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.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you on this one. I represent abused and neglected children in foster care. Unless they are one of the lucky ones who land with a loving family and do not get ripped out of it for some arbitrary reason by poorly trained and supervised 20-somethings straight out of college with a gazillion cases to manage, they are often deprived of the very capacity to learn, love, and pursue their own hapiness. What of these littlest among us? What we do for them is a measure of our humanity.

rlbates said...

You've been tagged.

Anonymous said...

You've been writing some smart stuff lately.. perhaps if one substitutes the word 'satisfaction' for happiness we come up with something more bearable... how many lives are lived in abject misery because pure 'happiness' has persistently eluded the grasp... and as to all that shocking 'you can do it stuff'.. how judgemental in a society where for example full employment is both a chimera and economically undesirable, and where the top of the peak is by neccessity a small peak.. leaving those don't 'make it' with an inconsolably inadequate feeling .. when measured with the materialist yardstick at any rate?

T. said...

Geoffrey! Nice to hear from you.

I am in total agreement about that nasty materialist yardstick. A lot of my reflections, I realize upon rereading them, show a preoccupation with the "measurement" of human worth, and I reject that awful stick as an appropriate means!

My mind craves simplicity, so I use simple "measures": Does a person proceed from a place of love or some other power-source? Is a person genuine, and not absorbed in the dross society calls attention-worthy? And perhaps, more basic than any other question, how does a person make others feel?

This may seem to contradict what I wrote earlier, that we can't be responsible for the way others choose to respond emotionally, which I still think is true, BUT we do have some power over how we come across, and in that sense can have an impact on how others feel.

I get along with most people, but there are a few in whose presence I have no wish to remain, and these are the type who tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room with their own arrogance, disdain, self-absorption, antagonism, or judgmental attitudes. Perhaps the irony is that I myself am being judgmental with the "yardsticks" I've described here...

My bottom line on "worth" and "success" has to do with personal peace and freedom. I think the happiest, most successful, and perhaps most spiritually enlightened among us, whether they have a mansion in Aspen or a cave in some desert, are people who truly love who they are, and also see that lovability in others, and are thus at peace with themselves.

Sorry for the ramble! Your words got me thinking...!

Anonymous said...

Oh, how narrow the perspectives of our little over-educated minds! The article you mention, though interesting, shows the sickening mindset of so many with too many degrees and not enough experience in life.

Newsflash to those folks: academia is not where life happens -- it's a wonderful experiment that allows great thinkers to grow in the agar of other great minds. However great the diversity seems inside that bubble, I promise that there's a huge swath of society you never see.

One need only meet a child born without a frontal cortex; a survivor of shaken baby syndrome; a grown-up "crack baby"; an adult who can only move a single muscle by means of communication to know that reason is not the end-all and be-all. Reason is NOT soul! In the end, happiness (even satisfaction) comes from peace in the soul, not peace of mind. Peace in the soul, even for those with no capacity to reason, comes through interconnectedness with others.

If a newborn only receives the care that reason gives, not the love that comes from someplace deeper, s/he will fail to grow, either physically or emotionally.

God bless yours and all the children who haven't developed the skill for "reason" -- it's their souls that allow them to weep for atrocities and vow to make things better. Let's pray that some of them hold on to that raw emotionality when reason comes knocking!

Love your blog, babe--

T. said...

Speduactor lvc, thank you so much for stopping by with such important reminders. Even those academics know, or have at least read, that a newborn who is touched only by reason and not by love - or who is not touched at all - will not thrive, and may in fact LOSE his or her humanity: the combined capacity for reason AND love in the future.

I wholeheartedly agree with your points. I can't tell you the number of times I've paused at the bedside of a developmentally challenged child or adult and wondered, even whispered, about whether individuals such as these might be the most "worthy" people among us, the most open to connection. And I love what you wrote about peace in the soul coming from interconnectedness, regardless of the capacity to reason - amen to that!

Thanks again for the words of wisdom and support.

T. said...

Forgot to say, LOVE the line about growing in other people's agar! That's QUOTABLE!

Anonymous said...

Agar? That sent this poor little auto-didact howling to his dictionary...

T. said...


You're not alone - the eukaryote quote sent the kid's dad down exactly the same quest.

But I bet NO ONE has to go howling to the dictionary/internet more than I when people start talking shop about NORMAL things, like cars ,and finances, and sports, and just all kinds of stuff everybody knows about - that is, everyone but me! :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, shop' or 'in-jokes'... I can drive you crazy with music and recording talk if you want...

one serious addendum: one would hope that 'satisfaction' as discussed above would include a fair degree recondite moral awareness of one's community and one's place in it, and some ability to surrender to the well, less satisfatory..

and re 'over-educated little minds' one is reminded of Gurdjieff's difference between 'knowledge' and 'being' -- blah blah, I need to get some work done -- more later.........

K. said...

My gosh, T., you are amazing. Really loved this post and I totally agree with you--we are not all dealt an equal hand. Couldn't we be able to pursue our own happiness AND be open hearted and look out for others?

I hope so! That's the kind of world I want to live in...