Eden was the perfect life before man introduced themselves. It’s been such a long time since the fall that every day is like living in a new Eden. However, there are those who can never forget what happened and have dedicated their lives to fight against humans’ return back into paradise.
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Despite the fact that Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, one of the first Europeans to visit Tahiti, only remained for 10 days, he was blown away by what looked to be a veritable paradise on earth. He saw that the indigenous were elegant in their movements, polite in their demeanor, generous in spirit, and serene in their hearts. They seemed to be in a youthful state of innocence, devoid of shame and modesty, open in their sexuality and nakedness, and living simply for joy and love. They were, in Bougainville’s eyes, unspoiled by civilization’s artificial mores, the precise embodiment of the “noble savage” ideal that was being lauded back on the continent at the time.
Tahiti’s environment was equally enticing – the surrounds were lush, the temperature was mild, the days were bright, and the food was abundant and seemed to be simple to pick and harvest. “I imagined I was transported into the Garden of Eden,” Bougainville wrote.
Despite the observations of subsequent visitors who noted that Tahiti’s inhabitants were not always as peaceful as they seemed, nor its resources as plentiful, travel and fiction literature continued to portray the island as an oasis of innocence, beauty, and easy abundance more than a century after the French explorer’s stay in 1768. One such leaflet stated:
“Born in a land where there is no winter and the soil is abundantly productive, the Tahitians need only raise their hands to gather the breadfruits and wild bananas that are their primary foods.” As a result, they have no need to work, and the fishing that they do for a little variation in their diet is more of a joy that they willingly partake in… In this paradise where sorrow is unheard of and effort is unnecessary… Everyone has their own spot in the sun and shade, their own spot in the water, and their own source of nutrition in the woods.”
“There in Tahiti in the silence of the lovely topical night,” he dreamed, “[I will be] free at last, with no money troubles, and able to love, sing, and die.” This alluring description of an earthly paradise piqued the interest of the French artist Paul Gaugin, who saw in Tahiti a chance for a fresh start — the opportunity to throw off “everything that is artificial and conventional” and sustain himself on the fruits of an abundant garden
Gaugin left his wife and children for the island in 1891, but soon discovered that it was not the bountiful paradise he had imagined — that the temperate climate had seasons of plenty and seasons of scarcity, and that living off the land was more difficult than reaching up to grab a banana or pulling netfuls of fish from well-stocked lagoons. Even in Tahiti, he noted, food did not fall into one’s lap without some effort:
“[Nature] is wealthy, she is giving, she refuses to give to anybody who asks for a piece of her goods, which she has limitless stores in the trees, mountains, and sea.” However, in order to return laden with hefty treasure, one needs know how to climb big trees and go into the mountains… One must know how to accomplish things and be capable of doing them.”
Gaugin was far from the first person to go forth in search of paradise only to be disillusioned by what he discovered. And he won’t be the last to do so.
Mankind hasn’t given up looking for a “Tahiti” – a land of abundance where one might dwell in blissful leisure, with all of one’s needs satisfied without having to work. And there are still a plethora of businesses and advertisements attempting to cash in on this common human yearning — the desire to not only physically go to a place where life is simple, but also to reach an unburdened, stress-free psychological state. Although such hawkers of achievable paradise do not distribute flyers extolling the beauties of Tahiti, the promise is the same: use this technology, utilize this hack, enroll in this lifestyle design school, and you will be able to return to Eden. You can make money without working, eat whatever you want without gaining weight, and love whoever you want without fear of repercussions.
Underneath the attractiveness of all these promises — at the heart of this yearning for paradise — there is a longing to reclaim youth, to reclaim the carefree existence that was lost in the course of maturation.
However, no matter how desperately one desires this long-forgotten paradise, there is no way to return to Eden.
By Your Brow’s Sweat
The tale of Adam and Eve is shared by all Abrahamic faiths, and its impact may be seen in civilizations all across the globe. Some people regard the narrative as literal truth, as if it were written in the Bible. Others see it solely as fiction or myth. Multiple interpretations of the narrative have been advanced between and in between the two camps, some of which see its significance not as a bearer of spiritual/theological truths, but as a symbolic reflection on human psychology.
Scholars who consider the account of Adam and Eve as a metaphor for growth, in my opinion, have offered the most persuasive of these interpretations.
According to this viewpoint, Adam and Eve’s initial condition of innocence corresponds to the innocence that all children possess. Adam and Eve, like children, do not realize they are nude at first and do not feel ashamed of their body. The pair’s obligations are low, precisely like those of children. Adam is charged with working and caring for this “garden eastward in Eden,” but his surrounds seem to be so lush that his chores do not appear to be very difficult; his father has supplied a plenty of fruit trees from which Adam and Eve may easily gather their daily food. A caring parent looks after all of their requirements.
However, there is one tree in the garden that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They have never committed a true error because they are unaware of these two moral poles. They have also never been tempted to sin or had to make a truly autonomous decision between good and evil since they are unaware of these two moral poles. Adam and Eve’s father, as a parent of young children, wants to shield them from the brunt of that struggle, knowing that with greater knowledge comes greater responsibility — and with greater responsibility comes greater consequences for choices — and that they aren’t yet ready to make all of their own decisions.
Unlike the traditional Christian interpretation of the story, in which God wishes to keep Adam and Eve from the tree of knowledge indefinitely, when viewed as a metaphor for maturation, the father recognizes that his children will eventually partake of its fruit, which he both fears and recognizes as necessary for their future happiness.
He, like all parents, is torn between opposing impulses: on the one hand, he wants his children to remain innocent, safe, and close to him forever; on the other hand, he understands that they will not grow or progress unless they separate from him, gain knowledge, and learn to exercise moral agency on their own. As a result, he gives contradictory instructions to Adam and Eve: he advises them not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but he also urges them to multiply. Some readers believe that Adam and Eve could not have fulfilled the second commandment without first violating the first, and so becoming aware of their nakedness, sexuality, and desire for each other. Here’s a parent who doesn’t want his children to grow up, but recognizes that they must in order to reach their full potential and continue in his footsteps in having children. Every parent has had this shattered feeling: “Don’t grow up!” “Please mature!”
Eve is the one who first notices that “the fruit of the tree was excellent for nourishment and lovely to the sight, and also desired for learning knowledge” and partakes of it — which is not surprising given that ladies develop before boys. Adam, who is still in the prepubescent “Girls are disgusting” stage, must be enticed into the sin, but he, too, realizes that eating the fruit is the only path ahead. They have reached adolescence and found their sexuality, and they are aware of their nakedness and their first sensations of shame. They’ll start to separate themselves from their father and make more and more decisions on their own.
When their father discovers this, he weeps because he understands his children have become sexualized people who are growing up — and away from him. He lays forth the consequences of their journey — hard labor and difficult delivery — which, although commonly seen as penalties in conventional interpretations of the narrative, are viewed as descriptive rather than prescriptive here; i.e., this is how adulthood is — here’s what to anticipate.
Adam and Eve have just just began their path of maturation, and they need to learn much more by going it alone. It’s time for them to go from Eden’s Garden. However, there isn’t a complete separation between Adam and Eve and their father. He creates skin clothes to shield them as they go on their journey into the “real world.” And, although they don’t walk with their father every day as they used to in the garden, they still talk to him when they go outdoors. They’re still fashioned in his likeness.
As Adam and Eve mature, they will make errors, and the repercussions, like the thorns and thistles they find in their job, will hurt. As he strives to establish a life for himself and Eve, Adam will sometimes dislike the perspiration that gathers on his forehead. He’ll be lonesome for Eden now and then. However, although the channel of contact and mentorship between the children and their father remains open, Adam will be unable to return. Cherubim and a blazing sword stand in the road; regressing to an infantile condition is impossible. It may even be desired.
He can’t if he wants to keep growing. Not if he wants to grow into the person he is. There are certain things he can’t learn in the garden.
The account of Adam and Eve, when seen through a theological perspective, may provide insight into how sin entered the world. However, in another way, it might represent not only a fall from heavenly grace, but also a climb to terrestrial moral agency – an emblem of the struggle all mortals confront in growing up, separating from their parents, and asserting their own will.
Taking the Cherubim’s advice and wielding a Flaming Sword
When I’m putting my kids to bed at night, I like to reflect about this depth of significance in the Adam and Eve myth. The lights are dim, their mattresses are warm, and I’m often exhausted. Knowing I have a few more hours of work to do before I can turn in, I sometimes simply want to get under the blankets with them, sleep as long as I want, and wake up to another day of playing and crafting at school. I wish I could go back to being six years old.
But then I recall the cherubim and their blazing sword, and I’m reassured to realize that thousands of years ago, one of humanity’s earliest writings predicted this experience. That it is universal and ageless, and that millions upon millions of people have experienced and conquered it in the past.
I remember thinking at the time that, no matter how much I wanted to, there’s no going back to Eden, and even if there was, I wouldn’t want to. That looking for a shortcut or a secret vacation place where it could be hidden is not only futile, but also harmful to my objective of learning as much as possible and attaining my full potential before I die.
Childhood is full of innocence, but also of ignorance; knowledge offers freedom and autonomy, but it also comes with responsibility, and responsibility comes with obligations. And I attempt to accept them as grounded counterbalances in a life otherwise characterized by hollow weightlessness. I try to think of ways in which the perspiration on my forehead is redemptive rather than vengeful.
I remind myself that although I want to be taken care of, doing so would cost me my autonomy and capacity to be a moral actor on my own. That you can only say yes meaningfully if you can also say no. When I have a strong desire to burrow back into the womb, I remind myself that, although it’s warm and comfortable there, there’s nearly no space to turn, move, or stretch out.
The narrative of Adam and Eve may teach us that although caring to another’s creations is pleasurable, creating oneself is far more pleasurable. It may teach us that without adversity, there can be no progress, and no sweetness without bitterness. That you can’t choose good till you’ve experienced bad. That, just as thorns and thistles grow only outside the garden, so does character.
So I thank the cherubim for obstructing the path, and I remind myself that paradise can be built wherever you are, at any age, and that growing up may be a glorious upwards tumble.
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