The other day I passed by a Salvation Army bell ringer who was singing Christmas songs while collecting donations. I felt a sense of envy that she could be out in public belting out tunes so unselfconsciously. While I find myself singing as I work around the house or drive around in my car, I stop the warbling as soon as I’m in the presence of any other humans.
It’s not that I’m such a bad singer. It’s just that my awareness of others’ possible judgment stops me short. Even in the comfort of my own home, if others are around, I’m not completely myself. If I make a corny joke and my husband gives me a fake mocking laugh, I feel stupid. If I’m the only one who laughs hysterically or cries pitifully at something on TV, I feel sheepish. Why do I find it so hard just to be myself?
Children have an innocence and unbridled joy in life that they lose as they grow up. I remember one of my children delightedly running back and forth naked in front of a mirrored closet door, just ecstatic at the sense of freedom and agency. At some point, though, an innate need for privacy kicked in. As God said to Adam and Eve, “Who told you were naked?”
In Paradise Lost, John Milton describes human beings’ fall from grace and innocence. Our pride and fear cause us to question our God-given goodness and simplicity. We use social hierarchy, mockery, and sarcasm to lord it over others and make ourselves feel more powerful.
And that kind of social coercion starts early. I remember my daughter being mocked in kindergarten for what she ate and wore. Playground taunts are only too familiar to kids as they make the transition from innocence to experience.
I think this is why adults love to spend time with babies and very young children. Before these little things become too worldly, they give us a glimpse of our own innocence and a time when we couldn’t help but be ourselves. Maybe if I hang around with little ones more often, I can rediscover my own authentic sense of self, uncensored by my awareness of others’ judgments.
As I go about my day, I might just release my inner Mariah Carey and start singing for all to hear: “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”