As I get older, it occurs to me that I’m in danger of losing touch with the childlike wonder that makes life worth living. In order to get much joy out of life, I think you have to have a sense of the awesome, a deep curiosity about things, and a desire to jump into things “just to see what happens.” In other words, you have to remain a kid in some respects and let life surprise and delight you.
But age and responsibility have an insidious way of sucking this joy out of us. We get wrapped up in our routines, obligations, problems, fears, and responsibilities. Unless we’re careful, the world shrinks. Our experiences are limited to the same things, week after week. There’s no novelty, no sense of, “Hey, that’s awesome!” It’s just a trudge from one errand to the next, one obligation to the next, one workday to the next.
And then you’re dead. Although, it could be argued that you died long before the date was carved on your tombstone. Somehow you went from being a child who saw everything as novel and awesome to an adult who saw, well, nothing.
On a recent trip to the library, I realized I am in danger of falling into this exact hole. And it scared the crap out of me.
When I was a kid, and even through school, a trip to the library was a Big Deal. (Capitalized. It was that big of a deal to me!) It meant getting more books and since books were gateways to new experiences, people and worlds, library day was exciting. When it was time to go home, I always begged for more time. Just a few minutes more to choose the perfect books for the upcoming week. Just a few more minutes to spend in the wonderful world of endless bookshelves.
Even in high school and university, libraries were the places I went for fun. No matter how much time I spent in there for research purposes, I still wanted to go back just to immerse myself in the stacks and look at all the different subjects and possibilities available to me. It was fun to imagine all the places I could go, the jobs I could have, the people I could meet… Even if only in books. (And only if I had the time to read about all of them.)
Then somewhere along the line, that awe went away. The library became one more errand on a list to check off. As I dashed in recently to collect my holds and move on to the next thing, I stopped and really looked around. When was the last time I browsed? The last time I just killed a couple of hours wandering around, looking in all the sections and seeing what caught my eye? I couldn’t remember. For so long I’ve just been using the computer system from home to hold titles of interest and then going in and picking them up.
Even when I visit the university library, it’s only to work. I do what I need and get out. I don’t spend time lost in the stacks because I have other obligations to attend to. Time to browse is a luxury I no longer have.
But here’s the thing I realized: I need to make the time for that luxury. And others. When I got home and thought about it, the library is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of awe that I no longer feel. I’ve lost my childlike wonder and damn, it’s depressing.
Granted, some of this is simply inherent in getting older. When you’re a kid, literally everything is new. Newness = awesome. Or at least really interesting. Gradually, though, you gain more experience with the world and things that used to be awesome no longer are. That first trip to the beach was magical. The 50th, not so much. Your birthday parties as a kid were probably epic (at least in your mind). Birthdays as you get older tend to become a quick dinner out and a card and that’s about it. (Except for the big milestones where your friends go out of their way to embarrass you.) Firsts are wonderful. Once things become routine, they’re just part of the wallpaper.
When you’re a kid, the world encourages you to engage with things in a playful, spontaneous, and curious way. You’re always meeting new people every year in school and learning new things. You change schools every few years so your environment changes, too. Even your playtime changes as you grow and progress through different toys and interests.
But as you get older, much of that goes away. Unless you constantly swap jobs or have a trust fund that enables you to backpack the world for a few years, things settle down. You work the same job in the same place with the same people for years. Church, if you go, is the same week after week. The grocery store is a snore, clothes shopping is a chore, and even eating out is reduced to the same handful of places. Your friends may move on or away, wrapped up in their own lives, and making new friends isn’t as easy as it once was.
Your hobbies may offer some relief, but unless you continuously try to gain new skills, try new things, or meet new people, even they become rote. Even movies can get boring. “Didn’t we just see this?” is a fair question when viewing your 50th super hero film or space opera.
And then one day you find yourself in the library, the home of your greatest love, wondering what the hell has happened to your life. What happened to enjoying things and wondering at the awesomeness of life?
You realize that somewhere along the way the world lost the ability to surprise you. Scratch that. It’s not that the world lost it’s ability to surprise and delight you. That would be impossible given all the wonderful things in the world. What’s happened is that you have lost your ability (or willingness) to partake of that wonderfulness.
You may not have meant for it to happen. I certainly never meant for the library to become just another errand. But it happens. Life takes over and unless you take things off auto-pilot and make an effort to look around, life eventually passes you by. Society forces us to grow up, to take on responsibility and become contributing members of society instead of daydreamers and wanderers. And that’s fine. But there has to be a middle ground between growing up and being responsible and robbing yourself of joy and delight.
The solution is to force yourself to do and try new things, and to find the joy and wonder in the daily grind. I’m more fortunate than most. As a novelist, my very job requires me to think about “What if’s?” and “Wouldn’t it be amazing to…” But if all I do is think about those things, I’m not much better off than the cubicle dwelling spreadsheet guru.
I need to make a point to do more amazing things. And to really look around even when I’m doing the boring, everyday stuff. The next time I’m at the library, I’m going to make certain I have at least an hour to spend there. And I’m going to look around like I used to. When I’m walking through my neighborhood, I’m going to really look around at the trees, the people, and the environment instead of just churning through my daily mileage. I’ll try taking different routes through town, seeking out local festivals and events, and generally getting to know my own town better.
And if the chance arises, I’ll practice saying yes to bigger things. Normally I decline most invitations and events because it pains my introverted, shy side. But every now and then it won’t kill me to do something new.
Honestly I’m afraid it might kill me if I don’t.
(Photo courtesy of Schmidsi)