A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
When Keefe was tiny, our friend Marilyn, a mother of four, asked Janice "So have you dropped him yet?" Jan was incensed in her denial. It was weeks later when Keefe tumbled from a high chair and whacked face first onto the kitchen floor, and she was enlightened. Oh! The question wasn't 'are you a bad parent?' but 'have you survived this rite of passage?' As parents, most of us would love to guarantee that our children never experience pain, terror, betrayal, broken hearts, hunger or injury. Of course, we know we can't do it, but it sure sounds nice.
Typically, whatever adversity we experience and the way we face it massively shapes our character. The younger it happens, the more profound it is. What defined me more than the early death of my father? The fact that today I write a column about the joys of fathering is a clue. While I like to think my opinions are the result of long experience and careful reflection, I can likewise probably trace my distrust of authority to the day at age seven when our family doctor told me "Look kid, there's nothing wrong with you. Are you just trying to get sympathy from your parents or something? I hate you wasting my time." Eventually it came to light that a pinched nerve in my injured hip caused the pain to localize in my knee, so naturally it was my knee he was x-raying. An honest mistake, sure, but having this imposing adult call me a liar reverberates in the way I listen to anyone who behaves as if their position guarantees they know what they're talking about.
Living in fairly peaceful times and enjoying a stable existence, with the resources to give the boys more than I ever had has paid off; they know little of hardship. The down side is that they are also materialists. It's hard to find a common perspective with them when the restrictive poverty of my youth founded my work ethic and being picked on as the short/sick/smart/weird kid made me obsessively eager to distinguish myself from my peers. Never being deprived, they hardly know how good they've got it.
Of course, if we scroll back three decades or so, my mom could easily say the same. As a child in World War II Europe, she lost her family and home, got shot at, nearly starved, and spent time in a mass internment camp. Of course it shaped her into an unflinching survivor. She, too, wanted to spare me the chaos and fear she endured, and, mostly succeeding, molded me into a personality alien to her. She never stopped feeling guilty, either, for the things she couldn't do and the ways she believed she went wrong, and that's an enduring family trait I absorbed completely.
My grandparents, farmers in a poor European backwater when she was little, would have considered mom's tiny home with its plentiful power and reliable indoor plumbing pretty damned luxurious. And I guess it goes on. Stagger back a few more generations and you'd consider healthy life expectancy over 40 a pipe dream and offal in the streets normal. Eventually we'll reach proto-humans whose dearest fantasy was freedom from the likelihood of being eaten.
It raises a few philosophical questions, though. Is there some kind of upper limit to this process, a ceiling of some kind to the perceived quality of our lives? Hard to guess. Tomorrow's status-shaking factors are something of a wild card, just as the Internet or plastics or chimneys were wholly beyond imagining until they were suddenly everywhere. Our grandkids may well wonder how we ancients got along without nanomachines which constantly rebuild our teeth, and berate their own children for not seeing how good they've got it now that their foods are genetically designed to optimize their health through tailoring to their individual genome. But I'm also remembering here that the more things change the more they stay the same and that many fundamental challenges facing us are no different today than centuries ago. We still havenít learned how to care for one another and have been at war since the dawn of history. The US alone has been in a state of war with some nation or another continually since the 1940s. Weíve experimented as a species with a broad variety of social organizations, but everything keeps coming back to the vast majority sharing almost nothing and the privileged few enjoying everything else while the chasm widens. Itís also worth noting that the work week in a hunter-gatherer culture averages ten hours, while itís getting no easier for a 2006 family to make ends meet without two careers or more.
The rest of our world naturally wants to catch up to our opulent western lifestyle, which complicates things further as we imagine a billion Chinese planning air conditioned single family dwellings and importing cheap labor to clean up the messes. Where are those workers supposed to come from anyway? The time-honored serf and baron economy couldnít sustain too much shared bounty and progress. As we stand on the brink of the largest mass extinction of species since the dinosaurs, and a mere two percent of humanity can apparently hijack the entire climate, itís not hard to imagine that a crash must be imminent in the steady upgrade of Ďhow good weíve got ití that our species has enjoyed over its entire lifespan. Yeah, son, I saw an elephant in a zoo once, and there were, like, five different kinds of fruit back then, and you could go outside during the day and everything. Yeah, we didnít know how good we had it. Eat your paste.
I canít buy that one either.
Okay, we can almost guarantee that thereís some kind of trouble on
the horizon. When isnít there?
Itís not inevitable that a plague, attack or natural disaster is
going to impact our little household, but itís impossible that my sons
wonít acquire some defining scars. My
desire to protect them from everything is futile, but that doesnít make it
worthless. Like all parents,
Iíll keep doing the best I can and my successes will be worth it.
When they get their noses bloodied and their hearts broken they will
adapt and get back up on their feet, and Iíll enjoy the same moment of
ĎOh!í that Jan experienced as Keefe cried for two minutes, smiled, and
moved on twelve years ago. Itís
just a rite of parental passage, a reminder that they can and will
eventually take care of themselves just fine completely without me.
And I believe firmly that things can and will continue to get better
for them and their descendants that follow.
We just need to keep changing our definitions of better.
Maybe technology is the answer and someone will patent a cheap safe
and clean fusion energy system next year that turns the issues of scarcity,
pollution, and corruption on their ear.
Maybe social progress is the next great frontier and some new model
of juggling things will gift future generations with more quality time free
from fear, intolerance or anxiety. Or
maybe weíll wise up and see how great weíve got it, and learn as a
people to focus more on things that go right than we do on what we havenít
got. Because you know, with my
back sore and my bills due, I can still sit here for a few peaceful minutes
on the porch with a cup of tea and watch the clouds going by, and it feels
pretty damned good to be alive.
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