In which we disagree about childhood

Softened by Time’s consummate plush,
How sleek the woe appears
That threatened childhood’s citadel
And undermined the years!

Bisected now by bleaker griefs,
We envy the despair
That devastated childhood’s realm,
So easy to repair.

~Emily dickinson

I’m going to have to take issue with The Myth on this one. Well, not so much take issue as offer an opposing viewpoint. The world is full of adult humans who would no doubt agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed in this poem: when we’re children, we experience griefs and woes and setbacks that seemed enormous at the time, but now, in retrospect, are enviable in their simplicity, their relative mildness, to what we experience as adults.

But here’s the thing–I suspect that those adults who look back on childhood as some sort of golden age are the grownups who’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child. Perhaps childhood’s griefs–at least for the privileged some of us–are not as “serious” as adulthood’s, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less important or impactful. The storms that rock our childhoods mattered every bit as much then as adult ones do now, and they probably shaped us more, occurring as they did in our formative years.

How can anyone quantify anyone else’s grief, anyone else’s hardship? I frequently hear people–okay, women, it’s almost always women–comparing their griefs and losses to other people’s and concluding that other people have it worse, that they themselves should shut up and just be grateful. But there’s no yardstick for grief. We feel it how we feel it. And when we are children, we feel it keenly. It molds us, carves us, lathes us into what we will become. Childhood’s griefs are no less important that those of adulthood, no less “serious” just because they may appear lesser in magnitude to things that seem important to adults.

Adults too often have forgotten what’s truly important. It’s as if a veil settles over our eyes, clouding our vision of the world. We begin to accept that it’s the things of adulthood that matter, forgetting that entire world of childhood, the world that makes us. Childhood’s griefs are not necessarily “easier to repair”–I’d argue that they’re harder. There is no going back.

So, for all the grownups out there who remember what it was like to be a child, who consciously and eternally hold within their adult shells the children they were (and still are), I see you. Your childish griefs matter. They were real, and they are real. Don’t forget what it was to be a child. The children who have not yet hardened into adults need you to remember.

A faded meat

MINE enemy is growing old,—
I have at last revenge.
The palate of the hate departs;
If any would avenge,—

Let him be quick, the viand flits,
It is a faded meat.
Anger as soon as fed is dead;
’T is starving makes it fat.

~Emily Dickinson

Sometimes Emily is weird and obscure, and sometimes she is crystal-clear and spot-on. This is one of those latter times. There’s nothing vague here, nothing coy or perplexing, and the sustained metaphor of revenge as meat is vivid and visceral. It calls to mind the proverb “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” while flipping it on its head. According to Dickinson, revenge is inherently cold–by the time you get it, it is already faded.

It’s interesting that she begins with her enemy growing old–the way she’s set up the poem suggests that it is simply the fact of her enemy’s age/mortality that gives her revenge. But the speaker as well as the reader know full well that someone else’s aging isn’t revenge–it’s simply part of the natural order of things. If the object of the speaker’s anger is aging, then so is the speaker herself. And with that aging, “The palate of the hate departs.”

You could read this poem as the speaker advocating speedy revenge–“Let him be quick, the viand flits”–but that’s not really what Dickinson is getting at. As soon as we feed our anger it is dead. We feed it by starving it, by not seeking resolution.