Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Referendum

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?


Tim Kreider in the Times has a whimsical but spot-on piece about how we go about appraising the choices we--and no less important, others--have made in life. We seem destined to be comparative creatures, and while one wants one's life not to turn out disastrously, one may want even more that it turn out at least slightly less disastrously than the guy next door. Kreider wryly terms this mid-life look to the side "The Referendum."

I'll go out of my way here not to luxuriate in existential exhalations. His article though raised the question for me of what, really, is the single most salient, consequential, and true yes-or-no decision that one makes. I would suggest that in terms of classically fork-in-the-road life choices, the matter of children takes them all.

There is, of course, much in life that we have surprisingly little control over. My temperament and personality have been what they are as far back as my memories go; I can no more change them than I can turn around and look at the back of my head. Have I "chosen" my religious inclinations or the lack thereof (in any conventional sense anyway)? No, not really. I have in fact chosen to expose myself to a wide spectrum of religious ideas and experiences to make sure that I haven't missed anything, but the fact that these either have--or more commonly have not--impressed me is not really under my control. My sensibility is what it is.

Can I choose who I'm attracted to or fall in love with? It appears not. One likes what one likes, full stop. And the fact that one is attracted to the same qualities or types over and over again only drives this point home. The fact that these attractions can be spectacularly problematic, especially for long-term coexistence, does not however suggest that they are truly or existentially chosen. But I'll grant you that whether and whom to marry are significant choices, because one hopes at least to bring the unchosen nature of attraction somewhat in line with prudential considerations of what is likely to produce happiness over time.

But bachelorhood can be reconsidered, and marriages overturned. Similarly with where to live and how to work. These are weighty matters, of course, but none of them irrevocable. Move. Go back to school. Reboot. A friend of mine of a conservative bent not long ago lamented that American culture maintains the fiction that one can be forever pluripotent, like a walking, talking, middle-aged embryonic stem cell. We know it's not that easy. One differentiates; doors close. But freedom is real, isn't it, and not just self-indulgence?

The problem with freedom, conceptually, is that while we often consider specific choices or dilemmas in isolation, they really are subtly influenced by countless other decisions already made, whether by us or for us. The decision of whether to marry is influenced by who one happens to be attracted to, by how one went about about meeting people, by where one chose to live, etc. No decision enjoys a vacuum.

But to get back to the issue of procreation, I would say that child-bearing is the single greatest decision made in a life, for two reasons. It is a true either-or decision, even if one can quibble over degrees such as numbers of children, biological vs. adopted children, etc. (and of course there is the tragedy of infertility). But even more than that, becoming a parent is arguably the most irrevocable decision one makes.

I've long puzzled over why people have children. Many reasons throughout history present themselves: raising labor for the farm, populating the fatherland, generating prestige through marriage alliances. In evolutionary terms, the drive to have children is indispensable, to put it mildly. And sociologically it often just amounts to keeping up with the Joneses (although this suggests that if the Joneses ever stopped having kids--as they have in some European countries--procreation could theoretically grind to a halt). Or maybe people, pathetically and misguidedly, have kids for the same reason they may have pets, because they crave love from a dependent.

But why would a self-aware, thoughtful person in 2009, putting aside all of these automatisms, choose to have children, who after all are a massive drain of time, money, and emotional energy throughout the prime years of one's life? It seems to me that the wisest and best reason is to engage in a relationship with another human being that is like no other, really, in its intimacy and permanency. I mean this in no icky or enmeshed sense, of course, but in no other kind of relationship does one gain a closeness with a human being as one sees him/her come into the world and develop into a person.

All other relationships are reliably finite. Parents grow old and die. Friends move away or choose other paths, as do siblings. Spouses may grow estranged or, even worse, strange and unrecognizable. But children are forever. If they die, or even if they move across the world and don't call, they are not gone, but burn painfully in memory. Yes, there are people, fathers more often than mothers, who can and do forget their children, but I cannot ultimately understand or relate to them--they are beyond the pale for me.

I have nowhere implied I hope that having children is somehow desirable or praiseworthy in any general sense. Needs vary. And I realize that whether or not to parent, like all choices, is also never ex vacuo, but is influenced by countless social, familial, and psychological factors. But to my mind it is the decision that ends up dominating any life, and a decision in which, ironically, one freely (or as freely as it is given us to undertake anything in this world) chooses to anchor oneself--or less charitably, bind oneself--to a system of irrevocable relationships projecting into the future.


Anonymous said...

I think having a child can either be one of the noblest of human gestures or cruelest.

To willfully (yes, irrespective of the chance confluences which conceived the embryo into existence, parents do actually choose to externalise it into an eventually autonomous life) produce an absolutely choiceless human and thrust it into the world subjecting it to all manner of genetic/environmental/ psychological/spiritual/circumstantial burdens and then expecting it to somehow configure a ‘meaningful’ life out of it all not to mention be unquestionably grateful for the opportunity, strikes me as the most difficult and riskiest decisions any human can make. Although children are to some extent free to make decisions within the framework of existence parents have chosen for them, it still amounts to asking another human to live, suffer, endure a tumult of life experience which they have not chosen to put into motion. What a decision!

I agree, that having children is completely irrevocable, whereas most other life decisions are amenable to modification. It is a lifelong commitment and parents are constantly on trial for the crime of conception; whether they are faultless or not parents will be judged on the quality/quantity of their children’s lives – it’s just part of the silent contract.

I find it interesting that given so many other life choices can be overturned, and alternative paths lie agape in multiple directions, humans still concretise themselves in torturous ruts of lifeless existence preferring the lived known to the unlived unkown. Maintaining, not seizing – easier said than done.

I guess the only consolation is vicarious living through the real or fictional lives of others. Passsive living. Does passive living osmotically confer extra dimension/intensity/meaning to life? Or must life necessarily be actually lived to be of existential worth? Like actual smoking, passive smoking also kills – perhaps in smaller increments. Life in different dosage forms....but life nonetheless, no?

Novalis said...

Yes, just as children must at some point throw themselves, or be thrown, into the water to swim, so must we all be hurled as a kind of hope into the sea of possibility. The metaphysical lifeguards, if they were ever present, appear to be absent on break.

But no diving. Regarding the endless complacency of human beings, I like to read "The Grand Inquisitor" over and over. I tend to think of consciousness as an extremely precarious and highly unlikely evolutionary product, forever threatening to sink back into the cosmic ocean of unconsciousness. Consciousness, both personal and global, is forever teetering on the brink of calamity, and one of these days it's going to fall off.

The insects had it right, or "right."

On the temerity of parenting...yes, although there is infinite temerity in living too. No breath drawn, no meal enjoyed without adding to the gulfs of death and entropy. Generating new human life is the ultimate creative destruction.

Anonymous said...

Life is a commitment to death. Every life is a rupture in the cosmic flux. Consciousness is just a borrowed kaleidoscope through which we live the shifting patterns of life. Time is just an illusory succession of spaces in which life articulates itself.