Who We are to Each Other : The Risks of Loving an Ungovernable Other
In the spring of 2016 I was in my second semester of my current round of graduate school. Two days every week I would commute for work from my home in Ukrainian Village in Chicago down to Chicago Heights where I worked in fundraising at my high school alma mater, and then all the way back up north to Rogers Park for three hours of class.
At the end of those long days, I loved walking across the dark and largely empty campus to my car and driving home down a sparsely populated Lake Shore Drive. I find so much peace in deserted spaces that are often otherwise crowded. There is so much magic in the off-season resort town and the after-hours school building. But even despite the sustaining power of that magic, I was quite tired by 9:30pm when my classes would end and I would begin the journey home. Often, I felt so emptied by the experience of the day that I would drive in silence. When I was feeling more ambitious, I would turn on the radio. On one of those more energetic drives that April of 2016, I heard an interview with David Whyte, on an episode of On Being, where he said something that shook me. It was an almost off-hand comment he was making about parenthood and the ways in which our hearts are guaranteed to be broken:
“This is another delusion we have, that we can take a sincere path in life without having our heart broken. You think about the path of parenting; there’s never been a mother or father since the beginning of time who hasn’t had their heart broken by their children. Nothing dramatic has to happen. All they have to do is grow up.”
I wasn’t a parent then, but I am a parent now, and I often think about those words. I feel the weight of them.
Along these lines, and knowing full well that this will not hit you with the same weight that it hits me, I want to explain to you how my two year old son says the word “baby” and also some context for why he’s been saying it a lot lately.
My wife recently gave birth to a baby girl, and she is wonderful in the way that all babies are wonderful and tiring in the way that all new human beings are tiring. A lot happened in the year leading up to her arrival including a miscarriage and the loss of her twin sister earlier in this pregnancy, so we were on pins and needles in the way that all parents are on pins and needles until we actually go the chance to see her and hold her and hear her tiny but insistent cries.
As any parent who has thought through the logistics of bringing home a new baby to a household that currently includes a toddler can attest, there is a lot of advice floating around out there about how to make sure that your toddler transitions well into having a younger, more attention-demanding sibling join the household. This advice largely focuses on telling your kid, a lot, that a new baby is coming and framing it as something that they should be excited about. So we did this with our son. A lot. We talked about the new baby all the time. We watched all the Daniel Tiger episodes about the Tiger Family setting up for and bringing home Baby Margaret. And we talked about it. And we talked about it.
One other thing that we heard in a variety of places is that you as the parents should be in the room with the toddler and then have someone else bring the baby in to meet their sibling for the first time. This is ostensibly to prevent the new toddler from feeling like they have been replaced in the family, and instead more closely mimics the actual dynamic that’s in play, with the new child joining a family in progress. The baby is incapable of feeling any type of way about this, so as a parent you take advantage of the fact that in this instance, and for a least another month or two, you don’t need to worry too much about two sets of feelings that you can only partially comprehend.
So this is what we attempted.
We got home from the hospital and put the baby in her bassinet upstairs. J and I were going to greet our son as he came back from a walk with J’s mom, and then we would talk with him while she went upstairs and got the baby. That was the plan, at least. He was having none of it. As soon as he came in the door, he didn’t even say anything to J and me other than “Baby, baby, baby, baby” and immediately started looking around the house for her. And now it’s time. Imagine that this child of two comes running into the house, and starts saying “baby” but he’s not actually saying “baby,” instead he’s saying “bee bee” in a kind of oddly guttural tone that sounds like it starts somewhere south of the back of his throat and doesn’t seem to mimic any sound that we’ve heard him make at any other point in his life. He also drags out the second syllable, so it comes out sounding something like “bee beeeee” but also at least a half octave lower than the rest of all the other words that he says. And then imagine that he is the most excited he has ever been in his whole short life and he’s running around saying this, looking furiously for his new baby sister. He was so excited that I ended up going upstairs and getting the bassinet and bringing it down, and his first impulse was to grab one of his many prized toy cars and bring it to her in her bassinet and place it at her feet, all while saying “bee beeeee, bee beeeeee.”
It was incredible. I loved it so much and I was so proud of the generosity and love already blossoming in the heart and the mind of this tiny human being.
My heart broke a few weeks later, when I was driving him home after picking him up from a day with my folks. I always talk to him on these drives home, even if he doesn’t have the words to answer me yet. That day he did.
I asked him who we were going to see when we got home, and without pausing he said, “Baby.” Not “Bee beeeeee.” My wife had noticed that his pronunciation was changing and mentioned to me that we needed to get it on video, but it was about more than him losing the adorable pronunciation that just absolutely knocked me out. It hit me on that drive that the version of my son that had run through the house, looking for the perfect car to give to his new baby sister, excitedly shouting “bee beeeeee, bee beeeee” was, to some extent, gone already. We change so quickly. Looking in my rear view mirror was an incrementally new human being, one that I loved just as much, and in fact, that I loved even more. But my heart, at least a piece of it, broke anyway.
How many tiny quirks of this small and beautiful human being that bring me so much joy every day will pass away without me even realizing it? Will their passage be less meaningful without me having the capacity to notice and note it? At what point will the accretion of these tiny shifts enough that I’ll look at this dark-eyed and dimpled Ship of Theseus and realize that the little boy I knew has been replaced by someone that I love more fiercely than ever but that I may struggle more than ever to fully understand? Why do we ever think we handle the weight of this terrible risk?
Nothing dramatic has to happen. All they have to do is grow up.
I think a lot about Whyte’s words in my own inverse context as well, not in my still relatively new skin as a parent but in my much worn well-worn identity as a son. I think of my parents and how many times I must have broken off pieces of their hearts. I think of the funny habits I never knew I had that I sloughed off, maybe the way I used to read science fiction books and tell them about them in more detail than they could possibly have wanted. Did they miss this? And did they realize as I did this for the last time that it was over for good?
I think about the way I used to be much more of an optimistic soul, how I would share that optimism with them, and how that fell away and gave way to my quieter, much more rough hewn (and in retrospect, intermittently depressed) high school and college years. Did they miss the boy that I was even as they might love the man that I’ve become? How many beloved iterations of their son slipped away from them over those years, and did they mourn his leaving in ways even they might not have realized?
I think this is the point in the discussion where it makes the most sense to state something that from moment to moment feels somehow both obvious and obscure- we are not to blame for these particular types of breakages in the hearts of those that we love. I’m not speaking here of sins committed that require atonement- those are something else entirely. Instead, in some sense these small, inevitable breakages are the cost for the greater love that can then emerge and they are completely unavoidable in the context of any relationship.
But the idea of cost is also inadequate- these small breakages of the heart are not something that is paid, and in that sense given away. The cost is not something that can be erased by the payment, no. Instead I think we carry some marks of these wounds for all of our time. The tiny griefs that come from losing pieces of those we love to the inevitable processes of human growth will stand alongside forever the deep appreciation of the people who can emerge on the other side of the swirling chaos of the human experience. But we should also note here that it is chaotic, and there is always the chance that the person that emerges on the other side, even if they are growing exactly as they should, might push themselves forward in ways that strain the ties that bind.
It is always a risk, such a tremendous and terrifying risk, to love an ungovernable other.
Nothing dramatic has to happen. All they have to do is grow up.
As I sit here and write this amidst news of a potential new wave of a global pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we owe to each other, what our freedoms really mean if they come at the expense of the well being of someone else. For almost two years now, it’s felt like the most pressing question. It also was the most pressing question, before the pandemic, even as those with the microphone in our shared civic spaces failed to ask it. It will remain the most pressing question going forward long after the coronavirus has receded to the background, it’s destructive power reduced to the same quiet hum as the modern forces that chew at the margins of our lives rather than ravaging the center. But this question has also been frustrating for me, because what feels very obvious to me is apparently not obvious to many others. So the wheels grind onward.
I think a related central question has been on my mind these last few weeks, since my son uttered those two perfectly formed syllables in the backseat of our car and since the little boy he had been suddenly, subtly, transformed. I’ve been thinking a little bit less about what we owe to each other and a little bit more about who we are to each other, the weight we carry in the lives of others even without doing anything at all except growing up. I’ve been thinking about the terrible risks that we take on each other, about the pains we unintentionally inflict through our inherent ungovernability, through our journeys into and out of the chaos at the heart of our shared experience. I’ve been thinking about how while I may not be to blame, necessarily, for those tiny heartbreaks that I bring into the lives of those I love, I am still responsible for them, and that I might move more gently and love more ably if I am cognizant of that responsibility.
I’ve written before about how I see the entropic realities of the universe manifesting themselves in the flawed selves and in the broken systems that shape our lives every day. I’ve considered how we’re called to grow in resistance to those entropic forces, and that while we may not be culpable for the systemic injustices of our world, we are responsible for working to fix them. I think it’s been sinking in for me that this growth, this resistance, is not without its costs. In the same way, we may not be culpable for the pains our movements through the chaos inflict on those who we love, but we are, in the end, responsible for them.
This is certainly not any kind of advocacy for the avoidance of growth as a human being- this is, ultimately of course, not even an option. As time’s arrow moves inexorably forward you will grow into your future self regardless of your efforts otherwise, and the choice to try and avoid growth will instead merely shape who you become just as surely as any other decisions. No, instead I’m thinking about how an awareness of who we are to others might allow us to move more gently through the world, might help us understand more, might ultimately make us better. Who might we choose to be if we knew that that the person we choose to be gives us a gravitational pull that can alter the orbits of all those we encounter?
Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the CEO of Homeboy Industries, was one of the speakers at my commencement ceremony when I finished business school. He was great, as he tends to be, and he repeated one of the many themes that populate his work, which is that “only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has any chance of changing it.” That phrase has been echoing for me as I’ve turned over this question of who are to each other, and I think I missed something the first several hundred times I thought it through. I used to read “with tenderness” to mean that we must use tenderness as a tool with which to ventilate the world. This may very well be true (and may be what Boyle meant) but it’s been hitting me differently lately. Instead now, I’ve been reading it in the sense that we will ventilate the world no matter what.
We will, through our very existence, poke holes in the lives of those we encounter and particularly in the lives and hearts of those we love the most. Thus, we are called to undertake this ventilation with great tenderness. If we move more carefully through the world, if we are more cognizant of who we are to others and the ways in which our very act of being affects them, then this ventilation can be a process through which greater love can emerge. This greater love can change the world. In fact might in fact be the only thing that can, and nothing dramatic even has to happen for us to take advantage of this ability to make the world better. We just have to grow up.