Lately, I have been spending a lot of time in my own head. Grieving the matriarch of the family, who died this month, and beset with some big work and personal challenges, I have retreated into my worries. A kind of everyday, pedestrian sadness has me speaking only when spoken to and avoiding connection when it is offered.
So when my friend Leah suggested I discuss insouciant as my Word of the Day, my interest was piqued. What is insouciance, really? What is it like? Have I ever had it? Is it eligible for Amazon Prime?
We generally equate childhood with being carefree and I trust I had carefree moments in my youth but honestly, I don’t remember any. Most of my core memories are of joy, disaster and guilt, often together and in short order. Like the time I convinced my brother that jumping from one steel-framed bed to the other wasn’t exciting any more and he should escalate the game by jumping from a chair on top of the bed. My brother’s forehead still bears the scar of listening to his sister, and I feel terrible, even if it does resemble a charming little figure when he frowns.
The children that I know well don’t seem carefree. They’re happy and healthy mostly, but watch them as they stick their tongue out while drawing or crinkle their forehead trying to make out a word.
Shit is going down in these kids’ lives, and learning new things is hard.
As a professional do-gooder, the idea of being carefree kind of irks me. It seems a privileged idea – the sole property of people with enough cash to make their worries go away, or who are stupid enough to live in a bubble where they don’t know what’s happening in the world, in their city, in their street. One of insouciant’s synonyms is blasé; which implies a kind of naïveté.
The root of insouciant is French, literally meaning care-not, or care-less. Interesting how the connotation changes from carefree to careless.
It turns out the very idea of carefree childhood is a construct of the upper class. In his book The Invention of Childhood, which should be compulsory reading for anyone planning to have kids, Hugh Cunningham explains that children in the western world were considered mini adults with similar rights and responsibilities until the 1600s. The Puritans introduced the idea of childhood innocence around that time and by the 1700s, a thriving Christian ruling class started to obsess over what their children were thinking and doing. Working class children, meanwhile, were still engaged in some of the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs until industrialization and its resulting labor laws hit Europe in the late 1800s.
The idea that children are innocent and carefree, and should remain that way, is a defining concept in our culture. It affects our school system (which in turn affects our work systems), the design of our cities (in the shape of our houses) and our judicial system. A special level of our criminal system’s hell is reserved for people who did bad things to children.
Of course, I’m not advocating for my young nephews to head for the mines. What I am saying is that childhood and adulthood alike maybe aren’t that carefree and that trying to attain a level of insouciance maybe isn’t helping.
I am in my mid-30s. There are lines on my forehead too. I have cares, and that’s OK.