On Childhood, Fear, and Retrospect

The world is, at least at an instinctive level, less scary as a grown-up.

In 2017, a couple of years before my grandfather passed away, I made a  routine visit to my grandparents’ house. It had been built several decades prior, and acted—as it still does—as a bridge between past and present. Aside from its age, it contained several memory-tokens: a memorial for my grandmother, shelves full of souvenirs from old trips, curtains much older than me, and, perhaps more importantly, the toy cupboard. The toy cupboard, as the name suggests, was where my grandparents stored all the toys my brother and I would play with when we came over as children. It was one of those iconic Godrej metal cupboards that are now objects more of nostalgia than household utility. And on the day of this visit, I decided to  look through it.

I stood in front of the cupboard for a while.  As a child, it used to tower over me. But now I was eighteen, and six feet tall; it didn’t quite have the same effect. Then, in one decisive movement, I swung its doors open. The contents hadn’t changed. The Digimon cards sat in the door compartments, the remote controlled cars in the lower shelves, and the children’s books at the very bottom. I rummaged through whatever my hands went for. It all felt familiar and comforting. And then I knelt down, picked up one of the children’s books, and immediately felt a deep sense of discomfort that hadn’t visited me for years.

The thing is, the book I picked up had terrified me as a child. It was, on the face of things, just another harmless book meant for children. Its cover featured a drawing of several smiling animals, and its plot (as I found out during this visit) was simple enough, offering basic moral lessons through a narrative centred around these animals. But as a kid, the book’s drawings had always evoked a sense of fear in me. The smiling black bear on the cover had looked more like a dark nimbus cloud than an animal; the rabbit next to it seemed to have eyes that were far too big and white; and the tortoise near them was an anxiety-inducing shade of green, and like the bear, appeared more as an abstract splotch of colour than as a drawing of anything I could relate to. These memories of the book’s illustrations and the uneasiness they induced came rushing forth as I held the book in my hand. In turn, I also remembered just what had happened to that book. On account of how it made me feel, I’d avoided it whenever I went over to my grandparents’ house—first until I no longer stumbled when walking, then until I could read, and then until I was six feet tall. It was the first time I’d looked at the thing in about fifteen years.

At that moment, I had relived early childhood. I had suddenly remembered not only events from that time of my life, but also what it was like to be me back then: to process shapes and colours slightly differently, and to be scared to the bone by an inanimate set of drawings. 

As adults, it isn’t often we get to feel that kind of fear. Fear as an adult tends to be less direct—it’s more mediated by thought. Sure, we’re often afraid of failing at some task, or stepping out of our comfort zone, but those fears generally manifest as thought: a fear of, or a fear that. It’s rare that we feel raw, unadulterated fear, a churn of the gut with none of the mental chatter. Childhood, on the other hand, is marked by that kind of fear. Remember when you were afraid of the dark? No amount of reassurance that there were no monsters in the shadows could allay the primal sense of terror the darkness brought, because that fear was never at the level of thought. It was, quite literally, instinctive. 

But it isn’t just about our fear of the dark; the fear we’re subject to as children is more universal than that. For me, it often took the form of homesickness. ‘Homesickness’ can be a misleading word—it sometimes implies a level of cognition the experience lacks when you’re really young. While homesickness to me now usually involves a level of thought—I miss my family, my city, and so on—I know that when I was younger it certainly didn’t. Up until my early adolescence, ‘homesickness’ referred more to a feeling in my stomach than anything else. It had nothing to do with the sights and sounds of where I was, nor anything to do with whether I was twenty minutes or twelve hours away from the safety of my parents. Separation simply induced a feeling of anxiety that was no different from what the nighttime darkness brought on: that same sickening twist of the gut.

We do still encounter that sense of terror every so often. Sometimes it’s on a boat in an empty expanse of blue; sometimes it’s when walking down an empty alley at night. The same sense of terror is also a stark reminder of existing gender disparities—ask any woman how often she feels such visceral fear, and chances are it’ll be far more often than the average male does. Nevertheless, this kind of fear remains less universal in adulthood than in childhood. The world is, at least at an instinctive level, less scary as a grown-up.

So what happens? When do we all come to house the unconscious courage that sustains us  every time the lights go out? Some pointers appear in the language of psychology. When we’re very young, most of the fears we’re subject to have their roots in instinct. And that’s for a few reasons: the first is that we haven’t had all that much time to be conditioned one way or another (something that changes as we grow up). The other reasons are more debated—some psychological theories give weight to our limited abilities of language (which, as it goes, hamper our abilities of thought), while others simply posit that our cognitive faculties are limited in our nascent stages. Either way, things change as we grow up, and as adolescence hits. For starters, we become subject to far more conditioning, especially through the boundary-pushing of the teenage years. Depending on which theory one subscribes to, other changes of consequence involve higher faculties of cognition, a better grip on language (and thereby higher abilities of thought), or both. Fears come to acquire more range, involve more thought, and are internalised more indirectly. By adulthood, we feel kinds of fear that were inaccessible to us as young children. The anxiety of a looming deadline, the gnawing uneasiness of romantic insecurity, the endless feeling of doubt brought on by self-loathing—those kinds of fear and trepidation.

This process is a double-edged sword. On one hand, we gain new ways to feel fear and anxiety; on the other hand, our primal sense of fear is less easily triggered. Reflections on growing up too often focus on only one side of that process. We tend to romanticise childhood’s innocence, and completely forget about its terror—something that even those of us with the most functional of childhoods were subject to. This romanticisation comes out in different forms. Most often (for those that had a stable childhood), it manifests in a longing for those days gone by. How often do you hear people talk about how they wish they could relive their childhood? Or how school marked the best days of their life? A middle-aged cab driver I spoke to some years ago echoed the broad sentiment. “Things were so much easier back then,” he said with a smile. “None of this tension, none of these worries. I just used to play.”

If you had a childhood free of severe trauma, it is tempting to look back at the time as a period of life free of the stress, worry and self-doubt brought on by deadlines, debts, and societal expectations. In painting such idyllic pictures of childhood, however, we place emphasis solely on questions of what troubles us as adults. At the age of seven, did I spend most of my time thinking about deadlines? No. Did I worry about loved ones being unfaithful to me? Probably not. Did I wonder whether I was worthy of the love I received? Almost certainly not. So things must have been better back then—right? So goes the logic.

But we should also ask ourselves about the things that used to deeply trouble us, yet no longer do. Crowds, strangers in restaurants, the sound of thunder, being alone for more than a few minutes—the list is endless. We all suffered through childhood a lot more than most of us choose to remember. And while it’s easy to undermine or forget some of those feelings and memories as a grown-up, that doesn’t make them any less real. Take a child and their worries seriously, and you’ll notice that seemingly trivial things genuinely do disturb them as much as the more ‘adult’ things in the world disturb you. In that sense, there’s nothing funny about a young child being afraid of a stranger, or (as in my case) even a weird set of drawings. And isn’t it nice to think we were able to leave some of that terror behind when we grew up?

None of this is to suggest that we should look back at our early years with contempt. For those of us lucky enough to have childhoods full of stability and love, those years will (as they should) continue to remain a time marked by warmth, and a period of life worth remembering fondly. Such times, however, are no different from the bright periods in our lives as adults. Just as adulthood’s moments of joy seem to always sit next to its less pleasurable stretches, childhood’s warmth is punctuated by a sense of bewilderment at the world that children feel more than anyone else. Life as a child, despite all its innocence, is like life in general: a mixed bag.

Gaurav Kamath
Gaurav Kamath

Gaurav Kamath is a staff writer at ALMA MAG. He hopes his degree in philosophy will get him more than a job at McDonald’s, but that is still a working hypothesis.