“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. (1) Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.” These were the words uttered by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (2) when he later reflected on the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico, executed on July 16th, 1945.
Entering into fatherhood is like becoming the leader of any organization, big or small: it exposes the individual to a surfeit of problems and complications. You are immediately thrust into a world that you undoubtedly have no experience with and, even the most scholastically knowledgeable and well read, will have to question how they got here. In my personal experience, you are quickly deposited into a world of stress and chaos. All your romantic views of cute little babies evaporate into a wailing and squalling mess of emotional upheaval. The cuddly is replaced with stench and physical work. If you are a “modern father,” as most are, you soon find yourself in the “thick of it”: you join in the cleaning (oh, the endless cleaning) and the feeding – this occurs at bizarrely odd hours of the night. Your sluggishness the next day in the office is not believed, and even if accepted as having some veracity, is not understood. “Why would you place yourself in that set of circumstances?” is whispered by your nemesis. We are thus faced with a question of leadership. How am I going to lead my little unit to success and fulfillment? In my case, my lack of awareness in child rearing forced me to fall back on what I knew. I was an advertising salesman: a good one. So, I knew people and how they responded to positive and negative stimuli. I therefore decided that I would treat my children as if they were little adults, as opposed to children. We were fortunate to have a large home with many beautiful things. Many members of our intimate circle, family and friends, advised us to put everything away. I decided that we would not do this: it was the right choice, though some collected bric-a-brac were broken, most survived to this day. One of the greatest things that my children taught me was that “I understood nothing – truly.” Now I thought that I was aware, but was soon absolved of this belief. I did not easily accept my ignorance and fought to retain my psychological presence. When I finally let go, I began to learn and experience. Then I came to the seminal question of my life: “What is love?” Lao Tzu (2) responds: “Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart and the senses.”
We are social creatures and greatly enjoy the company of each other. The greatest difficulty placed before all conscious beings, however, is that our true knowledge is limited to the perception of self: my five senses are but my own. Descartes’ (1) famous quote, “I think therefore I am,” seems oddly old fashioned in our “age of everything.” We tell ourselves that others respond in similar ways to my actions. They all have cell phones, they all are on social media, they all have Facebook accounts. Other individuals must therefore be like me, but ultimately they are not, they are unique. The fact of true individuality is not initially understood and many long-term relationships are based on the ill-though-out belief that we are all identically the same. “We are soul mates,” is a popular refrain. Sadly, a majority of marriages, for example, end in divorce. “In the United States, researchers estimate that 40%–50% of all first marriages, and 60% of second marriages, will end in divorce. There are some well known factors that put people at higher risk for divorce: marrying at a very early age, less education and income, living together before marriage, a premarital pregnancy, no religious affiliation, coming from a divorced family, and feelings of insecurity. The most common reasons people give for their divorce are lack of commitment, too much arguing, infidelity, marrying too young, unrealistic expectations, lack of equality in the relationship, lack of preparation for marriage, and abuse.” (2) We certainly see a litany of excuses. The real reason, of course, is that we are alone in our specialness. How then do I bridge this isolation into something broader and more inclusive? How do I have actual contact with a real living being? Undoubtedly, the beginning of any true perception of the world, and the people in it, commences with the question, “What do I know for sure?” The answer would have to be, “I know that this piece of life is alive!” Then I can extrapolate going forward that if you react similarly, you are also alive: I can make a “leap of faith” that your similarity must somehow “mirror” my similarity. In this quote, paraphrased from Soren Kierkegaard, (3) we could easily supplant God with Gaia or the cosmos: “Completely alone, cut off from his fellow-men, the individual realizes his own nothingness as the preliminary condition for embracing the truth of God. Only when man becomes aware of his own non-entity — an experience that is purely subjective and incommunicable — does he recover his real self and stand in the presence of God. This is the mystique which has been rediscovered by nineteenth-century man, the leap from outwardness to inwardness, from rationalism to subjectivity, the revelation that is ineffable, of the reality of the Absolute.” I believe, regardless of a person’s religious affiliation (or not), that there is something larger than my presence alone in the universe, be it as simple as history unfolding. The secret to real human relationships therefore lies in modesty and patience. If I believe that you have something of value to say and I have the forbearance to hear it, we are on a good footing to begin our relationship. I am, as the Romans were apt to say “first among equals”: meaning in this context that I will always know myself the best but that does not negate or diminish your feelings or sensitivities. I totally respect and admire other beings.
I am old enough to remember a time that communication was on foot. It was virtually impossible to phone a girl, so you had to go to her house, knock on the back door (the front being too audacious) and inquire if she was at home. No one can ever forget the prying eyes of the grandmother seated beside the stove in the kitchen. Being a bit bookish, my imagination easily pulled me back to 19th century Britain and the physically-gnawing coal fields of Eastwood Nottinghamshire, the birthplace of D.H. Lawrence. (1885-1930) His reality was shaped by the horrific and mind-numbing work in the collieries, the coal mines: “In my father’s generation, with the old wild England behind them, and the lack of education, the man was not beaten down. But in my generation, the boys I went to school with, colliers now, have all been beaten down, what with the din-din-dinning of Board Schools, books, cinemas, clergymen, the whole national and human consciousness hammering on the fact of material prosperity above all things. … The industrial problem arises from the base of forcing all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition.” (1) This could be our contemporary age. We simply have to replace “collier” with wage slave. This then poses the great question: “How does the individual escape from this ennui when he knows everything thanks to social media and the Internet?” Fortunately you are released by simply stating “I do not know.” Now this could be as simple as not knowing where you will be tomorrow, to the more existential questions of life, “Why am I here and what is my purpose?” Then comes that visceral urge for adventure. This entails leaving the confines of safety and embarking on a mission of discovery, in short, your personal adventure — the goal being the discovery of you: that beautiful and unique “you.”
This week, I overheard a conversation between two people: “Don’t worry about what the other person thinks of you, be concerned about how you think of yourself.” This is easier said than done. Many of us suffer from a crisis of identity. I am quite sure that this angst has always been a part of the psychological makeup of the Western human being; at least since Greco-Roman civilization began. “One of the earliest indications of interest in the problem of personal identity occurs in a scene from a play written in the fifth century BC by the comic playwright Epicharmus. (1) In this scene, a lender asks a debtor to pay what he owes. The debtor replies by asking the lender whether anything that undergoes change, such as a pile of pebbles to which one pebble has been added or removed, becomes a different thing. The lender says that he agrees with that statement. ‘Well then,’ says the debtor, ‘aren’t people constantly undergoing changes?’ ‘Yes,’ replies the lender. ‘So,’ says the debtor, ‘it follows that I’m not the same person as the one who was indebted to you and, so, I owe you nothing.’” This argument does not work in a court of law.