Grow Down
The Wisdom of Children
Bernie Siegel


Love. Accept the miraculous.  Be open to possibilities.  Take part in the ongoing act of creation.

We've heard all this before.  We know we should love one another and enjoy creation.  But how?  That's the hard part.  St. Paul was feuding with some of the other apostles when he wrote the famous love passage in Corinthians, and the people he was writing to were arguing among themselves.  It is one thing to know that love is the key to a life of peace and joy, but it is another thing to be loving.

If you want to become more loving, I can tell you where to find good teachers.  Animals can teach us a lot about living in the moment and appreciating the day.  About being in the right relationship with God and your fellow creatures.  About not being affected by money and not moaning and whining about problems.

If you want human teachers, I can tell you where to find them, too.  At lectures and seminars I tell people they'd be happier if they grew down rather than up.  My adult audiences usually agree when I go on to explain that many grown-ups aren't very good company.  We listened when people told us, "Grow up.  Get serious."  We have a limited view of the world.  There is a sadness about us.  We grew up, got serious and became depressed adults.

Prophets, mythmakers, and storytellers all advise us to be more childlike.  Who inherits the kingdom of heaven?  Who sees the truth about the emperor's new clothes?  Who lives a timeless life?  As a parent and physician, I have learned that when you lose the ability to be childlike you put your life and your health in danger.  Children, sick or well, can teach us about honesty and feelings.  They can show us how to be loving in the face of adversity and even death.  I have seen many children beat cancer--some by getting well and others by living fully despite the cancer that ended their young lives early.  Many children with cancer have written letters and some have written books telling what they learned from being sick, and those letters and books are some of the wisest writings I've ever read.

I saw the wisdom of children in my own family many years ago when it appeared that our son, Keith at the age of seven, had cancer.  He had complained about his leg hurting and finally, at his urging, we took an X-ray that showed a defect in the bone.  I immediately assumed cancer.  As a physician, I knew that the only treatment available was an amputation, and that even with this treatment our beautiful child would probably be dead in a year.  He was scheduled for surgery to biopsy the tumor, but in the week before his biopsy I viewed him as dead-within-a-year.

I was already living in a tragic future, mourning a death that hadn't yet occurred.  I couldn't play with the children or have any fun or make love because I thought I knew what was going to happen.  I wanted to tell all the children in the house, "Be quiet.  Go to your rooms.  Your brother is going to be dead in a year."

The children knew something was wrong with their brother, and they knew it might be serious.  But they didn't know the statistics so they did not live in a tragic future.  They went about playing, having fun, living each day as it came and not worrying about events that might or might not happen.  For that week, I was separated from the family by my grief.  Then the biopsy results came back and the tumor was a rare but totally benign growth.  So our beautiful son was not dead-within-a-year and I was able to rejoin the family.  Keith told me I had handled things poorly.  I agreed because I needed him as my teacher.  The experience helped me understand what the parents of my patients go through, and it also taught me the folly of living in the future. . . .

Here is a list of survival traits.  This list was compiled from the works of many different authors, all of whom had a common experience.  See if you can guess what they have in common.

Live life to the fullest; no one knows what will happen tomorrow.

Accept what comes; use it to master the art of living.

Worrying won't help.

Live one day at a time.

Share hope with people.

Remember there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

No one knows the power of the individual.

Keep trying.

It's all right to show emotions.

Don't stop dreaming.

God is always there to help.

Don't wait for tragedy; say it today:  "I love you and I'm glad you are alive."

What do the authors of those twelve pieces of wisdom have in common?  For one thing, the authors are all children.  No doubt you are familiar with some of these maxims.  You can find similar messages in popular songs or storybooks.  I know I had heard most of their suggestions twenty years ago when I thought our son had cancer, but I certainly didn't act as if I knew the value of living one day at a time.

Children who contributed these items are not simply repeating platitudes from songs or storybooks.  They know what they are talking about, because each author has or had a life-threatening cancer.  I've been fortunate enough to meet some of these children, and I consider them my teachers because they live the message faithfully.



Siegel is a well-loved brand name, and his collection of anecdotes, stories, and supportive advice does have its amusing moments. Among the topics Siegel covers are how to find peace of mind; how to love, encourage, and forgive other people as well as yourself; and how to thrive in bad times and survive the good times. For those ready to be uplifted by the soothing repetition of time-tested homilies, Siegel delivers the goods.


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