Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day

Happy Father's Day to all of you fathers and father/parent figures. God bless you and may your children recognize what a wonderful gift they have in you. May you experience God's peace and happiness through your children.

Throughout the week, I haphazardly meditated on the idea of parenthood quite a bit. Aside from my direct connection to Father's Day as a parent, I was privy to some really powerful experiences of parenting. Moreover, having recently read Balthasar's meditation on a mother's love and glance toward her child being the child's awakening to the world, to the very idea of a "thou", I had a helpful framework upon which to interpret my experiences.

The first instance occurred Wednesday night as I was biking home along South Street in Philly. I came upon a young mother and her child. The child, maybe one and a half, maybe a couple months older, was in the stroller. His mom, standing behind the stroller, was engaged on her cellphone in an argument, a cell-gument. I slowed, got off and walked my bike past the mom, up to the little boy.

"What's up, buddy?"

"......" (crying)

"How's it going? Are you having a good night."

(more crying)

"What's wrong?"

Tears streaming down his face, the boy reached toward me and said,

"da da...... DA DA!"

"uh, no, I'm not..."

I hopped on my bike, and headed for home. His confusion of me for his father was too weird, too difficult for me straighten out for him. I felt as if I had intruded, as if I had made things worse than they were already. Later that night, as I talked to my wife, I thought more about the situation. Of course, I wasn't intruding. I was trying to help the boy out while his mom was occupied. Indirectly, I was also trying to help the mom out. I didn't want to assume that she was intentionally neglecting her son.

But, the boy's confusion and need, the mom's indifference throughout my interaction with her son, the whole milieu highlights in a negative way Balthasar's description of the role of the parent in the process of a child's entrance into "this side of existence," to quote a friend in a recent email.

The second instance happened on Thursday night, on the Metro in DC. I was heading home to my wife and son in Arlington after another week in Philadelphia. As I stood in the crowded train, I saw a young father wearing his son, about the same age as the boy the night before, in a sling. The son gazed about the train, and the father cooed at him, talked to him, and caressed his face. Eventually, the boy expressed thirst, and the father let him out of the sling to give him space to hold the bottle. After a few minutes of drinking, the father began to play a game with the boy, acting like he was going to steal the bottle. The father continuously engaged and interacted with his son in loving playful ways. For some reason, maybe because I'm a new father, maybe because of the event the night before, this sight was powerful in its effect on me.

The last experience I'll share here was much like the first in that it included a young mother and a young child, probably about two years old. I was on the Metro Saturday afternoon, riding back to Arlington when the mom and child got on the train. She took a seat, positioning the stroller in front of her, the child facing away from her. The kid became agitated and began crying. She made a rather weak gesture to give the child his bottle, but he didn't see her do it and continued to cry. Her flat affect seemed to indicate that at best she had resign herself to his crying, and at worst she didn't notice it at all.

These three instances, in addition to my own joyous Father's day weekend with CHW McClain (a.k.a Chewy), provided some fertile ground for a deeper reflection on this topic and Balthasar's own writing on it. I won't presume to understand this whole concept, but (hopefully) my meager reflections will urge some of you more literate in this area of philosophy to take the next step. In any case, for Balthasar, truth alone cannot capture the miracle of individual being, of why there are "some" instead of "none". Rather, Love precedes all others in the ground of being, individual and general. Being can give existence, but can neither explain it's own "existence" nor can it generate essence. Balthasar's hypothetical engagement between mother and child demonstrates a child's coming into awareness of its existence because of its mother's loving and welcoming glance. The child's whole interpretive schema is therefore predicated on the mother's initial and continued welcome of her child, the other. From this welcome, the child understands not only its relationship with its mother, not only its relationship to the world, but also its relationship to existence as a gift, as a welcoming. The child understands both that its mother is a Thou AND that it is a Thou to the mother. As such, the child's foundational experience of being, its ontological grounding is one of Gift and Welcome. It's a beautiful description of the power, efficacy, and place of Love in the world, and it has had quite and impact on my own reflections of parenthood, both my own parenting, and parenting I witness.

Yet, of my three examples above, only one seems to gel with Balthasar's understanding. Not to say that Balthasar didn't comprehend the existence of parenting that lacked both in luster and substance. Rather, his explication serves as much as an ideal as it does as an endorsement of a kind of parenting, a rather non-Spartan kind - is Balthasar an early proponent of "attachment Parenting"?

Nevertheless, what does one do with the other two instances, of detached, unaffected parents who seemingly don't care or don't understand their children's need to be welcomed, coaxed into existence and what are the ramifications of this apparent lacuna in these boys' lives? One can only guess. But from Balthasar's writing, I surmise that there is a component in their understanding of their place - I mean this in a thick sense - in existence in the world, and as future hosts of existents. I guess the obvious conclusion, or at least obvious to me as an urban dweller and an urban teacher, is that children who lack welcome, who lack the early formation of a concept of the Thou-as-gift (because of their own being-as-gift), will also lack the ability to welcome others, be they children, their own and others'. They may even lack the ability to show welcome to their high school teachers. Instead of conceiving the other as gift, the other is intruder, usurper, or at the very least unwelcome. The gunshot victim wasn't someone else's child who was a cherished addition to God's gift of existence, but rather a .... well, that would be speculation to great even for me.

I have a friend who in recent weeks has lived out this conviction in his own life. I have been blessed immensely by his example. Thanks be to God for children.

pax et bonum


Janet leslie Blumberg said...

This is exceptionally moving. I recommended it on my blog but I see you don't have a pingback. Ah well...
I can scarcely bear to think about the negative examples you gave, Dan, they hurt so much. The effects of a mother's depression on a child are utterly catastrophic.
I remember a report on children from orphanages in the Balkans (horrendous conditions) adopted in Canada. Babies adopted before 4 months were able to thrive and grow up healthily but those adopted after 8-9 months of extreme neglect had serious difficulties recovering. The psychological developmental problems reflected the number of months of neglect with a close correspondence and got worse and worse. I think this was in Graham Greene's mind when he wrote Brighton Rock, a book that's remained with me. "The treasury of grace" I think he calls it, the Catholic idea that the love a child receives will protect and strengthen that child in later life. What of those who do not receive it? Child advocate Alice Miller wrote many books about this and believed that even a single "witness" during a child's early life can enable the grown child to reach out and respond to help. Along the lines of Dan approaching that little boy, it can just be a librarian or a aunt who says, "It must be hard for you when x and y happens" and confirms the child's inward sense of the situation, which is being denied by its parents. I gotta stop. This subject is too painful! But thanks.

D. W. McClain said...

Janet, thanks. I appreciate your assessment as this post was rather difficult to write. Re: pingback, blogger has a way of "sensing" when other people link up to us. But the concern is appreciated. In the future, if you click on the "links to this post" link, you'll get a unique link that you can use.. anyway, thanks again.