Today I’m going to write about children, love, death, and life. In roughly that order.
Maybe you’ve already faced the decision to have a child, or maybe you haven’t. But I guarantee you that when you do you will discover a part of your heart that says something like this: “If I have a child, then whether or not I am supported financially, whether or not I have the educational and social and emotional resources I need to take care of that child, my life will still be burdened. My life will have more suffering than it used to. And I can’t take that.”
There is a spot in each of our hearts that says something like this. It says it not just about accepting a new child, but also about accepting an old person, or a sick person, or anyone in need. Among the independent and the healthy, this is the part of our hearts that gets in the way of budding friendships and leads to isolation. But the consequences for those who are dependent and weak are grave indeed.
This part of our hearts cannot and will not be quieted through financial, social, and educational assistance. Even when you are the richest and best educated person in the country, and even when your connections and position ensure that your life will be fabulous in worldly terms whether or not you have a child, there is a part of your heart that will say: “I don’t want to be ‘punished’ with a child.” The unexpected child is a punishment.
Here is a hard truth: that part of our heart is not totally inaccurate. In one thing it is very accurate: accepting a dependent human means a sacrifice of our own independence. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Time is limited. Effort is limited. Attention and focus are limited. And wherever there are limits, there are tradeoffs. To get one thing, you have to give up something else. To get life and wellbeing for those dependent on you, you have to give up some of your own independence. And to get all of your independence for yourself, you have to give up life and wellbeing for those dependent on you.
This is where the light of love can shine in the darkness. In the shadows of this ugly tradeoff, love is a beacon that lights the way to a truth greater than this tradeoff could ever be: the truth that whoever loses his life will save it. It turns out that the life we lose by taking care of others is given back to us one hundred fold. Today society is becoming increasingly divided between those who understand this truth, and those who either reject it or have never heard of it at all. While it is a truth that is nourished by religion, it is not actually a truth only acceptable on faith. It is a truth that is learned through day-to-day experience, one loving relationship at a time.
I want to suggest one way that young readers of the Rover can learn this truth better, and spread this truth to others: having children. Now, I know you’re about to say: “whoa, I’m not even married; what are you talking about?” We will get back to that at the end. But first I want to share with you what can happen to you and to your community of friends when you begin to take care of a child.
I have some experience with what I’m about to tell you, because I’ve had five kids in seven years. Sophia said I need to write about stuff that I know, and basically the only things I know about are economics, classical vocal technique, and taking care of billions of little kids. Between the three of these it seemed like the last was most relevant.
But seriously, the first thing you will probably notice when taking care of a kid is, “Wow, I had no idea I was so used to getting my own way!” You see, we get used to using our brain for thinking about something that requires our full attention when we feel like it; going to the bathroom when we feel like it; leaving the house when we feel like it; talking to friends when we feel like it; sleeping when we feel like it. We develop the habit of viewing our time, our attention, our effort, and our energy as our own. And the thing is, once a kid comes into the picture, none of that is fully true anymore.
This is the trade-off, and it’s the first thing we notice when we take care of kids. But, if we can dive into a life of actually loving these little creatures that have been placed in our care, then we can start to notice something that transcends that tradeoff.
This transcendence comes from an expected source: the superiority of children. The great Italian educator Maria Montessori said the following, and it is at the heart of this reflection: “children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.”
Let’s unparse that. We need to not only take care of children, but respect them. And one reason we need to respect them is that they are superior to us. I can assure you, that in the absence of love, you will not feel that this little pooping angry thing is superior either to you or your trendy friends. But in the light of love, we can begin to see things that our own preoccupations and obsessions with personal independence have hidden from our eyes; for example, the superiority of innocence.
In our cynical age we may pity innocence, or find it charming, but we certainly don’t find it “superior.” Yet innocence is superior. How much time does a four-year-old waste worrying about what the in-crowd is doing? Does a two-year-old pretend he doesn’t like someone because the cool kids might laugh at him? No, he gives everyone he loves a hug, whether or not both parties in question have chocolate chip cookies on their face. The innocent know nothing of the pleasures of seeking status, or holding grudges, or judging by appearances. Can we say the same about our friends? Can we say the same about ourselves?
And it is precisely their innocence that opens children to greater possibilities, and our own lack of innocence that closes us off to them. I’ve come to see that the wonder in a child’s face as she sees the sun glittering through the green leaves of a tree in spring time is a joy open only to a simple person who is unaccustomed to using others for personal pleasure. Only the innocent can see the real good around them, and rejoice in that good; and by that rejoicing they have a chance, just a chance, of growing into someone deeper and wiser and more beautiful every day. So we have the paradox that only the simple can become wise.
And while everyone who has children or contemplates having children becomes immediately aware of the first ugly trade-off, I can guarantee you that everyone who learns to love a child will learn to love innocence and its inherent potential for growth as well. It will happen in proportion with our love for the child, and that love will happen in inverse proportion with our own preoccupation with ourselves. To the extent that we kill the part of our hearts that wouldn’t make a sacrifice of time, effort, attention, and affection for others, we discover a miracle: all the innocence that made our youth a time of growth and joy returns. And we become what we were always meant to be: at once innocent and experienced; both sober and full of joy.
So it is the death of part of ourselves—the painful death of our own pride and independence—that leaves the soil of our souls fertile for the rebirth of innocence. Taking care of little children, we become like little children, and we inherit all the possibilities that entails.
Which brings me to my parting advice. Everyone else at Notre Dame is going to tell you to delay or destroy any desires that impede your ultimate professional success. Don’t have any serious relationships until you are 25.2 years old. Get married at age 31.7. Have exactly 1.2 kids. My advice is the opposite: fall passionately in love, get married, and have some kids. Do it while you’re still young, and full of life and potential. And if it kills part of you: so much the better!
Kirk Doran is an Associate Professor of Economics and a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover.