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Please Harken to My Message

Joie:  So this week, in celebration of the Christmas season, Willa and I wanted to continue our discussion of childhood and what it meant to Michael. And I know we’ve all heard many times all of the very impassioned speeches that Michael gave over the years about childhood and the importance of protecting that precious time in our children’s lives. But I’d like to start this post with a quote from Michael that I have always found simply enchanting.

“One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.”

I love what Michael says here about how children go through a brilliant phase and they know a lot of secrets about the world. I think he’s so right! As I mentioned last week, I’ve never been blessed with children but, I do have several nieces and nephews that I adore, three of whom I lived in the same house with from the time they were born until the youngest was about 8 or 9. And when they were little, they were just the most fun to be around. They are all adults now but, I still have very vivid memories of things they said that were just so wise and simple or very creative things that they did that just made you sit back and say, ‘Wow.’ So, I understand exactly what Michael is talking about here and it just makes me smile every time I read that quote.

Willa:  Joie, I absolutely love that quotation as well, and I’m so glad you started off with it. I think it really gets to the heart of what Michael Jackson kept trying to tell us about childhood. It really is a special time, and children do know secrets about the world that many of us adults seem to have forgotten.

Children are just amazing, and they look at the world in such different ways than adults tend to.  My son had to do a freewriting assignment at school a couple weeks ago, and the teacher didn’t give them any direction about it.  She just said, ‘Write a short story as fast as you can, starting … Now.’ So they all started writing without time to plan or think, just write.  My son came home and was telling me about it, and he said he thought about this funny postcard that’s been in his room for a while, of a disgruntled cat wearing a melon helmet:

Joie:  Oh my gosh! That picture is adorable!

Willa:  Isn’t it funny? So he wrote his short story about that, but what threw me for a loop is that he told it from the point of view of the melon. He said he’d been wondering what it would be like to be sitting in a nice field, soaking up the sun, when suddenly someone comes along, grabs you, scoops your insides out, and stuffs you on the head of a rather annoyed cat. He cracked himself up telling me about it, and he thoroughly cracked me up. Who would ever think of such a thing? But kids think sideways all the time.

As adults, we’re pretty much trained to look at the world in certain ways, but kids haven’t been – at least not nearly to the extent we have. To use Michael Jackson’s terminology, they aren’t as “conditioned” as we are, so their minds are flexible enough to look at the world in amazing ways that most adults just don’t seem able to do any more.

Joie:  That’s really sad but, very true. As Michael said in that quote I used earlier, children “go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it.” And he’s right; it does seem that we all lose something when we leave childhood behind. As if that mystical, magical connection to light and innocence that we’re all born with gets broken somehow.

Willa:  I love the way he put that – children do “go through a brilliant phase.” But we “lose it” as we grow older and become “conditioned,” and we lose a lot of our innate creativity as well.

A couple weeks ago, I was watching a PBS documentary called Journey of the Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, and near the end of the documentary Swimme said something fascinating. He suggested that the rise of human civilization may be linked to childhood. Humans have a very extended childhood: it takes around 20 years for a human infant to reach full maturity, far longer than other species. (Elephants are another exception – it takes around 16 years for an elephant to reach maturity – but that’s a rarity in the animal world.) And Swimme suggested that our long childhood may be one key reason why humans were able to develop civilization.

I was so intrigued I went to the library and picked up Swimme and Tucker’s book, and the theory is that most animal behavior is guided by “instinctual responses.” However, for some reason, humans as a species underwent a profound change so that instead of slavishly following instinctual responses, early humans developed “behavioral flexibility.” As Swimme and Tucker write, “a new  kind of consciousness was entering existence, one that was freer and more exploratory.” But where did this behavioral flexibility come from?

Swimme and Tucker suggest it came from children, and humans’ extended period of childhood:

“For [children], behavior is open-ended in a way that is rarer in adults. This youthful behavior is readily distinguishable from the serious adult concerns of survival or sexual reproduction. Certainly some of their youthful behavior can be understood as preparation and practice for their later lives. But much of it is without any direct relationship to adult behavior. In a word, what often occupies their consciousness is play. They leap and twist; they explore the world with their eyes; they taste the world with their mouths; they enter into many kinds of relationships out of sheer curiosity. With their play they are discovering the exuberance of being alive.”

Swimme and Tucker go on to suggest that this playfulness of children may have led to nothing less than the rise of human civilization, as well as our artistic sensibility:

“It was this relative freedom from instinctual behavior … that enabled us to become profoundly captivated by so many things – by fire, sunrise, ocean waves, erotic intensities, the death of a friend, the birth of a child. … They [the early humans] viewed life through new eyes. Instead of simply responding, they also reflected. They tasted the very essence of what it means to be alive. With the emergence of the human, the universe created a space where depths of feeling could be concentrated and wondered over.”

In other words, Swimme and Tucker believe the imagination and “behavioral flexibility” of childhood led to a new “superabundant consciousness” as well as a wealth of creativity – a level of creativity powerful enough to spark the rise of human civilization.

I think Michael Jackson was keenly aware of these deep connections between childhood and creativity. As he says in the Immortal version of “Childhood,” in spoken segments interspersed with the lyrics, “The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. I really believe that.” Unlike most adults, he cultivated those “seeds of creativity” throughout his life and never lost them, and he maintained a wonderful childlike inventiveness and flexibility in his work, but it’s coupled with a mature awareness of the very real pain of human suffering. And the two together – the childlike vision with the mature understanding – gives his work tremendous range and depth.

Joie:  You’re so right, Willa. Michael was very aware of the deep connection between childhood and creativity – as many great artists are. I believe it was Picasso who once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” Well perhaps the key to that problem is finding a way to maintain that connection to the magic of childhood, and no one did that better than Michael. He had this amazing personality trait that not many others possess. That incredible, innocent sense of childlike wonder! It just seemed to flow from him like water from a fountain and it’s one of the things that made him so very special.

It’s also one of the things that made his work so special. He really gave us glimpses of that childlike wonder on songs like “Childhood,” “Heal the World,” “Gone Too Soon,” and “Another Part of Me.” Even on several unreleased songs like “Carousel” and “Monkey Business” and “Scared of the Moon.” That endearing playful quality that was always right there just beneath the surface. You could see it in his eyes every time he smiled and it just melted your heart. And it wasn’t an act, it was genuine and sincere. But I think the general public and the press really tried to make it into something weird and unnatural and that always angered me. They would pretty much come right out and say ‘well, there has to be something wrong with a man who prefers to see only the good in people and tries to look at the world with childhood sensibilities.’ Never once did any of them consider that Michael may have been on to something with his desire to hold on to that connection to childhood. They just thought he was, at best, very eccentric and, at worse, very scary. But it was something that was very important to him. That connection was like his lifeline; it was a source of great strength for him.

You know, in March 2001 Michael was a guest lecturer at Oxford Union at Oxford University in the UK. And during his lecture, he talked about how important that connection really was to him. He strongly believed that connection to childhood could heal many of our world’s problems:

“Please harken to my message, because what I have to tell you tonight can bring healing to humanity and healing to our planet. Through the grace of God, I have been fortunate to have achieved many of my artistic and professional aspirations, realized early in my lifetime. But these, friends, are accomplishments, and accomplishments alone are not synonymous with who I am. Indeed, the cheery five-year-old who belted out “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” to adoring crowds was not indicative of the boy behind the smile.

Tonight, I come before you less as an icon of pop – whatever that means anyway – and more as an icon of a generation. A generation that no longer knows what it means to be children. All of us are products of our childhood. But I am the product of a lack of a childhood; an absence of that precious and wondrous age when we frolic playfully without a care in the world, basking in the adoration of parents and relatives, where our biggest concern is studying for that big spelling test come Monday morning…. 

And it’s not just the kids who are suffering. It’s the parents as well. For the more we cultivate little adults in kids’ bodies, the more removed we ourselves become from our own childlike qualities. And there is so much about being a child that is worth retaining in adult life!”  

I just love reading that entire speech; it really shows exactly what was in Michael’s heart in terms of his love for children. The whole speech is based on his belief that the connection to childhood is the primary ingredient to love. And without that connection, we can’t fully express our love to others. As he tells us,

“Love, ladies and gentlemen, is the human family’s most precious legacy, its richest bequest, its golden inheritance. And it is a treasure that is handed down from one generation to another….  But if you don’t have that memory of being loved, you are condemned to search the world for something to fill you up. But no matter how much money you make or how famous you become, you will still feel empty. What you are really searching for is unconditional love, unqualified acceptance.”

The speech he gave that night was really quite revealing. He spoke about the emotional neglect of the children of today and the emotional neglect in his own childhood. And he got pretty emotional as he talked about forgiving his father because he didn’t want his own children to judge him too harshly one day for the choices he made in raising them.

“The strain and tension that exists in my relationship with my own father is well documented. My father is a tough man…. [He] had great difficulty showing me affection. He never really told me he loved me and he never really complimented me either. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he would say nothing….  My father was a managerial genius and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way that he pushed us. He trained me as a showman and under his guidance I couldn’t miss a step. But what I really wanted was a Dad. I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that….

But now I am a father myself, and one day I was thinking about my own children, Prince and Paris and how I wanted them to think of me when they grow  up….  And at that moment I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt. That they will say to themselves, “Our daddy did the best he could, given the unique circumstances that he faced. He may not have been perfect, but he was a warm and decent man, who tried to give us all the love in the world.” I hope that they will always focus on the positive things, on the sacrifices I willingly made for them, and not criticize the things they had to give up, or the errors I’ve made, and will certainly continue to make, in raising them. For we have all been someone’s child, and we know that despite the very best of plans and efforts, mistakes will always occur. That’s just being human.

And when I think about this, of how I hope that my children will not judge me unkindly, and will forgive my shortcomings, I am forced to think of my own father. And despite my earlier denials, I am forced to admit that he must have loved me. He did love me, and I know that….  So tonight, rather than focusing on what my father didn’t do, I want to focus on all the things he did do and on his own personal challenges. I want to stop judging him.”

Willa:  Joie, that is so beautiful, and so heartbreakingly honest. And it’s a wonderful example of how Michael Jackson somehow miraculously combined a childlike vision of the world with a mature understanding. His words in that speech are not childish by any means – they are the words of a mature man who has experienced a lot of pain in his life. But that maturity is coupled with a childlike resilience, as well as a childlike yearning to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. Children seem to forgive so easily – they don’t become obsessed with the bitterness of the past the way adults often do – and that is another important lesson we need to learn from children.

Importantly, Michael Jackson didn’t just apply the lessons of childhood to his own life, but to the global possibilities of unlocking the secrets and creativity of childhood.  As he says in another except from “Childhood” on the Immortal album, “What we need to learn from children isn’t childish. They know the way to solutions that lie waiting to be recognized within our own hearts.”

I see this as the message of Jam as well. In the lyrics, he tells us we’re often hesitant to help each other because we’ve “been conditioned by the system.” But through the visuals of Jam, we see images of children – and adults – at play. They’re leaping, jumping rope, dancing, playing basketball. It’s this spirit of play, and the tremendous creativity we can access through play, that may one day help us solve the seemingly intractable problems we as a global community must face. As Michael Jackson sings in the opening lyrics,

Nation to Nation
All the world must come together
Face the problems that we see
Then maybe somehow we can work it out

In Journey of the Universe, Swimme and Tucker challenge us to imagine a utopian world where adults retain the wonder and imagination of children – not childish but childlike:

What if we could one day bring forth a species that could dwell in flexibility and resilience? What if, after a million years of mammalian existence, there appeared a species that could remain spontaneous, curious, astonished, compelled to try everything? What would happen then?

I think this is precisely the kind of world Michael Jackson envisioned – a world of love and creativity, where we are all artists and where we all retain our childlike wonder. And he tried to share this vision with us throughout his life and his work.

Joie: I think you’re right, Willa and I think he tried to tell us that in the lyrics to “Childhood” when he sang,

“Have you seen my childhood? I’m searching for the world that I come from. ‘Cause I’ve been looking around in the lost and found of my heart. No one understands me. They view it as strange eccentricities. ‘Cause I keep kidding around like a child, but pardon me.”

I think he once said in an interview that “Childhood” was one of the most autobiographical songs he’d ever written and if you listen to the words, it’s easy to understand why.

Well, Willa and I will be taking the next week off in order to enjoy the holiday so, this will be the final post of the year. But we will be back on January 5 with a brand new post!