Let it not be so, lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe.

I was recently reminded of a seldom-heard song from years ago. Not only is the distance from the immense responsibility of parenting a melody of the past, but so too are the subtle layers of guilt: the silt that accumulates from the leaking floodgates of those early years. I’m not sure why I failed to notice it at the time, although I suppose it was a topic that was seldom broached in those days. It was too shameful to admit to oneself without reproach, certainly too dangerous to confess to anyone else.

Uncertainty and vacillation is frowned upon when it comes to our feelings about our children. ‘As developed by psychoanalysis, ambivalence refers to the fact that, in a single impulse, we can feel love and hate for the same person.’ So writes Edward Marriott, the psychotherapist author of an essay in Aeon entitled When a Bough Breaks: https://aeon.co/essays/we-need-to-admit-that-parents-sometimes-hate-their-children ‘It’s a potent, unpalatable idea; and in the grip of intense ambivalence we can feel overwhelmed and confused, as if a vicious civil war is underway inside us.’

‘[W]e live in a society in which shockingly high levels of violence are inflicted on children… And, if we acknowledge that we, too, sometimes have less than loving feelings towards our children; if we, too, sometimes have the wish to hurt, even if we are able to restrain ourselves, then does this mean that we too could be abusers?’

Part of the pressure is cultural, of course -especially on the mother who ‘is expected to have an uncomplicated and adoring relationship with her baby; who is expected never to tire of playing with Lego.’ And as desperately as a pregnancy may be pursued through years of unsuccessful attempts, or require expensive reproductive technologies, it’s difficult to adequately prepare for the changes engendered by the growing child. Each of us is different.

I am intrigued by the insight offered through an example given by Marriott: ‘The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who spent a lifetime working with children and families, understood why the scales of ambivalence might tip more towards hate than love. The baby, he wrote, ‘is a danger to her body in pregnancy and at birth’, he ‘is an interference with her private life’ and he ‘is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave’. He ‘shows disillusionment about her’, he ‘refuses her good food… but eats well with his aunt’; then, having ‘got what he wants he throws her away like orange peel’. He ‘tries to hurt her’, and, ‘after an awful morning with him she goes out, and he smiles at a stranger, who says: “Isn’t he sweet?”’

And then there is the possible difficulty of the new child on the couple’s relationship -or the hope that a child may heal a fractious partnership. However, perhaps the modern couple may be more aware of the risks, and indeed the Feminist movement of the 1960ies ‘overturned long-held received wisdoms that designated motherhood (in the words of the social researcher Mary Georgina Boulton) as ‘intrinsically rewarding and not problematic’ and refocused attention on women’s actual experience of motherhood.’

But Marriott wonders if we are still blinkered, and ‘we continue to enter parenthood blindly, relieved and proud that our genes will survive, and oblivious to the unrelenting demands ahead, or that we have unwittingly signed up for a job for life, with no training, pay, prospect of sabbatical leave, change of career or get-out clause. It’s a job that will require endless investment and patience and, if all doesn’t go too badly, one in which we are finally made redundant.’

And yet, ‘The problem is not that we feel ambivalent towards our children, but that we try to deny it. If we do this, then before long we cease to know what is appropriate anger towards our children, and what is dangerous hostility.’

Armed with this insight, I thought I might discuss it with the guys at our usual Wednesday morning meeting at the local Tim Horton’s coffee shop in the mall. I figured maybe we could look back on those early days in our lives with the survivor smugness which only age can authorize. We usually just complain about the weather.

But when I arrived, Fred -sorry, Frederic, as he insists on being called- was already bemoaning a family issue.

“Sometimes he’s just rude, you know,” he said, with a little nod to acknowledge my arrival, and a deft pinch with lightning fast fingers to liberate the edge of my doughnut of some icing. “I mean I went all the way down to the museum to meet him…” He glanced at me. “My son, James,” he explained to bring me up to speed.

John’s face puckered into a wry smile as his eyes peeked through the bars of his lashes. “Come on Frederic, you only live two blocks from the museum…”

“Three,” he interrupted, to clarify it for the other two at the table.

John’s smile enlarged and his eyes, freed of the curtains he sometimes pulled over them, seemed to laugh. “I’m just pointing out that you really didn’t have to go very far, Frederic…”

“That’s hardly the point, John. It’s that he didn’t show up. I waited there for almost an hour…” He glanced at the sceptical faces around the table and then amended it to a more precise estimate of time. “Okay, maybe half an hour -or whatever… But anyway, he didn’t show up.”

John shook his head rather merrily I thought, and I could tell he was trying to disguise a little sigh. “I thought you said you were bored at always having to meet him at the museum.”

Frederic shrugged and had another go at my icing. “He likes to go there -he says he’s always been curious about old things…”

“Did he ever explain what he meant?” Andrew asked, barely able to keep a straight face.

Frederic missed the subtle humour though. “I used to read books about history to him when he was a little boy. We used to pretend we were sitting in the throne room of a castle, or watching a battle from a hilltop along with the generals…” I could see his face relax with the memories. He was clearly fond of his son.

And then, as gradual as a cloud floating over the sun, his face changed. “He texted me and apologized the next day -said he forgot about our meeting… texted me, for god’s sake! Anyway,  he asked me if I could meet him there today.” He shook his head in disbelief.

John smiled. “See, he’s trying to make up for his mistake, Frederic.” We all nodded in agreement.

“I told him I was busy,” Frederic said, still shaking his head.

“To teach him a lesson?” John’s face looked shocked, or maybe ‘sad’ describes it better.

Frederic shrugged in embarrassment.

“James is almost forty, Frederic,” Andrew added softly in the silence that followed. “I think you should phone him and meet him there, don’t you? Tell him, you’ve rearranged your day so you could meet after all…”

Frederic looked down at his coffee for a moment and then smiled as he picked it up. “Actually, I waited for a few days to answer… And I finally decided to text him back,” he said, glancing at his watch and then slowly standing up. “I’m already late,” he explained, sauntering unhurriedly towards the door. “See you guys next week, eh?”

As soon as he was out of the door, John began to chuckle. “What a pair, those two. How many times has this happened?”

“Think James will wait for him this time…?” Andrew asked, although mostly rhetorically, I suppose.

We all smiled and tackled our doughnuts as we leaned forward in our chairs. “Hope this rain stops soon,” Pete said between bites, finally coming out of his contemplative silence. “It’s getting rather depressing, don’t you think?”

We all nodded in unison. Some things never change.

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Deliver your words not by number but by weight

Even though my periodic conceit is that of a feuilleteur, I find I am still drawn to occasional texting. Sometimes there is simply no need for verbosity -the information that I am late but enroute, does not require an essay to explain. And yet, even the word ‘sorry’ prefixing the text, may fail to express the feelings of regret or embarrassment. Without waxing prolix, how then to express the emotion succinctly?

The usual answer, and the one to which I have usually resorted, is an Emoji (from the Japanese, meaning something like ‘picture word’). Although I confess that I am never totally sure of their meanings, I have tried to err on the side of simplicity. A smiling face, for example, means just that, and the one of clapping hands means congratulations -obvious and unambiguous messages… Or so I thought.

I suppose that most of us get caught up in our own values, though -it’s hard not to view the world through a cultural lens. We sometimes forget that each society sees the world a little differently. Like it or not, we live in a time of different Weltanschauungen -or at least have become more aware of it in this epoch of population displacement.

I did not fully appreciate the effects of the disparity until I came across an article in a BBC Future article on Emoji: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181211-why-emoji-mean-different-things-in-different-cultures

It seems that what I had assumed would be universal in its meaning -or at least the emotion would be interpretable in much the same way by everybody- was mistaken. Perhaps I would even have agreed with ‘linguistics professors such as Vyvyan Evans, author of The Emoji Code: The Linguistics behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, would soon declare to be “incontrovertibly the world’s first truly universal form of communication”, and even “the new universal language”.’ But, as Keith Broni, a business psychology expert explains, ‘emojis do not and cannot by themselves constitute a meaningful code of communication between two parties. Rather, they are used as a way of enhancing texts and social media messages like a kind of additional punctuation.’ Their intent seems to be to substitute for body language, and facial expressions, that might otherwise be difficult to convey in a short text message. So, ‘without the accompaniment of a smile or sympathetic tone of voice, a one-liner message runs the risk of being misinterpreted as negative, bossy or even rude.’

The problem, however, is in the interpretation, and although there is a range of Emoji on a smartphone, mine has no authoritative Oxford Dictionary, or whatever, underneath to mold each one into a universally agreed-upon meaning. So unintended interpretations are possible, depending upon the audience.

For example, ‘While the thumbs-up symbol may be a sign of approval in Western culture, traditionally in Greece and the Middle East it has been interpreted as vulgar and even offensive. Equally, in China, the angel emoji, which in the West can denote innocence or having performed a good deed, is used a sign for death, and may be perceived as threatening. Similarly, the applause emojis are used in the West to show praise or offer congratulations. In China, however, this is a symbol for making love.’

And then there is the smiling face, something I would never have dreamed might not be universally welcomed. Well, in China again, ‘the slightly smiling emoji is not really used as a sign of happiness at all. As it is by far the least enthusiastic of the range of positive emojis available, the use of this emoji instead implies distrust, disbelief, or even that someone is humouring you.’

We all see our worlds through the lens of our traditions -an amazing kaleidoscope of colours and textures paint each facet of our lives. And yet, woven into the fabric is a confusing chiaroscuro of meaning that may obscure the intended pattern.

I have a friend who is equally aged, but perhaps less enthused than me with the digital world. She has a smart phone though -but just for emergencies, she continues to assure me whenever I catch glimpses of it snuggled obtrusively in a pocket.

We meet occasionally for coffee, and since I normally take public transit, there are often unavoidable, and usually unpredictable delays. “Wouldn’t it make sense if I could send a quick signal to alert you that I am going to be late?” I usually tell her when I arrive.

Her eyebrows inevitably head skyward at my not so subtle wish to text. “You can phone me,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s why I carry it -for emergencies,” she adds, making sure I notice the italics.

“That’s difficult on a bus,” I reply. Then, I usually point out how annoying it is to hear others speaking loudly into their phones so they can be heard above the ambient noise.

And that’s where the disagreement sat until one day, the bus was inordinately late and I found her fuming at the restaurant. We sat in silence for a few moments after my abject apology, and then she aimed her wrinkles at me and smiled -but not in forgiveness, more in capitulation. “Okay,” she said through taut lips, “You can text me if you’re going to be late next time.” I could tell she saw it as a major concession, so I merely smiled, and sighed quietly to myself.

And sure enough, the very next week, I found myself standing on a crowded bus caught in traffic -a perfect opportunity for my virgin text. Unfortunately I was being jostled about in the aisle as we stopped and started unexpectedly, so I had to improvise a short, but clever message to let her know I was on my way. ‘Bus caught in traffic. I’ll be there in 15-20’ sounded pithy, yet polite. My time estimates were completely made up, though -I really had no idea when I’d arrive. I pushed ‘send’, and waited for a reply that she’d got the message.

It never arrived, of course, and as time passed and my estimates seemed bound to fail, I thought I’d better send her a follow-up apology. It’s hard to concentrate while standing in a crowded aisle with people bouncing off you, so I improvised and just sent her an Emoji – I used the upside-down face to suggest that things were not as I had hoped and that I was still uncertain when I’d arrive. I have no idea whether that’s what the little face meant, but it made sense at the time.

Suddenly my phone rang, and as soon as I answered it, I could hear her usually soft voice speaking loudly and indignantly in my ear. “What do you mean you’re not coming?” she shouted. “I’ve been waiting here for over half an hour!”

I tried to speak softly, but the noise around me made that difficult, although I found myself trying not to match her volume. “What are you talking about, Judy?” I said, my mouth as close to the phone as I could.

“The face,” she yelled into her phone, and I could see the smiles on the passengers standing next to me.

“What…?”

“That upside-down thing that obviously means you’ve changed your mind!”

I hurriedly apologized, then glanced out of the window and assured her that I wouldn’t be much longer. I’m not sure she caught the last words, though, because her phone went silent before I finished.

I was just putting my phone in my pocket when a young woman standing next to me turned her head and blinked. “I use the upside-down face sometimes -it has a lot of meanings- but you have to be careful who you use it on. The Emojipedia says it can mean you’re being sarcastic, or maybe don’t really mean what you said…” She smiled a helpful smile then turned back to her partner.

I didn’t even know there was an Emojipedia…

 

Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:  https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-is-better-not-to-aim-at-being-morally-perfect

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…