Monday, April 26, 2010

Uwem Akpan on the Salvific Significance of the Child's Perception

Reading Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them (NY: Little, Brown, 2008) in the middle of the current Catholic crisis is thought-provoking, to say the least.  I didn’t deliberately choose to read this set of short stories by a Nigerian Jesuit now because of the abuse crisis, though the thread that binds them together is the redemptive power of children’s perceptions of the world.

But reading the stories in light of all we’re coming to know about the abuse of children by Catholic priests, and the astonishingly callous attitude of Catholic pastoral leaders to the pain inflicted on children by this abuse for generations, opens a new vista of understanding on the abuse crisis itself.  And on the church that might have been, had pastoral leaders chosen to listen first and foremost to the voices of those who have been abused, and not to the voices of those calling for us to put “the” church (that is, priests) first.

Akpan’s premise, repeated in story after story, is that children’s unfiltered perceptions of the world have the power to change the world, if those perceptions were ever permitted to count.  And if adults could retain, in our adulthood, an organic, intrinsic, life-giving connection to how we saw things before social conditioning in our formative years shut down important avenues of understanding and perception inside us.

This is not, of course, a novel insight.  It’s as old as Andersen’s emperor with no clothes fable, or Wordsworth’s

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

As Wendell Berry demonstrates in his classic study of the socio-psychological roots of racism in the white Southern mind, The Hidden Wound—using Wordsworth’s insights as the basis for his analysis—children do not by nature choose to distinguish person from person on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, or social class.  These are learned ways of dealing with the world.  Gestures of social classification that sort people into superior and inferior categories on the basis of race, religion, etc., are taught.

Our original impulse to see the world without these socio-perceptual filters (and blinders) is repressed by the process of socialization in most cultures.  It’s deliberately glossed with hermeneutic perspectives foreign to the outlook of a child, which, as they varnish over the purity of our childhood vision, cause us to lose vital contact with that purity and the immediacy of experiential access with which it provides us.

Berry argues (again echoing Wordsworth) that one of the significant tasks of authentic maturation is to retrieve or safeguard such bits and pieces of our childhood perception of things still available to us after socialization has done its work with us.  Socialization is a necessary, if ambiguous, aspect of human formation.  Without it, we would not be well-equipped to interact with other adults.

But when we allow the socialization process to obliterate entirely the freshness of insight available to us prior to our adult formation, we lose important parts of ourselves, and significant gifts available to our child selves as we explore the world, learn it, and, most of all, celebrate its wonder.

These insights run through all of Uwem Akpan’s stories.  But in his work, these insights are made poignant, even tragic, because they are applied to the growing-up experiences of African children, many of whom, Akpan reminds us, are ripped prematurely from the world of childhood innocence at this point in history by inexplicable religious and ethnic conflicts that irretrievably fragment innocence early in many children’s lives.

Christian children playing with Muslim children in Ethiopia must be taught to speak a different language, after these children have found that the the common language of childhood experience binds them and makes far more sense to them than the opposing languages that distinguish them into competing religious groups.  Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa children in Rwanda must learn quickly and decisively to identify themselves as “one of them” when marauding bands arrive to kill whoever happens to be the despised other of the moment.

Against such a horrific backdrop, the notion that children can and should see with unvarnished vision sounds hopelessly romantic, impossibly Rousseauian.  But if that vision cannot survive precisely against such a backdrop, where can it survive?  And what hope is there for any of us, for the human race in general, if something irreducible and beyond the ravenous classification of people into categories of superior and inferior otherness cannot survive even and above all in the most extreme situations in which such destructive social sorting occurs? 

These are the disturbing questions that Uwem Akpan forces us to ask about the world in which we live.  And about ourselves.  And about communities of faith, including ones where one can assist at Mass in the morning and march with a machete to murder Catholics of another ethnic background in the evening.

And in a church in which the murder of children’s souls by sexual abuse at the hands of pastoral leaders has been taken so lightly for so long that faith is now well-nigh impossible for many of us.