The two sides of innocence

Originally published in the Christian Science Sentinel

Can childlike innocence, and even wonder, be recaptured? Can you experience it even as an adult? Most definitely yes, if you understand its true nature.

The word innocence is derived from the Latin word for "harm," and innocence in its purest sense means protection from harm. While innocence is often attributed to a state of childhood, this is perhaps because children traditionally have been considered to be ignorant of the larger challenges of the world that could be harmful to them.

Consider the Bible story of Daniel in the lions' den. Because Daniel had defied an order of the king, which he could not in good conscience carry out, he was thrown into the lions' den. Yet the king loved him, and came early the next morning to see if somehow Daniel was still alive. He was! And Daniel's explanation was that God had shut the lions' mouths, "forasmuch as before him [God] innocency was found in me" (Dan. 6:22).

The moral of the story indicates that we are protected from harm to the extent that we are living in obedience to what we understand God's will, or commands, to be. And, over the centuries, this moral has strengthened countless people in their resolve to be true to their highest sense of right.

But what about the other side of innocence - the side that involves doing no harm to others? That is also a kind of protection.

Jesus knew that the world out there wasn't all that friendly a place for his message of compassion and forgiveness. When he sent his disciples out to preach, he said, "I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matt. 10:16). I often think of that verse when I see a group of mourning doves waddling about at the foot of my bird feeder.

Jesus must have meant that, by doing no harm or injury to others, his followers would find their own protection. To the extent that people do no harm to others, they place themselves under the protection of divine law. And this injunction is apparently universal. For example, one of the requirements of someone who wants to learn to practice meditation in Buddhism is not to harm any living creature.

People may think to themselves that they would never, at least knowingly, harm another person. Yet it's not always easy to live up to one's personal best. My son-in-law was coaching a Little League baseball game, and had to assign positions to each team member. One mother felt that he had slighted her child, and out of irritation yelled at him, "Didn't you ever have a child of your own?" The taunt itself was a blow - but she also was unaware that he had recently lost a handicapped child of his own, and her words were almost more than he could bear at the time.

But the woman wasn't a bad person. She was deeply upset when other people told her of his personal situation, and she was profuse in apology. Each situation is unique, but this hints at how often we may unthinkingly judge someone, even if only silently, not knowing all the facts involved.

The fact is that innocence, as a spiritual quality, has to be universal. God doesn't give it to some and not to others. Anyone can claim innocence on this basis. But it has to be practiced in public.

Cultivating innocence involves expecting good, based as it is on the spiritual premise that all of God's children, not just you or I, are protected and loved by the Creator. And while it doesn't mean ignoring what is wrong or evil in the world, it does mean withholding unnecessary judgment.

A more universal practice of such a habit - consciously granting others the beautiful potential of their own state of innocence - would not only make for a better world. It would also make our own inner world a more peaceful place to live.

Unselfish ambition,
noble life-motives, and purity, - these constituents of thought, mingling, constitute individually and collectively true happiness, strength, and permanence.
Mary Baker Eddy
(founder of the Monitor)

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