what is selfishness?
Monday, July 24 2006
Gretchen's brother B and sister-in-law J as well as their two and a half year old son M arrived from Pennsylvania for the start of a multi-day visit this afternoon. They hadn't been here very long before we drove down to the secret spot, somehow cramming five humans and two dogs into B's froggy-green Subaru. It was the usual Secret Spot experience, though this time with a baby (the presence of which is officially banned according to the property's owner, but no one remembered that except me and I kept quiet). I spent most of my time there building a subterranean island of sand and fine gravel, which M delighted in destroying as quickly as I could build it. But this only increased the size of its base, making it into a solid foundation to stand on later when I wanted to do an impersonation of Christ walking on water.
According to Gretchen, M is going through a normal "terrible twos" phase of life, and not much can be done about it. He's a smart kid and very talkative, even if his vocalizations are still a somewhat garbled. But he's also contrary and obstinate, deliberately doing precisely what he's told not to do and then raising an occasional ear-piercing fuss at the slightest disappointment. It's a phase of life that helps explain the origin of spankings, a reflex of parental impatience that doesn't pause to consider the unhealthy sexual fetishes they might be instilling. B & J are nothing but patient, something that seems all the more suprising given how many weeks and months of this they've been doing this for. Furthermore, J has another non-snowflake child in the oven. Incomprehensible as it is to me, she actually enjoys child having and rearing.
One theory that occurred to me about the "terrible twos" is that it might be a way for a child to seize all of his parents' attention precisely at the moment when they'd be considering having their next child, extending the inter-child delay so that more of a family's limited resources can be devoted to him. In a birth-control-aware society, such behavior might even cause a parent to decide against even having another child, just to avoid a repeat of the torture so prominently put on display. It bears mentioning, though, that a child has as much genetic cause to advocate the birth of a full brother or sister as to have a child himself. But there's probably an inter-child spacing that is ideal for the prosperity of a human family and this varies depending on the environment (hunter/gatherer, farmer, city-dweller, suburban security-obsessed Republican, etc.) Surely the behavior of a young child can influence that. It's already known, for example, that prolonged breastfeeding helps delay the birth of the subsequent child.
Infants have never appealed to me in the slightest, and now I have to say that I'm far too selfish to suffer the "terrible twos" stage as well. I like my life the way it is and can't fathom putting up with the constant distraction of a child. By the time it all finally ended, 20 years would have passed and I would have forgotten what it was I'd put off until "after the children are raised." I'd be old and would have lost all the skills not directly related to childrearing. And for what end? So that another generation could do the same again. And again. And again. (Right now I'm thinking of this from a maternal perspective, but on some level this is true even for a "go to the office every day and come home and watch teevee" father figure as well.)
I just said that I'm too selfish to raise a child, but what does that really mean? People who have children are also selfish, arrogantly presuming the world should be sure to have a measure of their particular arrangement of genes in its future. True selflessness, I think, is to adopt a child from a disadvantaged part of the world and then raise him to believe not the particular things you believe, but the things a panel of experts believe he should believe.
Meanwhile, of course, there are few things more egocentric and selfish than a two year old child. In a way it's refreshing to see it all so clearly, so uncluttered with the duplicitous trappings of adult protocol. Still, even the motivations of a two year old are often too complex to dismiss as completely selfish. Periodically there will be nascent hints of tenderness, grace, and even altruism. And even the infuriating things they do are often mysteriously counter-productive, in that (say) the toy they just flung across the room is now broken and can no longer be used in play. According to Gretchen, the terrible twos is an assertion of individuality and free will, apparently recent and profound discoveries for a person that age.
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