Umbilical Cords, Belly Buttons, and Breastmilk: The Drama of the Generations

cathedral
The Milan Cathedral (the Duomo), constructed 1386 thru 1577, depending on how you count. Photo credit: http://adventurejay.com/blog/

“He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents . . . .” Malachi 4:6

We are parents to a 15 month old girl named Zina, with another’s anticipated arrival in less than two months. Before Zina joined us, we had a miscarriage. (Perhaps Dia will someday post some of her thoughts about that difficult experience.) Over the three years of our marriage, we have had our hearts turned to our children—and to our parents. We have more fully joined the drama of the generations: more than before, we recognize that we are participants in a circling narrative of birth, parenting, marriage, and death that stretches vastly beyond our lives’ short timelines in either direction.

I wish I knew more about my ancestors. Their hopes, their dreams, their hobbies, their passions and preferences and personalities. I’m sure that I figured in some of those hopes and dreams, in some shadowy way. Dia recently wrote about how people in earlier ages, to a much greater extent than we, pinned their hopes and the very meanings of their lives on the prospect of posterity to continue their legacy, to carry on their memory and their way of life, to continue to build the cathedrals when their hammers and their bodies were spent.

I think they were right. I think that a posterity-centered self-narrative is simply more accurate (or at least more meaningful) than one that derives all its primary themes from the non-reproductive projects of a life that will end, and will leave what few projects survive its expiration in the hands of others, to be transformed and exhausted and discarded. All the things one labors over from day to day—one’s lawn, one’s TV shows, one’s test scores, one’s exercise program, one’s blog posts—will sooner or later find their way to the dust bin of history, permanently irrelevant to the meanings that continue, except for some minimal residual influence that persists in an ever-more-diluted form. Except for the small handful whom history salvages—the Julius Caesars and Shakespeares—we will all be forgotten as individuals: erased, non-existent, like the imaginary friend Bing Bong in Pixar’s Inside Out. Dust to dust.

From an earthly perspective, at least, our lives are redeemed from the dust bin, if at all, only through the continuity of traditions that keep some parts of our lives relevant in the persons of the next generations. We may not be remembered as individuals, but we may be a link in the chain that binds the whole human family together. The redemption is collective and generational, rather than individual.

“Take her to the moon for me,” says Bing Bong. I confess: I teared up at that part. No existential crisis as he fades out of being, but a wish for his child. This is the only earthly hope any of us have of mitigating the existential crisis of death. (But note that I use “child” broadly here: Bing Bong is an imaginary friend, not a parent—and there are many who cannot or do not become literal parents but who fulfill other important roles in parenting the next generation—and parents may become parent figures in more lives than those of their offspring.)

In one of the greatest works of poetry ever written, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman penned a truth that is similar to what I am trying to express:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Amen. Without the powerful play that precedes us and continues after us, our lives are sordid affairs indeed. But the play goes on! Birth, marriage, birth, death: a line of umbilical cords and belly buttons and breast milk that is drawn bodily through every generation. And you may contribute a sperm or an egg. (The most basic tradition and perhaps the most important is the biological tradition. It is the necessary condition for all the other intergenerational continuities.)

I said that I would like to know about my ancestors’ hobbies and passions. And so I would, but the truly essential thing is that they bore and raised their children. From my perspective and the perspectives of all their other descendants, that is far and away the most meaningful thing about their lives. I would like to meet them, but their personalities and preferences (outside of their procreative roles) pale in significance next to the monumental fact that I derived my very life from them. What is true of them today will be true of me tomorrow. Everything that a descendant experiences derives directly from its ancestors (autumn leaves, root beer floats, King Lear, the music of Bach, the laughter of babies . . . ). Multiply all of the meaning in my life by a thousand for the other descendants—and by another hundred thousand for all of our descendants. What could be more meaningful, in the long run, than participating in the creation of a new human life that will in turn multiply a million times over?

Of course, the mere perpetuation of life does not justify itself. This is true at the generational level as well as the individual level. Neither one more generation nor one more day of living is better than nonexistence unless there is something good to be hoped for in the living. And so it is not our sole duty to reproduce, but also to pass on the best that we can offer in the way of meaningful traditions, healthy habits, openness to truth and beauty and goodness—and to pleasure and joy and laughter. (Autumn leaves, etc.) Parenting involves more than reproduction. The biological and the cultural traditions must redeem each other. We must increase the race—and we must improve the cathedrals.

We surely owe a sacred and infinite debt to our ancestors—a debt that we can never repay to them. But we are not absolved of all duty by the impossibility of repayment, free to seek our own pleasure and discard the traditions we have received willy-nilly. Rather, we must remember our ancestors with gratitude, and dutifully guard what is good and useful in the traditions they have handed us, and look mercifully on what is not right or no longer right (“as God gives us to see the right”). That is the first thing we must do about our unrepayable debt. The second is even more important. We must pay it forward.

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