In the first months after my son was born, I experienced an emotional response to my dealings with other people that was truly new to me. It occurred to me, in the forceful and almost physical way that the most fundamental truths come home to us, that everyone was, once, a baby. The UPS guy at the door this morning. The rather unhealthy-looking guy behind the wheel of the semi that just passed me. The wheelchair-bound lady in the park that afternoon. The gang banger with a gun. My mother. My father.
Further reflections arose from this first, bracing realization. Having all started out as children, more or less like mine, doing the things that babies and toddlers do, how did we all become so different? The languages, the accents, the ways of moving, of thinking, the patterns of belief and action -- where did all of it come from? And if all of it expressed such variation, what hope was there of any connection among us? Here I am, almost a middle-aged man, and having just had a child, I am asking childlike questions myself.
This new mental state, almost an altered state of consciousness, didn't last long. I'm not sure what would have happened if it had. In any case, being cut off from humanity while shepherding an infant through a Chicago winter went a long way towards dampening my reflections. But the original realization did leave traces, and I try to summon them back once in a while. It seemed valuable and worth preserving, like the early sensation of falling in love. Perhaps it was like an emotional molting, the growth of a new sensibility that overwhelmed everything else as it outgrew a more constraining psychic shell. Or maybe, it was really just a passing illusion.
If one kept this idea on our minds, that we were all once babies, then it seemed to be the kind of idea that could radically alter one's behavior in life. It seemed that caring for an infant brought out something virtuous in a person that shouldn't be shared only with those who can't walk, who soil themselves regularly, and who have yet to know language. But how do you translate that love for a small, dependent creature into an ethical framework for dealing with the clamoring, boisterous and often disconcerting variety of other people?
The overwhelming sense that we all share the same lot, and even more importantly, we all in some way or another need others is more pronounced in some people than in others. I am convinced, for example, that a highly developed sense of this interdependency is at the root of the most admirable qualities of deeply religious people. The concept of "humanity," with all of its obligations and expectations, is one of its secular derivatives, and can be equally motivating for people of different political outlooks.
But the question still remains: what to do with this impression and the emotional awareness that comes with it? It seems that something of what we learn in caring for small children ought to carry over into other relationships. But for most of human history children have existed in a special world that was left behind upon entry into adolescence. The multitude of rites of passage into the world of sexuality, power, and self-control in different cultures all worked to draw firm lines between the world of the child and the world of the adult. Caring for children, historically, was something that was animal, material, feminine, and as such needed to be separated from the world of the spiritual, abstract, and masculine. Much depended on this segregation. As one of the most familiar passages of the New Testament goes, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." There's no clearer dividing line than that.
But now that those binary oppositions are eroding, it would seem that the pairing of the child-adult might also become more complex. The emotional capacity to care for small children -- or for any dependent individual -- certainly isn't limited to females, just as the capacity for abstract, adult functionality is not limited to males. Likewise, the set of emotional sensibilities that can emerge in a parent might not be limited in their extension to children only, but might positively infuse our relationships with other adults. I'm not sure yet just how, and it may take a while for me to figure it out. But I'll check back in if and when I do.