Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Objects of My Affection

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.


Anonymous said...

I have an 11-month-old, and I've had this experience, too. Lately, when I get really frustrated with an adult, I try to remember that he or she was once a baby, and it usually tempers my anger. It's been helpful, and I hope I don't lose that insight as time passes.

chicago pop said...

anonymous: that's exactly it! Your child is older than mine and you have still guarded that insight, which is hopeful! In addition to tempering anger, I sometimes try to summon it when entering into any social situation where patience and tolerance are helpful.

DaddyMan said...

Lately I've been chuckling to myself at my son's deep desire to repeat questions 3 or 4 times and my wife's insatiable desire to answer every question before the last words have left his lips.

Patience. Or lack thereof.

The ability to take a breath, process the information then translate into adult or toddlerese. These are tools I'm trying to convey to both of them.

Remembering the times when I wanted to know everything, and I wanted to know them "now," and when "because" as an answer wasn't good enough...that's enough to remind me of how annoying I was, and how I laugh at myself when everything comes full circle.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I also had this feeling, and I've also struggled to hold onto it.

As my son and his little friends get older, what is most striking to me is how set our personalities appear to be from such an early age. One boy shows an immediate interest in fantasy and imaginary friends, and plays with puppets and dolls and invents stories for them; another plays with blocks and puzzles and never seems to fantasize or tell stories. Some kids seem to be born highly strung; others are mellow from the first night at home. And so on.

Realizing that does make me, in the abstract, feel more compassionately towards adults. I really feel these days that we are not responsible for our basic personalities; the best you can do, it seems, is try to take the other person's perspective and then try to deal with her on her own terms.

But damn--and this tendency is probably encoded in my genes--I find that awfully hard to do as a matter of daily practice. I know that the pointy headed bureaucrat who is holding up my reimbursement check because of a technicality used to be a helpless little baby. But why can't she get her head out of her ass and just send me the right form?

Actually, it might be even worse than that. I suspect that as my son demands so much patience and understanding from me, I have much less to spare for other adults. I might be even less tolerant now than I was three years ago. And why should anyone put up with me, even though I used to be a helpless little baby?

chicago pop said...

Jeremy's last post basically gets at the first think any self-respecting "realist" or dog-eat-dog conservative is going to ask about woolly stuff like this, which is, "yeah, even Hitler kissed babies, but the real world is a mean place and you can't walk around treating everyone like innocents." It's essentially the Hobbesian view of life.

I guess the way I'm understanding it is that parenting can serve as a sort of training for ethical behavior, a sort of disciplining of the emotions and the willful shaping of habits in one's response to certain situations. There needs to be a way of translating from the most intimate affections to the broader society, otherwise utter chaos is the only possibility.

This doesn't mean that you won't get pissed at a bureaucrat or someone who cuts you off on the freeway, it's just how you choose to deal with it. Do you verbally escalate? Do you become physically violent? Do you expel the antagonist from the human race and wish them death (I'm not being funny here -- history shows that this is exactly what happens time and time again)? I'm guessing that most people's reactions fall short of these extremes, in part because of some recognition that the other is like us. The ethical training that can come from dealing with children is one way, I'm guessing, of arriving at that.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I think that I probably have gotten better at dealing with these things, after becoming a parent.

Take the bureaucrat, who is, of course, based on a real person and niggling issue I'm dealing with right now. I think five years ago I would have been more likely to become aggressive or angry with her. But these days, I'm nothing but polite, partially out of human sympathy, partially because I believe, after years of trial and error, that I'll get better results by being nice.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from rolling my eyes as I type emails to her and making rude comments that never make it outside my head.