“Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka was a Czech author of fiction, born in Prague, who was unfortunately only successful posthumously. He wrote in German, so that quote is merely a translation: an incredibly accurate and astutely-observed deduction that he only reached
That quote will be the basis for this article. I will expand it out and try to apply some of my own wisdom. I will try to explain why a world once so beautiful is now drab and dreary. Surely it is painfully obvious that the world we live in is still beautiful: those photos in National Geographic, or those TV shows of weird, otherworldly panoramas — they’re not lying. Those places are real and this world is still beautiful. Objectively, we must be able to agree that the world is full of beauty. You might gripe and balk, claiming things ‘aren’t what they used to be’. You might claim that the world is a scarier place than when you were younger, fearless, running through a field of tall grass to escape your mother’s clutches.
These are subjective views of the world, a view of the world through your jaded eyes. A view interpreted by your bitter brain. It’s not rational. The world is not ugly or dysfunctional. The world still is beautiful. We just don’t see it that way any more.
I was so easily pleased as a child. An ice cream or a new rattle would make me grin like a fool. Something as simple as a casette tape that I could grab with my pudgy hands and gnaw with my new teeth could keep me entertained for hours. Everything back then was so new and shiny; you really can’t leave any stone unturned when you’re a kid, the curiousity would eat you alive! What happens when you stick your finger in there? Why does the cat scratch me when I put it under the tap? Who comes running if I scream as loudly as I can?
Where does that wide-eyed look of amazement go? Why don’t adults jump out of bed, look out the window and smile? Perhaps they smile, but only until self-awareness returns and reality snaps back into sight. The mantle of stress settles back down upon your shoulders and the smile disappears.
Why, as adults, are we so damn hard to please? Why can’t we find pleasure in the simple act of surviving, or discovering something new? Why does being an adult like feel like nothing more than 60 years of receiving socks for your birthday?
Go back to when you were younger. Shut your eyes, if that helps, and recall a time when you were a child. A time when you were reckless; stomping around the garden, running away from your parents at an amusement park, stealing candy from the cupboard. You probably can’t remember the exact details, but you can probably recall the emotion you were feeling, or perhaps a strong smell or visual memory. You’re grinning now, right, in recollection?
Our childhood is simply full of those memories — the memories of first-time experiences. Adult life is a little more sparse, but you probably still remember your first kiss, or the first film you saw at the cinema — they are probably even more intense, undulled by the passage of time. You also remember the bad first times: when you fell from your bike and scraped your knee, or when your best friend dumped you for someone else.
These experiences (and thus memories) are so intense and so memorable that they inevitably form the basis of who you will become. This is, in fact, nurture. Nurture isn’t just being slapped for eating candy before dinner, or being told that you’ll get hairy palms if you continue so fervently. Nurture is everything that happens to you, from birth through to death. Nurture governs, through good experiences, what will become the love and passion of your life. Conversely, and this is the important bit, your bad experiences dictate what will become your fears and distrusts.
It is through bad experiences — the presence of pain, both mental and physical — that we learn what to avoid in the future. When we are stung by a bee as a child that nearly always develops into a fear of bees when we’re older. When we’re scolded by our mother for running around the house, we’re unlikely to grow into Olympic athletes.
This isn’t a new thing — it’s incredibly ancient, probably going back millions of years. Even the most basic of animals do the same: they avoid pain at all costs. It’s a survival trait! You do something wrong, it causes pain, you don’t do it again in the future. This is basic, basic stuff to ensure the continued existance of your race.
And that’s what causes us to become dull. Eventually, with enough painful experiences, we become jaded. Our decision making is so clouded by every single one of those pains that it becomes very hard to simply have fun. You can’t go skydiving because you fell and hit your head when you were younger. You can’t stand under a waterfall because you almost drowned when you were a child. It’s a survival instinct, but it’s not necessarily rational.
We’re living in a world with an infinite number of possibilities and an infinite source of beauty. Our ability to see that beauty — and reach Peter Pan’s Never Land, if you believe Kafka — is impeded only by our fears. As children we were endlessly energetic and reckless because we didn’t know of the pains that awaited us. The only difference is that now we approach everything with such boring cautiousness. We don’t pick it up and shake it around — we’re afraid it’ll blow our hands off!
A world composed of people living in fear, unable to see the innate beauty of our surroundings is a world devoid of creative inspiration. When everyone is afraid of getting their hands dirty, or doing something just to see what happens, that’s a dead world.
Just remember, next time you have a wild idea — something fun, something awesome — don’t let what occurred 20 years ago get in the way. Just do it!