Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"
- K. Vonnegut
Parenthood so far has got me feeling philosophical. For one thing, there is the unmistakable in-the-middleness it illuminates for you -- the realization that you might not actually be the center of the universe after all, but that it *does* surround you, in time as well as space. And further, you see that just as sure as this little being came from you, you came from someone else yourself. The honor then becomes the fact that you somehow get to take part, not that you had (or have) a hand in making things the way they are. Humility, if not hilarity, ensues.
The prevailing and recurring challenge of early parenthood to me, though, is a familiar one in philosophy: the Problem of Evil. It's a thorny issue for theologians and plain folks alike, since it can be argued academically as well as observed intuitively: bad shit just seems to happen sometimes.
Like what? Oh, like inconsolable crying that goes on for three hours. For example. Let us assume Veda is a good person, who has had only eighteen days on Earth so far to swindle the elderly or scheme for power or punch a kitten, and has done nothing of the sort. If she's the embodiment of innocence -- and I'm inclined to say she is -- then what business does she have yowling at the top of her tiny lungs 'til the cows come home? And what have we, her parents, done to deserve the anguish that accompanies watching your beloved offspring writhe in distress on a regular basis?
It's only natural to wonder, I think. And last night I found myself proposing a few theories to help make sense of the shrieking and carrying on that filled our darkened bedroom, where ordinarily we'd be sleeping peacefully at this time of night. (In Buddhism you would call this mystery "dukkha," which is most often translated as Suffering, but is said to mean more accurately "disquietude.")
So what of Veda's crying, then? Why must it happen? And in answering that, let's explore both the cause and the purpose, as both seem to provide valid responses to more or less every "why" question.
Here was what I came up, starting with purposes:
- It's for a good cause. The ends justify the means. One day we'll have a delightful and inspiring youth to share our lives with, as opposed to a screaming beauty who can barely make eye contact but is exceedingly talented at ruining our nights. And maybe we'll appreciate it all the more since we've been through this.
- It's a challenge to make us stronger. A newborn is almost specifically designed, it would seem, to test one's patience. She's deafening and unreasonable and at times seems almost sadistically demanding, but she is also tiny and fragile and impossibly precious. So she'll drive you crazy, but you can't walk away. At the end -- again, the end -- we'll be those unflappable, confident parents who can take on anything. Maybe.
(now for the causes)
- It's the way of nature, and a flaw of design. Because humans evolved to walk upright, our hips reconfigured in such a way that our babies must be delivered at a time that is technically premature. What counts today as a "full-term pregnancy" is not equivalent to a full gestation period in other animals -- whose young, as we know, can often see, move and even walk shortly after birth. Thus, the burden of a helpless infant is the price we pay for bipedal mobility. I read this once; I swear.
- It's payback. We ourselves were this outrageously dependent on someone else in our babyhood; it's only fair that what went around should come back around.
...and lastly, most likely (and least reassuringly) of all,
- There is no reason. Babies are difficult because of their biological status; the planet we inhabit can only sustain certain kinds of life, and this is the lifeform we've become: one with a tempestuous beginning as well as a strong and mysterious drive to put ourselves through this same ordeal as adults, but this time from the other end of the bottle. To preserve the species, we are programmed to take on what we know in advance will be "the toughest challenge of all," and are in fact programmed to do it again, even once we know firsthand what's required.
Now, this last possibility strikes me as, like I said, the most plausible. Our efforts to put the crying of an infant in some sort of cosmic perspective are pretty much just folly and self-delusion -- in the end, the theory would say, It's Not About You. And that's also about where Buddhism would leave you, I think. It is our craving for order that makes us suffer the wailing of our children, rather than just accepting and addressing the problem. It is what it is.
If we understood that it's nothing personal, and babies just cry and the phenomenon has no obligation to make sense to us, we might be able to gain freedom from the suffering it causes us. Which sounds awfully nice.
From last week's Newsweek - the Feb. 23, 2009 issue, in the article "Who Says Stress Is Bad For You?":
Who tends to be least resilient?
A. People who are insecure
B. People who are happy
C. People who are sad
D. People who are self-focused
The answer, according to the article, is D. "Egocentric or self-focused people are more likely to take things personally. And the extent to which people take things personally affects their ability to be resilient." It goes on to use this principle to explain why you'll bounce back better from, say, having your house hit by lightning and burned to the ground than you might from being mugged in a parking lot. Even if the loss is greater -- all your worldly belongings versus your wallet -- you're less likely to dwell on it and blame yourself, so you get over it faster. Thus, cultivate a worldview that sees more lightning strikes and fewer anti-you-in-particular attacks and you'll be a lot better off.
When you're trying to feed your child who won't stop screaming, despite the ample presence of food, though, this is somewhat difficult.
In the end, I think it's safe to say that much of the reason for parenthood being so challenging to us is, well, our insistence on finding a reason for parenthood being so challenging to us. So in a way I regret picking up the computer the other night and making my list to begin with. Hush now, Colin.
But on the other hand, it was what I was compelled to do, and now it's done. Like I said, it's only natural to wonder.
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand