins. The children were slurping happily on lollipops they held in chubby, balled-up hands, while holding each other's free hands as they walked up the block. It was the cutest sight! The very picture of innocence. And I thought to myself: wow, children really are beautiful. In their faces, and in the way they so sweetly held on to each other as they walked, you could not doubt the purity of their hearts and spirits. I knew that it was this very innocence that we adults cherish so much in children. Why we feel this instinctive pang to protect and shelter them, for surely children at that age are without guile, without malice.
Or are they?
Where does this concept come from, that all children are born innocent? Is this true? Or is it a construct we adults invent because we tend to read into our young what we ourselves wish were true? But just because we want it so, does not make it so.
When does innocence end? I'm not so sure innocence ever ends. We're all innocent in some way or another. Sure, we probably become more jaded over time as life's hard realities belt us to and fro on the battered winds of lost dreams . . . but not one of us is ever truly, wholly evil. Just as no one is ever completely good. We're human beings, and humans are a bewildering, grayish mix of both forces.
And, I hate to break it to you, but: children are human beings, too. They're not little godlings flitting about on glowing white wings. They are born with the potential to be the humans we all are. Flawed beings with our many, many bad moments. On that day when I was 4, I had a very bad moment. A moment when my little inner masochist came out and showed his face. As an adult now, I'm horrified by my actions in that one moment of weakness and wretched bemusement. It's haunted me all these years, actually, as I strive to be a moral person in this world. But yet I have to live with the fact that in my past there is a moment in which I was a horrible person to a happy, adorable little baby who didn't know any better than to follow me around like a puppy looking for a friend. It breaks my heart now thinking about it. Why on earth would I have done such a thing? Am I just the lowest of scum for not only inflicting such pain on an innocent child once, but from gaining so much satisfaction from the act as well? I could see someone like Hitler maybe having a story like this from his childhood, but surely not me? I'm a GOOD person!
But, nope. We all have this capability in us. Perhaps I'm being more honest about it here on this blog than most people will ever be, even to themselves. The truth of the matter is: not only do we all carry the seeds within us to do both harm and good, but we were born to this dichotomy.
Seeing those two adorable children holding hands as they ate their lollipops and tried to catch up to grandma, I had to doubt this, though. Could either one of those little cherubim ever do such a horrible act as what I did not more that one year in age away from them? Perhaps not. So then, what made me do it? Who even taught me to do something so radical as to pull a malicious prank on a child more helpless and innocent than myself? Is it something taught, or something innate? Nature or nurture? The world may never know. I certainly never will.
But I wonder: is it really important to find out? Or is it better to take the generalized approach and simply accept our bad natures as being just that -- natural! As I get older, I'm beginning to realize that it's not so much about bemoaning the bad things you've done in the past, but about learning from those moments and doing better not to repeat them.
The more you accept the bad within you, but strive to rise above it and do good, the more of a complete person you will be.
I truly believe this. Don't you?