When do we acquire knowledge of evil and lose our innocence?
I confess that I remained fairly innocent (or perhaps naïve) well into my twenties. It never occurred to me that I possessed anything anyone envied enough to covet or steal. I saw myself as an average Joe, living in his own world like everybody else. I owned what everyone else owned. I believed everyone thought the way I thought. It wasn't until my senior year in high school, after my best friend stole my girlfriend, that my innocence began to wane. I remember thinking, "I would never do what he did. That was evil. Maybe not everyone thinks like me after all." Nonetheless, I naïvely lived with my head in the clouds until I turned 31.
I lost my innocence at that age after the birth of my first child, who came into this world with a broken collarbone. As I cautiously held him in my arms, hoping not to re-injure him, I suddenly became completely accountable, responsible, and dedicated to his well-being. As an utterly defenseless newborn babe, I immediately rallied to become his protector. To accomplish my guardian role, I began learning about a cutthroat world, where I needed to compete with others for good jobs. I inventoried all my strengths, my marketable personality traits, my level of intelligence, and my material worth before attacking the world's dog-eat-dog rat race to guarantee that my son's well-being transpired. Put another way, after my firstborn came into the world, I no longer allowed myself extravagant comfort achieved by keeping my head buried in the sand. On the day of his birth, I grew up and struck out into the crusty world to make a way for my son's sake. Innocence no longer stood a chance to get me what I wanted for my child.
So ... when do we lose our innocence?
I believe each of us lose our innocence, acquiring familiarity with evil, at different ages when critical life events erupt. These decisive life events force us out of our habitual, comfortable self-absorption and drive us into a world beyond ourselves. A son or daughter losing parents at a young age no longer lives under the psychological or material guardianship once afforded by a protective parent. A decisive event. An abused child eventually realizes how violence and violation make it necessary to locate healthier accommodations elsewhere in order to survive. Another decisive event. The act of leaving home physically and emotionally removes us from our comfort zone and instruction begins concerning how living solely in our private world makes us blind, deaf and vulnerable to others' machinations and scheming to get what they wish to take from us; in other words, we wise up. Another critical event.
Adam and Eve lived in paradise. No children. No want. No yippy dogs. No lawn to mow. Complete abundance. No demands, except one coming from God for them to avoid eating fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil. Of course, being completely innocent, oblivious and satisfied with their egocentric world, they blew it; and, disobedience created their decisive event, forcing them from self-absorption and driving them into a hard-nosed world unlike any world known to them before. Innocence lost.
Should we mourn loss of innocence?
If she lived in innocence before, I suspect that Mother Teresa's innocence vaporized after she took her first step into the shocking city of Calcutta - a place swarming with illness, suffering, and death. Who could escape what evil she felt as she surveyed widespread misery and encountered ruination? Nonetheless, she moved outside herself, going beyond her innocence to let go of her personal wants, confidently walking into a rugged world sorely in need. Leaving her innocence behind, she went on to give enormous compassion and hope to those in engulfing need.
After we lose innocence, fully knowing the wily world's ways, but still choose to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, we achieve a far greater good in God's eyes than perpetuating the delusion that evil does not exist. If we see evil, but still courageously choose to surrender, meeting urgent needs, willing to pay the full cost of our sacrifice if need be, then God finds in us the same passion found in Jesus, who moved beyond private wants and hopes to save others' lives. As Jesus would say in fewer words, "... whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life because of Me will find it." (Matthew 16:25, Holman Christian Standard Bible Version)
And so, is saving and preserving life worth losing our innocence? What do you say?
Pastor Tom came from Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, Utah; he now pastors at First United Methodist Church in Cortez. He's a graduate of Eden Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins University.