Monday, February 08, 2021

Always Raising One Another

The other day I was walking along the sidewalk, just me and my own thoughts. As I came to the crosswalk, a woman approached at an angle that meant our paths would cross. I slowed my walk slightly and she responded by speeding up a bit so that we wouldn't collide. My actions guided her's and her actions guided mine, and so we passed one another without incident and went on our way.

We are among the species who raise their children. It's mostly a mammal thing, although birds do it as well. Most other animals, like sea turtles, lay their eggs and that's where their responsibilities end. We are at the other end of the parenting spectrum, with our babies remaining dependent upon us for years. Raising our young is so important to our survival that we've evolved females with lifespans that tend to extend for decades beyond menopause (who we call grandparents), a rarity in the animal kingdom, at least in part for the purpose of having extra adults on hand for the project of raising children. 

It's hard to argue that caring for children doesn't stand among the most important projects of every human civilization. But what of this business of raising children. It suggests something beyond merely caring for them. Implied is this idea of teaching, or at least guiding. It contains within it, the ideas of shaping and moulding children, fine concepts in and of themselves, but also, jarringly, also terms most commonly used in reference to lumps of clay. None of us would choose to be treated like lumps of clay, except perhaps on the massage table. And then there are more problematic connotative verbs like manipulating, coercing, indoctrinating, and even, at the extreme, brainwashing. A good parent naturally strives to avoid going this far, but it's such fine line that it's difficult to know where it is. When does guidance become manipulation? When does teaching become indoctrination? 

On top of that, the power imbalance between adult and child, especially in the earliest years, is such that the only natural checks on us are our own judgement and our child's rebellions, which we are often tempted to quell by excerpting, at least a little bit, our power, thus introducing even further imbalance into the relationship, the beginnings of the classic spiral.

Thanks a lot, Teacher Tom, right? Parents are already under enough pressure. The last thing we need is to be told, on top of everything else, that we're all potential, or even actual, dictators and brainwashers. 

None of what I've written above takes away from the fact that when we are involved in raising children we are engaged in the most important, noble, and beautiful expression of what it means to be human. Raising children stands at the core. It is the beating heart of our species. Without it, there would be no purpose, no reasons, no meaning. Parents, and others who spend their time raising children, are the past, present, and future. Without exaggeration: we are the alpha and the omega.

We are not sea turtles and our children are not clay. We are all human beings who go through a long period of dependency, during which we are to learn how to survive and thrive. And the first thing we learn, the most important thing we learn, is that it's impossible without the other people who are there to protect and guide us. My prejudice, one that is shared by many, is that humans are born to be free, but there is no denying that we are also, and at least equally, born to be raised, and in turn, to raise others. We are not solitary creatures capable of living in isolation. No, in that direction lies insanity. Babies roll over and simply die without human touch. Prisoners kept in isolation lose their minds. Our babies don't need to learn this, of course, they are born reaching out with every fiber of their little beings, with their hands and lips and voices, seeking first and foremost the connection that is essential. We guide them with our breasts and arms and kisses, already raising them from the very first moments. This, we teach them, is what it means to be raised and they begin, from the very first seconds of life, to raise us.

And so it goes on throughout life. Aren't we all, always, seeking to raise each other? We are born to be raised and to raise others: it's human destiny. Whenever we find ourselves with others, we reach out like newborns. Of course, we've learned to be cautious because we know about the dark side. We're wary of manipulation, for instance, but every relationship is a search for the fine line. It's not wrong to want to guide others, just as it's not wrong to allow others to guide us. Indeed, this ongoing, lifelong ebb and flow is what makes our species what it is: our innate urge to guide and be guided by others. 

Every parent knows that their children have guided them at least as much as they have guided their children. Good teachers should be able to say the same thing. 

Like everyone else, I reckon, I just want to be me. That's the pure freedom I think I want, to be unrestrained by the rules, prejudices, and manipulations of others; to be, in any given moment, exactly who I am. I even say that's what I want for the children I teach. Ah, but what of the other people? They will always be there and they, because they are human, will continue to raise me, just as I, despite my best efforts to the contrary, will continue to raise them. This is what we do, over and over again. Maybe the words raise or raising sound wrong in this context. We tend to think of our adult relationships as ones amongst peers so to suggest that we are raising them, or that they are raising us, comes off as presumptuous. It places both people in a hierarchy, an unsavory, even destructive practice, yet we don't hesitate to do this with young children, even as we know in our hearts and heads that our relationship with them is likewise a two-way street. This is why I often find myself, before interacting with a child, asking myself the question, "Would I interact with an adult in this way?" If the answer is "No" I must make a serious study of where I'm standing with regard to the fine line.

When two strangers adjust their speed and trajectory in order to accommodate one another, they are, at a most basic level, both guiding and being guided by one another. In a moment, it's the story of our species, one to which I worry we too often lose the plot. But it can always be found right there in the first moments of life, this thing that makes us human: we are all, always, raising one another.


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