Happy Thomas Paine’s Birthday!

It’s January 29th, the date commonly chosen to commemorate the birth of the great freethinker and author of the American revolution, Thomas Paine. (His exact birthdate is unknown.) Paine offered eloquent political and moral arguments in support of the colonies’ right to break away and form independent states, using ordinary language accessible to all. He probably did more than any other individual to rally popular support to that cause. But Paine not only offered compelling arguments in favor of freedom from tyranny in politics: he was a staunch deist and opponent of religion, and considered the clergy as oppressive as any monarch could be.

Paine, whom Theodore Roosevelt once referred to as a ‘filthy little atheist’ died in poverty and obscurity, yet many of us quote him frequently without even knowing it. He shared with Thomas Jefferson the uncanny ability to encapsulate ideas into perfectly turned phrases so well, that they remain in common usage today.

If you’re intrigued, find out more about Thomas Paine here
and, very briefly, here

The Problem of the One and the Many

I think that the majority of what I’ve been mulling over for quite some time now either relates to, or boils down to, this one problem.

What does it mean to be an individual, when one is composed of so many parts? What does it mean to be an individual when one can do so little without the input and support of others? How can a group, or a society, look out for its best interests as a whole, without calling on each member to give up so much that the whole is made of up impoverished individuals?

What do you think?

The Debate Over Motherhood, and the Human Family. Or, To Have or to Have Not…

…children, that is.

Over the last year, it seems, there’s been a deluge of essays, articles, and other works about the decision of whether or not to have children. The Time cover story on ‘The Childfree Life‘ kicked off quite a bit of controversy, as well as some applause. Many were thrilled to have their choice not to have children finally presented in a positive light in such an influential publication, but many found it distasteful and even insulting. Others, such as Melanie Notkin, criticized the article, in this case not for what it promoted or criticized, but for containing too many assumptions and misinterpretations.

So here’s another take on the subject, from a fond auntie from a very large extended family, who chooses not to have children.

So why all the fuss? Why are we still arguing over all this in a time and place where women, generally, have the right their own persons, to say no to sex, to pursue careers, to engage fully in public and political life?

Although birth control has now been widely and cheaply available for decades, it’s clear that we’re not yet comfortable with our newfound ability to enjoy our sexuality while simultaneously controlling our reproduction. We haven’t yet decided what this means for us. What are the ramifications, economically, morally, legally? Will we be better off overall, or not? Are we to be frightened that people will stop valuing parenthood as a worthy choice, if remaining childless is considered just as good? Or are we to rejoice that the human race may slow its population growth to a sustainable level?

Mark Driscoll is a ‘celebrity’ pastor from the Seattle area, whose view of the whole birth control issue is not positive, to say the least. His essay ‘Who’s Afraid of Pregnant Women?’ first appeared in the ‘On Faith’ blog in December 2013 (now found on FaithStreet). Driscoll’s essay conveys some of the same feeling I sense in many parents, especially women, when they write or share comments and articles that extol full-time motherhood. He expresses a feeling of beleaguerment for parents of large families, and fears that human life has become less valuable to us than other animals, that pregnant women are regularly belittled for being ‘breeders’, and that it is our godly duty to bear and raise children.

I came upon his article weeks ago, and have mulled it over several times: it stuck with me because I recognize some of his ideas and attitudes as very similar, if not identical, to those of many of my own relatives. I belong to a very large, largely conservative Catholic family, and they are huge fans of having children: my father is one of fifteen kids, my mother one of nine. I’m one out of five siblings, and as of last count, I have 70 or so first cousins. Indoor family reunions are out of the question unless we rent a large hall, and when we dance our traditional Virginia Reel, it’s quite a work-out!

I’ve always considered it great fun to be part of such a big family. I’ve had playmates and companions at hand my whole life. It’s fascinating, at family reunions, to see how various family traits pop up, reshuffled and recombined in so many ways; which traits seem to skip a generation and which do not, how a male family member might appear if they were born a woman instead (and vice versa), and so on. (With so many first cousins, the likelihood that there are more close look-a-likes evidently increases.) My extended family is, in fact, just of the sort that Driscoll extols, and is going strong.

I’m also a sucker for babies and children generally. They are adorable in their smallness, with their squeaky voices, their quirky and often hilarious pronunciations and turns of phrase as they learn to speak, in their toddling walk, in their displays of newly acquired, unexpected, and impressive intelligence, and in so many other ways. Of course, I tend to see them at their best: rarely at bedtime, or sick, or throwing tantrums. I see them when they’re on vacation or when they’re excited at the prospect of playing with a visiting auntie (or cousin, or family friend) who’s not worn out from childcare, and who’s easily manipulated into lenience.

So it’s natural that though I’ve chosen not to have children, I wonder once in a while if I’m missing out on something I would actually enjoy, just as I do with other big life choices of the sort where if I choose one thing, it necessarily excludes another. I’ve noticed that many people who choose not to be parents, especially women, are torn, while others feel quite strongly that choosing childlessness is right for them. Having children is a huge responsibility, presents many risks and challenges, and requires giving up one’s current lifestyle, so parenthood appears daunting and even downright unattractive for many. But when it comes to what Mark Driscoll describes as a general modern attitude of ‘contempt for motherhood, I just don’t know what he’s talking about.

I happen to be of an age, my later 30’s, when it’s common to start having children these days, especially where I live, the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s also a place where parenting is a popular choice, despite Driscoll’s claims. I’ll use the place I live as an example, though I suspect that the same is true for other coastal, more urban areas of the US as well, if my friends and acquaintances, media and popular TV shows are any indication. At the same time, it’s true that there’s a comparatively lower birth rate in San Francisco and other large cities than in the US overall. Driscoll attributes this comparatively low birth rate to his ‘contempt for motherhood’ theory, but I don’t think his assumptions are correct.

To begin with, SF proper is an incredibly expensive place to live. When city people have established their careers and met their partners, generally, they move to the suburbs or some smaller town to have their kids, if they haven’t struck it rich and can afford to stay. What I don’t find is that people, generally, love animals to the exclusion of kids. Pets are affordable companions, and need relatively little space, perfect for small city apartments and roommate situations. But children need room, and time, and money for college if you can afford it, so you wait to have them until you have a good job and money put aside.

If you spend much time in the Bay Area, especially as a woman, you find out very quickly, and have it impressed upon you very regularly, that many women here are enthusiastic mothers. They promote the parenting lifestyle vigorously (albeit a particular pure-food-centric, small-family, hands-on, ‘sustainable’ style). The joyous new mothers I know now look at me askance when I answer their inevitable ‘So, when are you having a baby?’ in the negative. After a doubtful pause, sometimes they say, unconvinced by their own words, ‘Well, it’s not for everyone.’ But more often, a knowing nod: ‘…when that clock starts ticking…’ Who knows, perhaps I have a very, very slow clock! Which has been getting slower by the year…..

The whole ‘breeder’ as an expression of contempt-for-mothers thing that Driscoll complains of, I’ll pass over lightly. It’s a tongue-in-cheek term, a response to the eons of dismissiveness and denigration of the gay community as so-called destroyers of the family. (Weird. My gay relatives didn’t in the least bit interfere with the considerable fecundity of my extended family.) The point of that wry, joking term is to criticize the very idea of valuing a human person only in light of their birthing potential, rather than for their own sake as a human being. Yes, the term may be adopted by some who are critical of the decision to have large families in a world where not all kids who are born are cared for, but that’s generally because they see that choice as unsustainable, destructive to future generations. Whether or not you agree with their opinion on the matter, I just don’t see a logical connection to contempt for motherhood in either sense. I think Driscoll could step outside of his own sphere and experience actually talking to members of these communities to understand what they’re getting at.

Driscoll does, however, expressly reveal contempt for people who choose not to have children. He doesn’t address the reasons (other than his assumed ‘contempt’) why people make this choice, so it’s hard to know how he would argue against what would appear to most reasonable people to be excellent reasons. For some, there’s a high probability of risk to their health, as revealed by family and personal medical history. Some are poor and don’t want to give birth to children they can’t afford to feed and educate properly, and some live in dangerous or oppressive areas of the world. Some find that they can best help out their community or extended family by being more available with time and resources than they might be as parents. Some simply feel that having kids to please others, contrary to their own desires and the bent of their personalities, would be irresponsible, let alone selfish. There are many more reasons people decide not to have children, I think usually not for one, but for a variety of reasons (I am among these).

Instead, the contempt Driscoll expresses in his phrase ‘fools’ parade’ seems to be entirely Biblically based. Yet he’s he’s on shaky ground with his particularly narrow interpretations. For one, even if he’s right, that his God exists and literally commanded that humans ‘fill the earth with people’, it seems we did a really good job already, and will continue to do so even if all we did was reproduce at a replacement rate. That commandment does not logically entail that each and every person have as many children as possible, regardless of the circumstances. For another, God may be a ‘good and perfect father to millions’, it’s hard to prove otherwise. But millions of other kids, if his account is correct, are allowed by that same God to die of starvation and disease, and indiscriminate childbearing has never alleviated the problem.

Driscoll leaves no room for the idea that, as a believer in his God, you could also believe that respect for life actually entails prudent childbearing, and that if we are all part of God’s family, that means that there’s a variety of roles in that family other than parents, such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and so forth. (While Catholics, especially, promote the big family lifestyle, they also incorporate this interpretation to some degree, with their spiritual roles of celibate ‘sisters’, ‘brothers’, and ‘fathers’.) Parents sometimes need the all-important extra help that non-parent family members are in the best position to provide, and others who wish to rear children but not give birth, such as many gay parents, adopt those children that no one else is caring for. Others invent, build, entertain, and in other ways use all their time and energy to help create a beautiful and more interesting world for all to grow up and flourish in, and so participate indirectly in raising the next generation.

Driscoll seemingly attributes his ‘contempt for motherhood’ to ‘evolutionary thinking’ (he’s not clear on this point), claiming that it leads to thinking of human beings as ‘nothing more than a particular arrangement of cells and matter’. But I fail to see how he makes this assumption, as no evolutionary thinker I’ve met, or whose work I’ve read, thinks this way.

I, too, am an evolutionary thinker, and as such, my sense of the human race as one big family is no spiritual construct, but concrete reality. As an evolutionary thinker, I think it’s absurd that Driscoll parrots that tired old trope that if you accept the scientific theory of evolution, than you must think that humans are nothing more than the sum of their parts, with no point to their existence and with no reason to be good to one another. But why would he assume this? I think it’s unlikely that someone in his position is really that ignorant of the basics of human evolution; rather, I think he feels the need to subscribe to this this false dichotomy of selfish evolutionist or generous deist in order to reach his desired conclusion.

Morality, empathy, altruism: all are key components of human psychology, and they are the very reasons why we are an evolutionary success story. The ‘inevitable’ evils he attributes to evolutionary thinkers, such as genocide and isolation, are directly contrary to the story of how we evolved as one of the most complex, highly social species the world has ever seen. Most other species do not have the same sense of care towards one another as we do, and that’s because most require relatively little cooperation, if any, for their survival, with their short reproductive cycles, sharp teeth, strong limbs, exoskeletons, and so on. Without cooperation, a strong sense of fairness, empathy, and high regard for human life, the few human beings that exist would live lives that are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short‘… in fact, we would not be identifiable as human beings at all.


New Year’s Day, a Resolution, and Writing as ‘Stepping Back’

For some reason, my eyes flew open a little before 8 am this morning, even though I didn’t go to bed ’til 2. I was at a house party with good friends, and spent a good deal of it by the fire pit in the backyard, and my hair smells deliciously like smoke. Bryan’s still sleeping, the house is quiet, and I’m here on the sofa with my coffee, obeying the first of my New Year’s resolutions on my list: to write at least 500 words a day.

I love the New Year holiday, and as I rediscovered when I returned to college a three (or so) years ago, I love writing. So this is an excellent way to start the year!

I feel that I can express myself so much better, sometimes, through writing, even better than with my artwork, and I’m always trying to find a way to communicate better with people. I’m a social person, who needs the feel the love and companionship of others in order to feel happy and satisfied. In fact, I’m very needy in this way. (Funnily enough, even more so than Bryan, who’s perfectly happy and comfortable spending a lot of time alone; he’s very self-possessed. But in social situations, Bryan’s the one who’s most at ease, who can find a way to connect with everyone, so funny and entertaining in conversation, and everyone loves him!) But I’m also very shy, and within the last couple of years, I’ve let many of the good habits I built up in my early 20’s fall away. When I was a child and into my teens, I was extremely shy and awkward, and had few friends, since the strange circumstances of my upbringing kept me somewhat isolated. But when I went to junior college, I enjoyed the company of so many new people and craved it constantly, so I learned how to be social and agreeable, mostly by listening and asking a lot of questions (this was not mere politeness, I was really interested! People are especially fascinating when you’ve spent most of your life rarely getting to know anyone outside of your own family). But in the last couple of years, I’ve become much more introverted in my habits, and have discovered, to my dismay, that there are so many people I care about that I haven’t really talked to at all, or in depth, in a long time. I even find myself retreating into myself when the people I actually want to talk to are right there in the room with me! That will change, I am determined.

So many of my introverted habits, I think, come from trying to figure out who I am and why, and how to be the kind of person I want to be, the kind of person worthy of respect, admiration even. I’ve been immersed in the past couple of years one of those existential crises that fall upon so many in their thirties, when one suddenly finds that they are well on their way through adulthood and there’s just not longer an ocean of time left. While these crises are inevitable and provide a valuable opportunity to take stock, it’s also important not to let them go on too long, since they can lead to that internal, doubt-driven wheel-spinning that impedes action. It’s a time to get it together and pick some goals to pursue and things to excel at, but then the time comes where you need to just get out there and actually do something about it.

Writing is an excellent tool to that end, and a way to really get to know one’s self, what one’s core values are, what are the best uses of one’s time and energy. It’s reflection and action all at once. I often feel that I really don’t know myself that well in many ways, and suspect that, through writing, I’ll be able to discover more. I think it’s often hard to understand oneself, to know certain things about one’s own personality and motivations, because it’s so hard to judge one’s own actions objectively, to see patterns in behavior, to get the ‘big picture’ view. One’s just just too close of an observer, too immersed in the instincts and emotions of the moment, to really ‘get’ why one’s doing, or thinking, or saying, whatever it is, at the time. I think writing is a process very like the ‘stepping back’ I do when creating an artwork or a piece of craft: I take a moment, or a few, to take some steps back from the work, to look at the overall effect, and to see how everything is hanging together, what needs to be changed, and what is working well.

When I write down what I’m thinking, I can get that big-picture view in a way that I rarely can otherwise, except perhaps in depthy conversation. Yet, writing is very like good, depthy conversation, because you’re calling on yourself to explain and describe something to an audience, and you’re conscious of other minds and how they may be perceiving what you have to say. And, you’re calling to mind the things other people have written or said concerning whatever it is you’re writing about. So writing also helps me to figure out what I really think and believe about things out there in the world.

That’s because, through writing, you can put together all those elements to craft a bigger picture, a more complete story, as opposed to just experiencing the daily stream of reactions to what’s going on out there. These reactions are important in themselves, the emotional responses, the internal arguments, the stockpiling of information about the world. But when you write, as when you converse, you’re putting it all together for yourself as well as for the person you’re talking to. What writing has over conversation is that you can go back and look over what you’re saying, and revise it, and perfect it much more thoroughly, and it’s not subject to lapses of memory. You become accountable to the ideas you expressed before, much like politicians are now accountable for those things they do and those words they spout off, since everything’s recorded these days. The more you write, and share what you write, you become more accountable to yourself, and to your readers. It places you firmly on a path of regular self-discipline, and self-improvement, as you strive to improve the quality and cohesiveness of your ideas. This ‘stepping-back’ process can do for your mind what it can do for the things you create: it shows you what’s missing, what you need to do in order to complete a more perfect, more beautiful, more unified whole.

So on this New Year’s morning, I affirm my resolution to be a better writer, and, through that, a better thinker and a better person. And I thank you, dear reader, for participating in this endeavor with me.