Gibran and LeGuin on compassionate detachment

I attended my cousin Bindi's wedding a while back, and during the ceremony, her husband-to-be, Marc, read from The Prophet. The bridegroom used Gibran’s words to pledge that he and his new wife would have a relationship based on compassionate detachment with their children:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

For me, like Bindi and Marc, compassionate detachment rates quite highly in the qualities of ‘good parenting’. If I ever were to have any children, I too would strive to teach my son or daughter everything that they wish to know - not everything I wished to teach. I hope I would celebrate my child’s achievements - even those that resulted from tuition or training from other adults. (A recognized stage in a pupil’s learning curve in Japan is ‘ri’ - the point where their growth diverges from their prescribed teachings.) I would love to be able to take pride in my children’s achievements that exceed my own - and yet not take credit for those achievements. Science fiction author Ursula Le Guin illustrates this model in her utopian novel The Dispossessed (on which I happened to write my honors thesis) beautifully. In her novel, biological, economic and social relationships are designed so that that the characters are largely independent of one another, and yet prosper. She describes the 'substitute' in a culture without marriage in the following passage, though it could be used to describe any other relationship, platonic or professional -

“Partnership was a voluntarily constituted federation like any other. So long as it worked, it worked, and if it didn't work it stopped being. It was not an institution but a function. It had no sanction but that of private conscience. [...] Though it might seem that [the] insistence on freedom to change would invalidate the idea of a promise or a vow, in fact the freedom made the promise meaningful.”

Unfortunately, my life here on Earth is very much at odds with LeGuin’s science fiction and Gibran’s mysticism. My anxieties have caused me to sabotage my workplace to ensure my coworkers remain reliant on me. I easily lose sight of why it is that I bother going to work at all. I start to figure that if no one pays me for doing something, or rewards me in some material way, there is no good reason for me to do it. LeGuin, however, is conscious of these tensions - even in the post-scarcity civilization of the Hainish. Her fictions often portray people trying to reconcile their professional and personal selves, such as empathetic anthropologists who struggle to refrain from meddling in other species’ affairs. The Dispossessed portrays a world where people use their work as self-expression, and who see no difference between an affront to themselves in the workplace, and an affront to them in public:

“A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it. It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skillful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well—this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection, and of sociality as a whole.”

Bringing the principles of redundancy from the context of the workplace, into the rest of our lives, makes sense when the traps that I might fall into in my office are the same that I can fall into in my ‘normal’ life. For instance, the same resistance that arises within me at the thought of being professionally redundant can arise at the prospect of being socially redundant - as expressed by the fear that if my significant other can replace me, what incentive would my friends and family then have in keeping us around?

As a parent, I know that I would be tempted to keep my children emotionally dependent on me - even emotionally handicapped – as long as possible. That way, they would continue to rely on me for affirmation and advice even once they had gained all of the credentials of adulthood. I am no longer drawing from fiction here – this shit happens, and it is not pretty. (French Philosopher Blaise Pascal once remarked, "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.") As long as my own self-worth is not dependent on my role as parent, I would be able to view this kind of behavior for what it is - just a couple of steps down from M√ľnchausen syndrome by proxy, which is the opposite of the nurturing model  towards which I would hope any familial relationship would aspire.

Instead, the ideal adult relationship that a parent and child have in their adult life - when the increased opportunities of the child offset the seniority of the parent - is one of friends. Obviously this is optimistic, but  it is a far more desirable than a relationship of continued deference and patronage - or worst yet, constantly struggling to win the approval of an aged patriarch or matriarch, and then punishing them for withholding that approval. Were I a parent, I would love it if my children, though grown, continued to seek my opinion on matters I knew little about – but I would rather them be confident about making their own decisions. The healthiest, and happiest, relationships are those where the members choose to be together, rather than have to be - who gather with mutual anticipation of the exciting things that they will do together, rather than out of fear of the alternative.

Image by romaryka