Abandoned on the shores of childhood

I just finished Phillip Pullman’s masterful His Dark Materials trilogy. Typically, at the end of a book, I note what date I finished reading it and record some immediate impressions and takeaways. This is what I wrote straight after finishing the three-part story:

“A story that has revealed (in part) how to be brave, how to think, how to decide, and most of all, how to love and live.”

That’s it. Nothing else. And it’s because the things I felt and learnt from the story are too big, too raw, to be captured explicitly right now.

But there is one passage that really intrigued me and won’t budge from my mind. Early in the story, Lyra, one of the protagonists, is given a device that allows her to ask questions and learn the truth. The following passage comes later in the story, soon after Lyra loses the ability to read the truth from the interplay of symbols and meanings on her alethiometer, and she is asking the angel Xaphania why.

“Once more she gazed at the symbols, once more she turned the wheels, but those invisible ladders of meaning down which she’d stepped with such ease and confidence just weren’t there. She just didn’t know what any of the symbols meant.
. . . “why can’t I read the alethiometer any more? Why can’t I even do that? That was the one thing I could do really well, and it’s just not there any more — it just vanished as if it had never come . . .”
“You read it by grace,” said Xaphania, looking at her, “and you can regain it by work.”
“How long will that take?”
“A lifetime.”
“That long . . .”
“But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”

In Impro, Keith Johnstone’s posits that adults are atrophied children. That as we transition into adulthood—whether because of society or culture, or because that’s how it must be—we leave something behind. And thanks to Phillip Pullman and the above passage, I think I know what it is that we leave abandoned on the shores of childhood as we sail into the oceans of the adult world. In part, it is our creativity, our innocence and our un-self-consciousness. But really, what we leave behind when we enter adulthoood is a sense of who we are.

As kids, on a subconscious, intuitive level, we understand who we are, and we have no trouble expressing it. But as we grow we lose this knowledge. It goes missing among the eddies of desires, expectations, influences and events.  

As the angel Xaphania says, when we are young, we can read our nature by grace, effortlessly, as if it is the most natural thing in the world. We can do it without thought. But as adults, we must re-learn who we are, and this time, it does not come so easily. It is painstaking and tiresome. It takes work, and that work, the effort to understand again who you are, takes the rest of a lifetime.