I experienced one of the happiest moments of my life when I held my oldest child for the first time. The tears of joy and the dizzy raptures of that hour keenly remind me of a surrender I made that day. Like my wedding day, my identity and my vocation as a Christian man became linked to another. Seven years of parenting (four!) children has shaped in me an introspective sensitivity to an existential pressure point of the soul- a pressure point shared by many in our culture today.
The Ethics of Autonomy and Self Determinacy
Popular culture is awash with a wave generating from the twentieth-century sexual revolution and existentialist movements. A supreme value of this cultural milieu lies in the need for the individual to overcome any obstacles to authenticity. At all costs, I must be true to who I really am. We’re familiar with examples of communities that have taken up the Disneyesque challenge of pushing all peoples to self-determinacy and actualization. The recent cultural constructs of same sex marriage and transgenderism stand out as recent success stories.
More socially conservative communities are not immune to the existential quest to be true to oneself against all social constraints. In online college courses, I’ve interacted with a number of disillusioned ‘labor workers’ and retail clerks and accountants and stay at home moms- all who have left houses and lands to discover their true identities as counselors, physical therapists, and teachers.
Where are our Children?
I alluded earlier to a pressure point that parenting has brought to my awareness. Marriage and parenting have profoundly shaped my responses to my inner existentialist self. When faced with disillusionment about my life choices in this cultural narrative of self-determinacy, I need to be reminded that I simply do not have the authority to recreate myself. In many respects, core components of my identity are received, not created. My children serve as a steady reminder that I am not my own.
Perhaps this is one reason why children are valued so little today. Our culture’s story of complete autonomy will only work at the expense of others. We cannot all live as though we are the most important realities in our universe. Children will cramp your style. We cannot live our lives chasing, with abandon, our wildest ambitions while committing equally to being faithful spouses and parents. The family is an institution we submit to, not to lose our identity in a morass of diapers and grocery bills, but to help us find ourselves, truly.
The Culprit and the Remedy
The Romantics probably would have disagreed, but I think our culture’s assimilation of existentially minded Romanticism has pushed children to the margins of our cultural anthropology. Here’s my question for the middle-aged man looking to recreate himself in the merciless forge of the commercially driven university: how will your children actualize their dreams for what the good life looks like, when the best portions of your life are spent on you? Gone is the Pauline sentiment that the parents ought to store up for their children and not the children for the parents.
But the Romantics didn’t leave us without aid. What if we could find joy, meaning, and peace by pursuing the happiness and completion of those who have been entrusted to us? Wordsworth mused on the blessed pleasures that stem from a mature and sober realization that we can find life more beautiful and satisfying by experiencing it through the happiness of those we love. We can test this daily by searching to find our joy in the happiness of the beloved. The idea has some antiquity behind it. In all honesty, the children make it easy for us. No humans on earth are as willing to trust and as quick to forgive.