Friday, October 21, 2011

Living here, now (Sunday Reflections for October 23, 2011)

Emily Rapp is a creative writing professor in Santa Fe, NM. She uses all her talents in a brief, heart-wrenching, yet profoundly wise essay that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times. Rapp is a relatively new mother but as she writes, at least this time, her experience will be far from what our culture sees as the parenting norm. She describes that norm this way:
All parents want their children to prosper, to matter. We enroll our children in music class or take them to Mommy and Me swim class because we hope they will manifest some fabulous talent that will set them — and therefore us, the proud parents — apart. Traditional parenting naturally presumes a future where the child outlives the parent and ideally becomes successful, perhaps even achieves something spectacular. Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is only the latest handbook for parents hoping to guide their children along this path. It’s animated by the idea that good, careful investments in your children will pay off in the form of happy endings, rich futures. But I have abandoned the future. . . .
Abandoned, in the case of her 18-month old son Ronan, because there won’t be a future. Ronan, despite multiple prenatal tests, was born with Tay-Sachs, a fatal genetic disorder for which there is no cure. While still relatively healthy, he is unlikely to see his third birthday. Emily Rapp, it would seem, is living a parent’s worst nightmare.
And yet, while difficult and incredibly sad, Rapp is enduring and fully living this experience by throwing out all her previous expectations. She is redefining parenting, and in doing so exposing how distorted many of our attitudes have become—not only about parenting but life in general. She has realized the pointlessness of focusing her life where all the advice has told her she should focus it: on the future.
Parenting advice is, by its nature, future-directed. I know. I read all the parenting magazines. During my pregnancy, I devoured every parenting guide I could find. My husband and I thought about a lot of questions they raised: will breast-feeding enhance his brain function? Will music class improve his cognitive skills? Will the right preschool help him get into the right college? I made lists. I planned and plotted and hoped. Future, future, future. We never thought about how we might parent a child for whom there is no future. . . .
Our parenting plans, our lists, the advice I read before Ronan’s birth make little sense now.  No matter what we do for Ronan — choose organic or non-organic food; cloth diapers or disposable; attachment parenting or sleep training — he will die. All the decisions that once mattered so much, don’t.
Rather than a tiger parent, with her eyes focused down the road, thinking about what’s over the horizon, her attention is on the only thing that matters: this day, this moment. She has instead joined the ranks of an elite group, the dragon parents.
We are . . . fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice. . . . The certainties that most parents face are irrelevant to us, and frankly, kind of silly. . . . And there’s this: parents who, particularly in this country, are expected to be superhuman, to raise children who outpace all their peers, don’t want to see what we see. The long truth about their children, about themselves: that none of it is forever.
I would walk through a tunnel of fire . . . if it would make a difference. But it won’t. I can roar all I want about the unfairness of this ridiculous disease, but the facts remain. What I can do is protect my son from as much pain as possible, and then finally do the hardest thing of all, a thing most parents will thankfully never have to do: I will love him to the end of his life, and then I will let him go. . . . This is a love story, and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss. Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today. Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.
It is a teaching found in all the world’s great religions. The Buddha said one of the most difficult life skills is to simply be present, to actually live in the here and now. Jesus says much the same in the Sermon on the Mount: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.” Or as the Psalmist says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong in planning, in anticipating and preparing for the future. Yet it is easy for the future to become an obsession, especially as it feeds the illusion that we can control our lives. For this is the truth the Buddha and Jesus were trying to teach, and the reality exposed by a story like that of Emily Rapp: life is ultimately contingent and beyond our control, including and especially the fact that our lives will sooner or later come to an end.
So as we plot and plan and scheme, as we make our lists and agendas, as we dash from one essential activity or event to another, it may be helpful to think of other lives, like that of Emily Rapp. The future is important, and dreaming about it and planning for it can be valuable and even fun. Yet as it says in Ecclesiastes, none of us can count our days. And the most valuable of them all is the only one we know for sure that we will have: today.

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