A Child in This World

I’ve been uncertain for years about the morality of bringing a child into this world. Now, standing on the cusp of this transformation (but really having already made it), my questions feel all the more real, and equally surreal. I am not without conflict, nor am I certain in many parts of my mind and heart that I’ve made the right choice. At the same time I’m utterly certain of the rightness. I find this illustrative of one of the things that fascinates me most about human minds and emotional capacities—that we can hold two (or multiple) utterly conflicting realities in heart and head at the precise same moment. For example, that we are safe and also in peril (see: our current political situation). That the weather in my northern home is far too warm these days, but that it feels so good when the sun warms my skin. That we are safe in the arms of our lovers, and also are never safe but in our own self-reliance. Or, in this case, that my child seems almost certain to experience unimaginable* chaos in the arc of his lifetime, but that he should still be brought into this world, and be welcomed here, and that we will be able to guard him from it. (*More on the imagined unimaginable in a bit.)

I’ve previously shared the way that very old buildings in Europe evoke a sense of my insignificance in a way I find extremely powerful. Really, experiencing antiquity of any sort reminds us how tiny and ephemeral are our own lives. Even the briefest contemplation of history—whether academically, through travel or discussion, at the knee of our elders, or through fictional doorways like film and literature—makes it apparent that any sense of wellbeing or safety that I/we hold at present is fanciful. And it need not just be a view of history. We can look at the present—Syria or Iraq for example—and see humans whose lives were materially similar to ours just 15 years ago, who now live in chaos, violence, disease and peril that would have been unimaginable (there’s that word again) prior to that time.

Yet regardless of the peril of the moment in time or history, we—We, capitalized—continue to bring babies into this world, to invest in them all our heart and hopes, and to imagine that we can keep them safe, and that their lives will be worthwhile and well lived. We have the capacity to be so reasoned, so analytical. And we also remain animals, driven by deep, biological imperatives of reproduction and nurturing. And for all our intellect and spiritual awakening, we cannot keep ourselves from this thing. We neglect the one choice that would keep our children most safe—which would be to leave them resident in our imaginations, un-conceived, pre-created. Concepts and dreams rather than real humans born into the near certainty of harm.

We’ve made an incredible journey in humanity and health and technology in the span of two or three human lifetimes. Depending on where you sit on the globe, you are well fed, enjoy leisure time, experience peace, are sheltered from violence. But we’ve also carved very close to many ecological and epidemiological tipping points. We’ve drained millennia-old aquifers, have used antibiotics with such poor restraint that there are terrible super-bugs lurking through human and animal populations. We’ve also become a much more “vector” friendly world—with flights delivering disease intercontinentally in mere hours.

In the Western world, we’ve become complacent about the robustness of our political institutions in a way that has weakened them and has made it less likely that we’ll live free of violence, free of armed conflict. Our current presidency is a terrifying testament to the thinness of the veneer of civility, of generosity, of humanity; and also of the real dangers posed by a single megalomaniac given the power of office and the power of the bully pulpit. The seemingly overnight resurgence of anti-Semitism utterly baffles me, and also reminds me that our illusions of safety are just that.

Dark times rise on the heels of periods of great peace and enlightenment. President Obama has said that the arc of history bends toward justice. That may have been true in the past 100 years of Western history, but I do not see that as a given when viewed over the historical timeline of humanity. There is no “given” here. Plus, as we move with complacency farther and farther into this changed climate, we push ourselves closer to that edge. We remove the resiliency of our natural systems. We ensure larger swings of climate and weather and pestilence.

And then we have babies. And ask them to live in this world.

I’m thrilled for the arrival of our son. But feeling this way doesn’t inoculate me against the certainty of his uncertain future. Which is where the question of “unimaginable” comes back. None of this is unimagined. We have a great tradition of writers and thinkers to learn from, as we envision the future our children might live in, and think about how to prepare them for it. This Goodreads list is a great start in the realm of fiction, and many of my favorite books in this line are on it (Station Eleven, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series, The Dog Stars, The Passage series). There are also great non-fiction books to consider. I’m weaker in this area, but I think Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is as good a starting place as any.

I have many more thoughts on this—like, for example, what skills do I teach our little one if I believe this is, in fact, the world he’ll come to inherit? But enough for one day. A gentle snow is falling outside and my yard is full of songbirds and our overwintered hummingbird, and it’s time for me to move into that space of quiet maternal contemplation. Holding two things in my head again.