Finding Neverland and the Paradox of Growing (Up)

Finding NeverlandThere’s a scene, or more precisely, a musical number, in the play Finding Neverland that captures the paradox of life perfectly—if you believe such things can happen (and the whole point of this play, I think, is to teach us the importance of believing). In the scene, the playwright J.M. Barrie and the boy Peter are singing the song called “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground.”

The play is based on the story of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan. While it’s not exactly clear how much of the play is factual, the general idea is that Barrie befriended four brothers and their mom in the park while he was trying to come up with a fresh new idea for a play. The children’s father had recently died, and one of the brothers, Peter, has lost his innocence and “grown up too fast.” Barrie, on the other hand, is an adult but refuses to grow up.

In the scene that I think is the play’s defining moment, Barrie is singing about flying above the clouds in order to cope with the pain of life: “When your feet don’t touch the earth, you can’t feel the things that hurt,” he croons. At the same time, the boy insists that his feet need to be kept on the ground and that living in a fantasy world is more or less a trick of the mind that won’t do any good. “With my feet on solid ground, I can face the things that hurt,” young Peter sings.

The fact that the man is singing as if he were a child and the boy as if he were a man is what makes this moment so powerful. But the important message is the paradox and how we must learn to live in it. We can’t dwell on the pain of life, but at the same time, we need to face our challenges. It’s how we grow.

This paradox exists in the lives of most humans. As children, we want to grow up and do our own thing. Eventually, we become adults, and many of us find that we’re no longer able to dream, imagine, or feel the joy of simply being alive that we once had as children. And we think: “I’ve become too serious, too responsible, too much like the person I thought I was supposed to be. This isn’t good.” And perhaps there’s nothing sadder than seeing a child get to this point too soon.

That we need to maintain our ability to dream, believe and fantasize is a powerful and important message, but it can also be a dangerous one if we don’t learn to live in the paradox. The solution to pain and challenge is not to go back to being a child. After all, we’re not meant to be children forever, and moving from childhood to adulthood means we have to let go of some childish things. The problem, though, is that we often let go of too much.

There’s another scene in the play in which the characters are pondering the possibility that they’ve forgotten how to play. Does this mean that they should be playing the way they did as children? If you know adults who refuse to “grow up” in every sense of the word, you know that it’s not really a good thing. Yes, children know how to have fun and dream and be whatever they want to be (at least in their own imaginations), and there is great value in this, but children are also dependent on others and often haven’t learned to be part of a community. We’re children before we’re adults in order to learn how to give back when we come of age. It may not be politically or socially correct to point this out, but there is a downside to being a child.

While we’re not meant to be children forever, I think we are meant to maintain some of our child-like nature—and that’s the paradox. We need to hold on to the escape mechanism of dreams and fantasies and stories, even as we acknowledge that none of these things can solve all of our problems and take away all of the pain and suffering in life. We need to keep some child-like qualities simply because they get us through the harsher realities of being “grown up.” In other words, we need to grow without growing up so much that we completely lose our connection to the magic of being a child.

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