You probably don’t recall that last Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the third presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It was a depressing affair, and while watching I self-medicated with a reasonable quantity of Scotch. It turned out that this wasn’t the best decision — about an hour after the debate ended, my wife woke me up to tell me that she was in labor. Fortunately, we didn’t leave for the hospital for a few more hours. A few hours after that, my son, my firstborn, was on my lap, sticking his tongue out at me. I came to discover he liked to do that. This was among the first of many things I would learn as the year unfolded.
My son has helped me to understand that on this side of eternity, it’s hard to find love without fear. There is so often a quiet voice of worry in the back of my mind. How desperately did he need his mother when he got in a little brawl at day care? Will I be able to make enough money to give him the opportunities he deserves? Will he leave us in the night? Looking back on my childhood, I used to wonder why my parents prayed with me at bedtime that “if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Now I see that a lot of the reason must have been for them.
I have understood for many years that death is a great equalizer. I now understand that birth is, too. We were all babies. The guy selling me a cup of coffee, the guy who cut me off on my drive home from work, great kings and tyrants — yes, we will all die. But we were all born, too. That we all start life helpless and completely dependent means we have much more in common than I appreciated a year ago.
I’ve learned from my son the strength of the human impulse to discover and explore. Humanity is extraordinary in part because we were compelled to leave the cave. And then to climb the hill. And then to search the valley. And then to harness fire. Every day with William is a case study in this appetite, which is barely second in strength to his desire for food, water, and love. He wants to know what’s in every drawer, in every nook and cranny. The other day he was so fascinated by a light switch he cast our local gelato shop into darkness. He wants to crawl right off the couch, just to see what would happen.
William is not content. He’s an explorer whose nature hasn’t been dampened by a demanding job, too little sleep, modern comfort, and the desire for leisure. He makes me question where my curiosity and wonder went, and how I can get them to burn a little hotter.
William has helped me to appreciate the givenness of things. It is easy to lose sight of this, particularly in my line of work, where much of the focus of our public debate is to change things — and in the modern world more broadly, where everything is assumed to be malleable. But some realities simply are. My desire to keep William safe just is. His love for his mother just is. There’s nothing supporting it; it’s the primitive. This realization has helped me to see better the givenness in other parts of life, as well.
His earthliness is permeated with the image of God.
In William, I see that much of the claim we have to the divine is mixed deeply with our humanity. He is an earthly creature. He engages with the world by touching and feeling. Many things he encounters go into his mouth. For many months, he took his food from his mother’s body. But his intense physicality is infused with great beauty and creative power. His earthliness is permeated with the image of God.
God has been on his Catholic father’s mind quite a bit this year. I profess that the creator of the universe — of all that is seen and unseen, all-powerful and all-knowing — two millennia ago was born a little baby to a young mother. This is quite a claim. Imagining Jesus fussing with his mother, desperate for milk, learning how to crawl, awaking in the middle of the night, frightened by a thunderstorm — imagining Jesus learning about the world as William does has challenged my faith. But much more than that, it has strengthened my faith by strengthening my sense of mysterium tremendum.
We often describe babies as creatures of pure love. You are loving, my son, but you are not only that. You are in many ways a slave to your passions, and seeing that has helped me realize that I am so often trapped by my own. But mastering that — mastering yourself — is a challenge for another day. You have a lifetime to learn how to be free.
— Michael R. Strain is the John G. Searle Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.