I was listening to This American Life this evening, as I missed it yesterday because I went to the gym to play darts in order to be social. Luckily TAL is rebroadcast on Sundays. Every episode of TAL is built around a theme and this weekends episode was on loneliness; a topic of particular relevance to my current situation. Ha! It consisted of 3 “acts” or different stories, each touching on loneliness.
The first was an existential and intellectual story about whether we, the human race, are alone in the universe. My personal belief is that we aren’t given the enormity of the universe and the fact that all things die, even civilizations, we are unlikely to be close enough to another current sentient species to ever make direct contact. Also, if life, and sentience, are so rare that we are the only sentient species in the universe then we should be in awe of that rather than lonely. People argue that contact by an alien race would unite humanity in a new way but if we are the only sentient life forms ever to have evolved from the entire history of the whole universe shouldn’t that unite us in a mutual amazement at our unique nature? I would find that much more stunning and make all of us worthy of even more admiration than if we are just one of many sentient races across the cosmos.
The third story was about a father who was given a list of 50 deep, philosophical questions by his 9 year old daughter. Things like “Time. Why? Explain.” and “What is love?” The father, being a professor, decides to research and write out elaborate answers to the questions out of respect and admiration for his daughters intellectual curiosity. He takes weeks to months to prepare an answer to each of the questions and 3 years later he is only 3/4 of the way through when he’s interviewed for the story. When the interviewer speaks with the girl, now 12, she explains that she designed the questions, knowing her father, as a way to force him to actually talk to her. She was lonely and knew that the deep questions would engage her father. She had no idea he was spending so much effort researching and preparing his answers, she just wanted him to talk to her more.
As I have recently been spending a lot of mental energy thinking about the challenges with and best ways to raise a child I couldn’t help but put myself in the father’s position and ask what would I have done. At heart, at the very core of my being, I am a teacher. I take great joy in helping another learn so to have my own child ask so many and such deep questions would naturally thrill me and bring out my innate teacherly dependencies. However, I don’t think I would have taken the researched lecture approach of this father. I would favor a more Socratic approach. Turn the question around on the “student” and engage in a philosophical dialogue or guided research project. Don’t teach the answer, teach how to come up with the answer. I would merely be a facilitator in the search for knowledge. Now only would this have led to answers to her questions but it would have also met her real need, to spend time talking with her father. This story led me realize that expressing my inner teacherly nature is why I almost crave to home school any child I would have.
The second story was the one that directly inspired this personal essay. The story was about a couple going through couples therapy. This particular therapist did single 2-3 hour sessions with the couple and asked if she could post the recordings on her blog. The couple was in their mid 50s I believe and has been married for nearly 40 years. For 22 years of their marriage the husband had been having serial casual sex with other random women. Given the short timeframe for the therapy session the therapist had to identify a clear goal early on and focus on that for the session. The wife had decided to stay with the husband in spite of the disapproval and even scorn of others in her life so she had no outside emotional support and whenever the husband and wife talked he was always talking about himself. He would say he was sorry and launch into an explanation of how he has been physically abused as a child or how he had now changed and it wouldn’t happen again. He had spent his life living as two different people, the caring husband and the philanderer, but now he was trying to integrate both into a new identity so he was self-obsessed.
Any time the wife spoke he would turn it back to being about him but she had no external support and wasn’t getting any from him for her needs. He wasn’t really listening to her, or acknowledging how he had hurt her and her pain. The therapist, rather bluntly and effectively, makes him stop thinking about himself and start thinking about her. He gets it and really listens but in time returns to his habit of focusing on himself. She stops him and brings him back to really listening and the couple starts to emotionally reconnect.
One of the questions the father had not gotten around to answering yet was “what is love?” He hadn’t answered it yet because he found it one of the harder questions, tougher than “Time. Why? Explain.” But I think this couple’s therapist was on to the answer in her session with the broken couple. I have always maintained that someone should not be willing to have children unless they are willing to give up being the center of their own lives. From the moment you have a child they should be the center of your life, the first concern you think of when making a decision. A good parent who chooses to have a child is choosing to put someone else’s interests before theirs for the rest of their lives. It occurred to me during the couple’s session that love is just that, thinking of them before yourself, putting care for the other before care for the self. The husband needed to show his love for his wife by caring about her pain, her anger, her isolation before caring about his own. That is how to show love rather than just saying the empty words.
I had always said that I was too selfish to have a kid. I knew I was unwilling to give up living my life for myself and dedicate it to a kid. Recently I reassessed my position. I realized that when I die I will leave McK alone and I don’t want that for him. One major reason some people choose to have children is to have someone to take care of them in their later years. McK will be there to take care of me but who will take care of him? After much “soul” searching I realized I not only would be willing to have a kid for his sake but that I wanted to and that I accept that I am no longer the center of my life. He is and our child will be. It may have taken me till the age of 50 to finally reach a point where I can really fall in love with someone but at least I honestly know what that means now.