June 16th, 1999
I remember, when I was 13 years old, I bought myself a ball. It was an inflated ball, about six inches in diameter. I was disenchanted with all the snazzy, complicated toys that had monopolized my play. With all their flash, they lacked something; they were exciting, yes, but they weren’t that much fun.
I felt that I was growing up too fast. It wasn’t that I feared the responsibilities of growing up, or the loss of freedom arising from my ever-enlarging sphere of obligations. My problem wasn’t with adult expectations, it was with my peers; in their frantic scramble for the powers of adulthood, they were missing the values of childhood.
You are justified in harboring a sneaking suspicion that such finely polished aesthetic judgments are beyond the emotional reach of a thirteen-year-old boy. Admittedly, I could never have articulated these feelings at the time. But my actions themselves provide the clearest proof of my attitudes. Memories of feelings are easily distorted with time, but the recollections of basic events themselves are more robust. I know that I bought that ball, I know that I spent many hours with it in simple play, bouncing it against walls and catching it, and even taking it to bed with me. I recall that my mother was antipathetic towards it; she seemed to think it was unhealthy for a boy my age to keep such a toddler’s toy. Indeed, my mother remains the prime suspect in the mysterious disappearance of my ball.
Another solid demonstration of my odd realization is my friendship with Charlie. He was the bottom kid in the social pecking order of my classmates. His family was poor, so he wore unfashionable clothing that never changed. He was verbally slow, unable to defend himself in the clumsy, brutal juvenile version of repartee. Like many young teens, he was ill-proportioned, only more so than most: Charlie was ugly. My classmates could not resist so juicy a target; hectoring Charlie was an expression of group solidarity.
At the time, I told myself that I befriended Charlie out of sympathy, and no doubt there was truth in that belief. But there was another factor at work. Charlie was simple; Charlie was honest; Charlie was a child. It was his innocence that attracted me to him. It seemed better and healthier than what my classmates had.
Cool -- that’s what my peers wanted to be. We use that word so heavily and so positively that its connotations are often lost on us. Consider what "cool" means to a kid. A kid who’s cool is knowledgeable about all the things that truly matter (not academic things). He’s confident, he’s imperturbable. Basically, coolness boils down to precocious adulthood. A kid who’s cool knows about all the things that separate adults from children: smoking, alcohol, drugs, driving, money, and sex. Perhaps we might say that a cool kid is an adult in kid’s clothing -- more accurately, a kid’s perception of an adult, wrapped up in kid’s clothing.
Cool versus innocent -- they define the polarity I seek to examine in this essay. Let’s begin by noting the associations of each term:
Innocent: Sweet, childlike, naive, unsophisticated, simple, trusting, open, vulnerable
Cool: unflappable, knowledgeable, sophisticated, distant, Arnold Schwartzenegger, savvy, clever, tough, adult, cynical, skeptical
Next, I’d like to develop these concepts more formally. I’ll begin with an easy concept: the innocent is more easily awestruck than the cool. Can you imagine Joe Cool gaping open-mouthed at a tall skyscraper the way a child would? To express awe would be an admission of unsophistication. Moreover, to project coolness convincingly, Joe Cool must not merely mask feelings of awe, he must internally suppress them. He must savage his ability to feel awe.
Where awe goes, so goes wonder. How can we let our minds soar in grand wondering flights of fancy when we lack the awe-feelings that power our imaginations? What objects of wonder can there be for a sophisticate, who already knows everything?
Awe launches our wonder; wonder feeds our creativity. The wondering search for combinations that make sense, for explanations that work, for relationships between the awe-inspiring and the familiar -- these are the efforts that trigger flashes of inspiration. Awe, wonder, and creativity are root, stem, and flower.
Pity then the poor sophisticate who will not permit himself the childish exercise of awe. He’s not just cool, he’s cold -- and creatively dead.
Next comes integrity. At first glance, you might not think that there’s much connection between this polarity and integrity, but the connection is most easily seen when you look at it from the innocence side. An innocent is incapable of lying, either to himself or to others. He lacks the social sophistication to execute a lie competently. On the other hand, Joe Cool has both the ability to lie and the motivation: after all, what worldly-wise person thinks the world an honest place? And how can a decent person protect himself from all those lies without a few fibs of his own? Everybody does it; it’s just part of the game. So says the cool cynic. The poor innocent naively objects, "But that’s wrong!"
Now let’s talk about human relationships. Let’s talk about love. Is Joe Cool capable of love? I think not. How can a skeptical person trust another enough to open himself up to love? True loving requires openness, trust, acceptance of vulnerability -- all characteristics of the innocent, not the cool. Yes, there are billions of adults who do love, but is it their coolness or their innocence that fosters their love? Have you ever known an adult who could love as completely, as passionately as a young child?
Joe Cool always wears dark shades; you can never see his eyes. The eyes, after all, are the windows to the soul. What’s he hiding?
Here’s another trait that separates the cool from the innocent: greatness of spirit. When Horatio accepted the likelihood of death in defending the bridge, was he being cool or innocent? Was his self-sacrifice not founded on a simple, trusting acceptance of grander ideals that a wordly-wise person would reject as hopelessly romantic? Would not Joe Cool in his place have said to himself, "Screw this self-sacrifice crap -- the others will all run away no matter what I do. Why should I sacrifice myself for no benefit?"
Viewed from the other direction, our best example is Richard Nixon. A brilliant but cynical politician, utterly expedient in his use of power, Nixon wended his way through political battles like the greatest running backs in football. But like these running backs, his successes were almost always measured yard by yard; with the exception of China, he never broke free for the touchdown. There were no long bombs in Richard Nixon’s character; he thought ideals were for the naive. While he successfully managed America through many difficulties, he couldn’t inspire anybody to cross a street. The galvanizing greatness of a John Kennedy or a Franklin Roosevelt was simply not present in Richard Nixon.
Of course, cool has its own merits. It’s certainly necessary to get along in the rough-and-tumble of modern life. If you want to get ahead, to make money, to advance your career, if you don’t want to be cheated, cool will serve you well.
Let’s summarize: innocence is the basis for creativity, integrity, love, and greatness of spirit. Cool is required to get money, fame, or power.