Sunday, September 23, 2007
Birthday Cake with a Side of Deep Thoughts
My daughter turned 10 yesterday. I am aghast and delighted and wistful and excited. She looks every bit her ten years. I mourn and rejoice all at once.
We celebrated at the home of good friends who spend some summer weekends in Truro, on Cape Cod. The kids sang songs from Wicked which blared from a karaoke machine. The grown-ups drank chardonnay and talked about being parents. The women made birthday cake. The girls braved the chilly Atlantic. The boys flew a kite. I read Anil's Ghost; my son was engrossed in Jennifer Morgan's poetic three-volume series for children about The Big Bang and ensuing history of life on earth (quote of the week: "I'm on my first eukaryote."). We had delicious sandwiches at PJ's Seafood in Wellfleet on the way home. All in all a refreshing weekend on the shore.
We spent part of the weekend discussing an article in The New Individualist, an objectivist publication. It decried conventional altruism and extolled Ayn Rand's philosophy of "rational self-interest" as the highest moral standard. It highlighted reason and individualism as two great themes of Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged.
I have a couple of problems with the idolization of reason. I think reason is one of humankind's most important tools, a defining one at that. But I also cry at old movies, love mountain views, enjoy chocolate, and prefer blue to orange. Reason can't define all of my self, nor do I think human cognitive faculties supreme enough for us to be able to claim that the universe is completely knowable through them. I think reason is put to good use as a way to rise above emotional reactivity, violence, and hedonism, as well as to make sense of observation and experience. But I don't think it's the be-all and end-all.
I have mixed feelings about individualism as delineated in the article: a way of being in which one's own happiness is the ultimate ethical end. I do believe we are ultimately responsible for our own happiness. I also believe, however, that we are not always in control; we can only exert that responsibility under conditions of real freedom, and there are many things that can physically, practically, or psychologically abridge that freedom. It's so in-vogue to talk of empowering oneself these days that there's a real danger of failing to recognize or acknowledge that things that take power or control from people are real and valid obstacles. I'm all for not whining about one's sorry plight, not being needy or playing the role of the victim - poor me, poor me, look what society did to me - and I think we should pull ourselves up by the bootstraps when we are down, to the extent that we can. I just think those bootstraps are genuinely defective or out-of-reach for some people, and that some never got boots to begin with.
To say that we are not responsible for others or to others may in a sense have some truth to it, but I don't really buy it. Individuals exist in relationships and communities. I won't accept responsibility for another's emotional responses, but I am responsible for the way I treat him or her. We are responsible for our own happiness, certainly, but I don't agree that we should fail to choose some responsibility for noticing and correcting injustices within relationships and communities. I believe we should strive to be generous, given that life deals people some unequal hands, whereas the objectivist, as I understand from this article, would criticize generosity as silly.
I'm no philosopher. I'm sure the authors of the articles in the publication have bigger brains than I do. But I don't want to have a smaller heart.
My husband and I were watching the PBS miniseries The War and my daughter caught part of it with us, the part about the Philippines. Perhaps knowing her grandparents were survivors of the Japanese occupation magnified its emotional impact, but she grieved for the dead soldiers and civilians as only a child can grieve, completely vulnerable, open-hearted, full of love. "It's not fair!" she wept. "So many people died! Why do people keep doing it?" What's a mother to murmur, except that all we can do is try to be kind and peaceable in our own lives, with one another, try to reject violence, try to choose ways of love and live in the hope that that energy is never wasted? How many mothers over thousands of years have sat stupefied wondering how to console their sweet children over this very thing?
She is at the cusp, my young girl. Old enough to know the painful stories of history, young enough to hug her teddy bear close at bed time. Which she did.