Monday, November 25, 2019

The Meaning Of Life

Every human society that has ever existed was built around the biological imperative to care for the children.

"Figuring out why being a parent is worthwhile isn't just a personal or biological question, but a social and political one, too. Caring for children has never, in all of human history, just been the role of the biological mothers and fathers. From the very beginning it's been a central project for any community of human beings. This is still true. Education, for example, is simply caring for children broadly conceived. ~Alison Gopnik

All "higher order" animals must care for their young, but none are born as helpless and for as long as human babies. From a purely evolutionary perspective the species won't survive if the children don't survive so we must care for them. The question for every society is "How?"

As a boy, I was raised during the Cold War, and was subject to a great deal of propaganda around the evils of Soviet Union style communism. One of the things we were told was that Russian mothers had their babies taken from them shortly after birth so that they could get back to work, and that those babies were institutionalized to be raised not by their parents but by "the state." I don't know if this was true or not, but when I look around and see how many American babies are today being primarily raised by paid caregivers in places that could certainly be characterized as institutions, I don't find it unimaginable.

Having been, in my way, a professional caregiver for a good part of my adult life, having known thousands of others, and having spent time in hundreds of these "institutions," I am not necessarily here to criticize how our society is answering the central "How?" other than to point out that if this is the way we're going to do it, we need more and less expensive options. Of course, I have my opinions and I have my ideas for reform, which is what underpins the 3000+ posts in this blog's decade long history. And you have your opinions and ideas. One of the strengths of the way we have chosen to answer "How?" is that "the state" has, for the most part, left that to be answered by individuals. One of the weaknesses of our answer to "How?" is that our economy is organized in such a way that it all too often leaves individuals, especially lower income individuals, with little choice.

I think it's safe to say that there are very few parents who are entirely happy with the way we are answering "How?" either societally or individually. Yes, I know some parents who are joyfully homeschooling, for instance, unconcerned about the economic or career consequences. I know other loving parents who are thrilled with their child's paid caregivers, institutional or otherwise, confident that their child is being sufficiently nurtured in their absence. And I imagine there are some who simply accept things the way they are, like, we were told, those Russian mothers, who were resigned to reality. But most of us are torn. Most of us know that there must be a better way to answer the question of "How?"

I don't think that there is any doubt that caring for children is the central project of humanity, yet when I look around it's clear that we, as a society, treat it as almost an afterthought. Our political parties do not seek to build society around this central project. Our economic entities do not. When people ask what we do, only the lowly paid caregivers speak of caring for the children. And while there are plenty of stay-at-home parents who proudly assert our role, we all know that the "good for you" lip-service that people give us in response is a slightly embarrassed admission of our low status.

I wonder what would happen if we could somehow find the courage to step back and acknowledge that caring for children is the central project of every community. We complain that we're disconnected. Mental illness is at near-plague levels. We crave something more meaningful, deeper, better, and we know we won't find it in more stuff, inebriation, or working harder, even as we continue to search for it there. We're showing the symptoms of a society that has forgotten why we are here: we are here to care for children. The rest is in support of that.

And at the core of caring for children is love. We are reminded of this each time a child cries when they are left:

"But it isn't absence that causes sorrow. It is affection and love. Without affection, without love, such absences would cause us no pain. For this reason, even the pain caused by absence is, in the end, something good and even beautiful, because it feeds on that which gives meaning to life." ~Carlo Rovelli

Caring for children is the central project of humankind. And at the center of that is love, which is the meaning of life.

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