“Your mother could not love you more or take greater pride in you. She has watched you every moment of your life, almost, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones. So that is the honoring of the child. You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.” — Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
Note: I didn’t even underline this beautiful passage, let alone star it, or dog-ear the page, on my first reading a few years ago. This is why you have to re-read everything after you have your first child.
The appreciation of existence, mere existence, which is so potent in the parent-child relationship, is so much harder for us mere mortals in other types of relationships. I’ve struggled so hard to convince past romantic partners (and, if I’m being honest here, myself) that I cared not just about what they did or didn’t do or say, but about who they were, their particular personhood. Not a list of attributes or accomplishments — but them, their being.
It’s incredibly difficult to appreciate our own existence. I’ve also struggled with the fear that no one cares about me in this ‘godlike’ way, that I am only appreciated insomuch as I am able to produce, write, make A’s, give gifts, demonstrate kindnesses, etc. My parents, actually, have been among those I’ve feared disappointing in this way the most, throughout most of my life, despite being told that they loved me “no matter what.” It’s just so difficult to know what a statement that even means in a world where praise is almost always handed out on the basis of some external merit.
I’ve also struggled to believe it when friends have told me that they enjoy my company regardless of my mood — that just sitting together is enough, I don’t have to perform or pretend or entertain. But I do think traces of this existence-based love emerge in longterm friendships. Especially those that begin in youth and extend for decades, the kind of friendship where it no longer matters that your lives have taken different directions and you live in different cities and sometimes you go months or years without talking. You know that despite all those things the friendship remains, and you are grateful for that friend’s existence in the world, which makes you less lonely even if your contact is minimal.
With adults, the meaning of mere existence seems to shine through the most in the wake of death. The value of life itself is often so difficult to apprehend until there is some threat of losing it, or after it is gone.
My mother was gravely ill for a period last year. It was a horrifying time. In retrospect, it was truly one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. But in the midst of all this fear and stress, I was struck so powerfully by how grateful I was that she was still alive. Not for “all the things she’s ever done for me,” not for her wit or compassion or intelligence or fashion sense or for the fact that she’s literally read everything, or any of a million things “about” her I could list. Just her life, her existence in the world, her breathing. Her breathing especially. (The epic nature of the breath is made so clear when someone is on a ventilator.) There are so many things “about” the people we love that we love, and sometimes it’s hard to see the what underlies that. When you’re faced with the prospect that someone may no longer be able to do all the things she once did, or display all those characteristics you appreciate so much in her… especially in a context where she’s so sick she’s totally unconscious, and you find still love her, without all that, it teaches a powerful lesson. It’s not your memories of her when she was more “herself” that you love — it’s her, there, in terrible pain, weak, confused, contorted, but alive, still breathing. That’s enough to be worthy of love. Even life isn’t necessary for love, we continue to love those who have died, of course, but it clearly mere life has meaning, not for what it allows a person to do, or think, or feel, but just in itself.
At this time, most of the things that had been stressing me out before the crisis struck — work/life balance, how to progress with my PhD with a young baby, concerns about what I really wanted to “do in life” — seemed so superficial, so small in comparison to the immensity of life itself. My life. Every life.
With a child, your own child especially, a newborn especially, you don’t need any of the tragedy to see straight to this same truth. The idea of loving a baby for what she does in the world is ludicrous, and you don’t yet know what her personality, her intelligence, her talents, her tastes, her limitations will turn out to be. And yet you love her. You love her fully, completely, unreservedly, to the end of time and from the beginning. It is a privilege to love her, to care for her. Her mere existence is a blessing to me, truly. There’s not really any other way to say it.
So it is for the dying, so it is for the newly born, so it is for every person, even you. Even you. When you look into the eyes of a child and you feel all these things, you also realize that your own parents (those very ones you are still so terrified of disappointing!) looked into your eyes in this same way, loving you already, no matter what you did, even if you did nothing at all. I think this is what is meant by the love of God, and we do not need to posit the existence of any supernatural being to find it — it is the seed of all human love (not just parental love), when it is seen for what it really is.