It’s my pleasure to share here a guest post from my friend Samuel Morris Brown.
By inclination, I’m something of a misanthrope. I’m not sure where I came by this trait. Maybe it’s good old-fashioned nature, some mixture of a thousand different genes that makes me by default uninterested in other human beings. Maybe I’ve got something wrong with my hippocampus or superior temporal sulcus, too many or too few synapses in my brain. As a pretentious teenager, I wondered whether I was a (non-violent, non-criminal) sociopath because I felt so little engaged in the world of people. That imaginary pathology was more impressive than thinking that I was shy, self-absorbed, and socially clumsy. If I’d been born in the 90s rather than the 70s, I would have placed myself on the autism spectrum instead. With time, I came to see this alienation as a badge of honor. I was authentically alone, like Albert Camus wandering the bars of Paris, and what the world did with my alienation was no concern of mine.
Nurture has a claim here, too, I’m sure. I grew up in a smoldering train wreck of a childhood. I spent over a decade pleading for a father who was more than a donor of genes and fantasizing about some modicum of financial security. I was ashamed of our poverty and weakness; I knew that other families were better than ours. We didn’t belong. I don’t really fault my younger self for suspecting the motives and even relevance of others. My early experience with people was often deeply disappointing.
It didn’t help, I suspect, that I’m congenitally inclined to live inside my head. If I had my inborn druthers, I’d spend my waking hours reading, writing, and thinking. When hunger struck, I would eat, book in hand, oblivious to the world of humans, then fall asleep with the book laid open over my face.
But I haven’t had those druthers, and that, as the Northeastern folk poet said, has made all the difference.
My wife and then my children, in company with others who have loved me, have slowly made me more open and tender, even, sometimes, loving. By the time I was in my thirties, I still struggled with misanthropy but there were people in my life that I loved, and I could generally be kind to the rest. That was no mean feat of patience.
Still, whatever peace I had made with adults, I remained mystified by, even terrified of, children. People laugh at me to hear this confession, and they probably should. I am laughable. But there was the reality of it: I was afraid of children. They were needy babblers who spewed strange syllables and bodily fluids like tiny volcanoes of mucus, vinegar, and baking soda. Their ways were not mine. (Perhaps, although I wasn’t open to the idea at the time, they reminded me of my own childhood weakness and misery.) I maintained my wary distance.
Then my wife fell ill a half decade ago, and her sickness turned my world upside down. That cool detachment, the luxury of looking past children with a barely suppressed shudder, and the comfortable smugness of the modern intellectual suddenly felt like the Danish emperor’s expensive new robe. I was brutally, ruthlessly exposed to the elements, like a mountaineer wearing swim trunks on the upper slopes of Mount Everest. I had lost my protective, snide indifference to the world, its terrible beauty, and its disorienting mysteries. I realized, in retrospect finally, that my congenital misanthropy was born of fear.
Neither nature nor nurture, the alliterative twin pillars of determinism, were adequate when put to the test in my life. They said little of any significance about substantive human problems. They were useful, in retrospect, for cocktail parties and teasing traditionalists, but little else. I yearned for something more than just the endowments of nature and nurture, something more than the asphyxiating cocoon I’d spun around myself in protective denial of the vast world outside my head. I found myself needing to rest on the twin pillars of a different faith than physical determinism. I needed real choice, and I needed Christ. The authentic, misanthropic self that nature and nurture had bestowed on me was useless. If anything, it clouded my vision. I chose instead to try to make myself open to the mind of Christ.
My lifelong, cocksure misanthropy didn’t belong in this new phase of life. God had not called me to aloof indifference toward children. I could do better. I needed to see more clearly.
One of my few useful gifts is a capacity to elucidate subtle connections through persistent questioning. I’ve used this ability to good effect in my scientific and historical writing. I hadn’t, though, asked too many questions about my trademark cynicism. I started to really wonder how the world might look to God, especially the human part of it that still frightened me. I began a spiritual discipline. I asked myself to imagine how children might look to God—luminous bundles of grace with their lives waiting to happen, free as yet from world weariness. I took the time to smile at the kids at church and in the neighborhood. And I allowed myself to be more vulnerable to human goodness that was not mediated by high culture or sophisticated intellectual currents. I worked to attend to flowers and clouds and laughing faces. I struggled to spend a little more time outside my head each day. The spiritual practice (and the divine power that motivated it) began, over the course of some months, to shape me.
Then one day in church I found myself cradling a friend’s infant son on my lap as we both half-dozed to the rhythms of a slow Sunday School lesson. I was holding him to give my friends a break from the constant burden of early parenthood. This baby boy had big eyes bursting with wonder and thin hair that stretched in every direction. He seemed ready to eat the world in one giant swallow.
I discovered that something had changed in me. It was as if I’d awakened, startled, from a half-remembered dream. I realized in that moment that I had learned to love children. Not just my own children, whom I’d always loved as people. But the whole motley crowd of the weak and insistent and babbling. They were my people too.
I’m different these days. I smile at the sight of a baby, which genuinely cheers me. I don’t mind babysitting. I enjoy chatting with small children and even interact occasionally with teenagers. I find that my love for my own children has deepened. And I feel ever more distant from the younger me who wondered whether he was congenitally unable to participate in the lives of others.
The scientist in me notes that there’s nothing authentic about this spiritual discipline and its outcomes. This kindness to children is not a native part of my life or personality. It’s as strange to me as walking on my hands instead of my feet. However genuine it has become, this goodness is something I had to choose despite myself, over my authentic objections. If someone wanted to attach this new trait to nature or nurture, we’d have to bypass more than four decades of my mortal life to imagine some late-onset genetic disorder or some Manchurian Candidate of a genetic anomaly or childhood trauma just waiting for a specific environmental trigger to call it forth. I suppose we could stretch the facts to make that work, but such explanations strain credulity on scientific or religious grounds. I don’t doubt that these recent experiences and the reconfiguration of my soul are mediated in part by biology and history. Of course they are. I’m mortal, after all. I’m just not gullible enough to think that there’s nothing more to it than that. I think this is what the early Christians understood as the new life from above, the changed soul (that Greek term, metanoia, that’s only partly captured by “repentance”), that is in Christ.
Nor does the modern aesthetic of authenticity (that odd and conflicted cousin to determinism) shed any special light here. By the lights of authenticity, I’m an aloof intellectual who has little time for others. I’m natively impatient and more than a little blind to what is good and beautiful. This love of the strange simplicity of children feels as familiar as breathing to me now, but it’s not authentic. Not remotely. Instead, it’s the sweet fruit of spiritual practice in an orchard I had to plant and till and sweat over. I’m not dimwitted enough to claim that I am the sole or even primary reason this tree has grown and bear fruit. But I know that this specific fruit in this specific life required that I choose to deviate from the authentic life I received from nature, nurture, and history.
I know that I come across as sentimental now. I’ve become a subject better fit for Hallmark cards than the strenuous reality of modern life. I still feel the occasional pang of self-consciousness when I realize how soft-hearted I’ve become. Sometimes I miss the strength I perceived in protective indifference. Then I realize that begrudging vulnerability for all those years stole from me the holy proximity of other people. I know how little the youthful me would admire this turn into weakness. But this new world is where divine love has drawn me, and in this vulnerability stands the possibility of a life beyond authenticity.
And thank God for this newfound inauthenticity. Thank God for this grace, this yearning to see in love, and the influence of these young people. Suffer the children, indeed.