Guest post by reading parent Timothy Browning:
My children are the closest things to God or Gods that I have in my life right now. They are mysterious, omnipresent, and jealous against all other gods. They demand strange and repetitive rituals for appeasement. At times they seem devastatingly indifferent to suffering. And they might just be the salvation of my soul.
In recent years, I have lost most of what I would call my faith in God. But even as I have lost faith in God, I have gained faith in my children. This is not to say that I don’t spend most of my time thinking about the mundane considerations of how I will get my children to eat, how I will get them to sleep and how I will get them to just be quiet for 10 minutes while I get something done. But in contemplation of where my children fit in my soul, I am undeniably assured that they do have a place, and thus, I must have a soul. Whatever the source, I am willing to accept these feelings as clear evidence of meaning or divinity in the human experience and to be grateful for whatever it is that has created them.
As I have, in the past, consistently turned to books to help me understand my relationship with God, so have I turned to books to help me understand my relationship with my children.
I have to say, though, that I find myself constantly disappointed by parenting books. Full of strategies, tips and superficial philosophies, they barely scratch the surface of what it actually means to be a parent. I find them almost universally to be lacking in scope and empty of inspiration.
Taking a part of yourself, combining it with another, and then caring for, raising and loving the product, independent yet fully derived, or adopting or fostering a child and treating it and loving it as if the child were your own, until it truly becomes your own, brings with it complexities and depth that are perhaps forever outside of the capabilities of our language to describe fully.
When I think about books, then, that have deeply affected my parenting, I do think of some “parenting” books that have offered helpful advice, useful experience or guiding philosophies. But I have found that my richest source of wisdom on parenting has not come from books about our relationship with children, but our relationship with God. There are any number of books that have affected me consciously or unconsciously in how I parent and in how I think of my children. Three, however, stand out.
Les Miserables has a very clear narrative of what it means both to be a biological parent as well as an adoptive parent as Fantine and Jean Valjean both work to try to make Cosette’s life happy and safe in a world that is continually conspiring to make everyone miserable. Instead of placing the burden on the balance of good and evil, Valjean’s mercy is constantly opposed to Javert’s justice, and, spoiler alert, mercy triumphs, but justice does plenty of damage along the way.
Parenting is such a balance of justice and mercy, in my mind. I have yet to experience a time where my flaws in character and judgment are so often justly exposed as in parenting. I am generally a patient person, but what impatience I have is broadly on display every day as a parent. I am petty, selfish and cold more with my children than anyone else in the world. But just as kids have an ability to constantly expose your faults, bringing harsh justice into the world of parenting, they also often bring grace. Because they are both deeply connected, but also deeply independent, it is possible for even the smallest of children to spontaneously bring moments of beauty and grace into an otherwise bleak day.
However, what Les Miserables explores most profoundly is that dark space occupied neither by justice nor mercy, where terrible things happen just to happen, with no explanation. Sometimes it is clear how bad parenting develops bad behavior in kids, but sometimes even the best parenting cannot put children on a path of happiness or fulfillment and devastation can result. Fate, maybe, is the name for this, and Les Miserables is full of examples of how to fight when you can and accept when you cannot, and it is this message of parenting that stays with me the strongest.
Nature and other essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson has also been key to me for many years now, as I look for spirituality outside of a specifically doctrinally proscribed context. Finding beauty in experiencing the mystery natural world is one of Emerson’s key themes. Although he, too, rarely uses his writing to specifically examine the child/parent relationship, his writing is clear that we need not fully understand something in order to appreciate it, but that the beauty is in the attempt to understand and find our place.
Emerson is clear that we have to constantly struggle against society’s influence, whether deliberate or not, that will pull us away from getting at the wholeness of nature. Staying present as a parent is extremely difficult to me. It can be incredibly difficult to try to constantly adjust my behavior and focus to calibrate with that of a 4 or 2 year old, but if I do it with good intention, I am never disappointed at the result. Just as we try to box in nature, we try to box in our children, putting them into labeled patterns of behavior and personality. But if we truly observe and appreciate, a different child confronts us each time we give them space in our consciousness to be who they are. Being solitary with parenting, as Emerson admonishes us to be solitary with nature, not bringing any outside voices with us, can be incredibly difficult and isolating, but deeply gratifying.
The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is perhaps the most challenging book I have ever read, both in its complexity as well as its themes, so it is appropriate, I think, that the challenge of parenting is so clearly reflected back to me in its pages. This book, out of the three in this post, is most direct in its confrontation with God. It is also a direct commentary on family, putting us right in the middle of a terrible family situation. This book is among the three, the most concerned with what it really means to be a family and to be responsible for each other.
Short story: everything is a mess. The family life is a mess, the convent where the most innocent of the brothers wants to go is a mess, the society around the family is a mess. How can God possibly be responsible for allowing such a mess to be? How can he possibly work out salvation for anyone, let alone everyone, in such a messed up world?
While hopefully I am a better parent than Papa Fyodor and my children are never suspected of murdering me, I can’t but feel sympathy for and resonance with every member of the family, as if Dostoevsky meant it to be. As we come to care for each of the characters, we mourn with them. In this life, where so many things can be stacked against us, especially our own natures, how can we have any hope of real happiness or true divinity, even touching our lives for the briefest of moments?
One of the key points of this book, epitomized by Alyosha (perhaps my favorite character in all of literature), is that loving people is not enough to save them. Nor can we count on the love of others to save us. I said, at the start of this post, that I have gained faith in my children as I have lost faith in God, and that I now wonder if my children might, in the end, be my ultimate source of salvation. Of course, a deistic faith in someone is much too big of a burden to place on a child, or any other human for that matter. I don’t expect them to give unending joy to my life by their presence and attention. Then again, it’s not, really, that I think my children, themselves, will save me.
If I am to be saved by anything, my life given ultimate meaning, my soul ultimate redemption, it will be by the love that I have for my family, especially my children, flesh of my flesh. Is pegging my life’s meaning on how truly I can love my children asking too much of a relationship? Setting us up for failure? Risking ultimate damnation? Possibly. But if our love for our children cannot handle the responsibility of granting our life meaning and salvation, what can? If I fail at life by putting too much into my relationship with those closest to me, than I am willing to fail. If I succeed, I expect that success to cover over any other failure that my life might accumulate and grant my soul peace.
I love and respect those that choose not, or are not able, to have children. I recognize that their lives have equal meaning and worth to my own. But the reality of life that confronts me is that I must gather my meaning, my salvation, where it lies, just as everyone must, and, for me it lies with my family, and though sometimes I might definitely wish it, this truth cannot be shifted.
Read more by Tim here.