Or, Everything that I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned As a Baby.
Babies are born, and they seem to just lie there and do nothing. It’s an illusion. They are actually very busy. From the first day, they are listening carefully to all of the new sounds that are reaching their ears, newly freed from their watery habitat. They are beginning to explore movement in a less restricted environment, moving their hands and arms and legs. Soon they open their eyes, and they begin a close study of the thing that interests them the most:
Babies are born with large brains that work perfectly well. They cannot speak, nor can they understand spoken language, and for that they are intellectually short-changed. In reality, they are neither stupid nor ignorant. They are innocent. Their brains are working fine, but there is very little information up there to work with. They immediately set about to remedy this situation by closely examining the world, and the people, around them.
Many aspects of this new reality are distressing. Babies have all had a longish period of awareness in utero before being born into the outside world. They found their time in the womb, I daresay, rather pleasant. It was warm, and the temperature was constant. Sounds were muted and indistinct. Nutrition was delivered on an almost constant basis, and waste products were effortlessly removed. Movement was restricted, but if you ask any mother you will be assured that babies get plenty of exercise and move around quite a bit. Just as they are becoming accustomed to this peaceful existence, they are painfully expelled from it. Those muscular contractions that are making mom scream in pain are no party for the baby either, I’m sure. They are expelled, and/or dragged, or sometimes suddenly cut out. Then there’s the bright light, and the sounds and the smells, and the breathing, and the crying, and the absence of the mother. Her heartbeat! The mother’s heartbeat had been the sound of being alive, and now it’s gone! That can’t be a good feeling.
Chief among these discomforts is doubtless the feeling of hunger. Blessed is the baby who is immediately delivered into the warmth of its mother’s embrace and breast fed. In any case, the baby will presently discover the frequent feeling of hunger, and hunger will teach the baby the most terrible truth of its life:
The baby is helpless.
The baby feels hunger, and soon realizes that it is only with outside help that this awful feeling can be mitigated. The baby itself is powerless to remedy the situation. It can only cry, and hope that somebody is listening. Hopefully it will be somebody who will understand the crying and compassionately render appropriate assistance. This understanding of helplessness brings new urgency to the baby’s study of faces.
Babies look at faces and immediately see differences between them. These are not value judgments, they are not based on beauty or its absence. Babies can instinctively see that some faces are positively disposed to the baby while others are not. Those cheerful, loving faces are much more likely to respond to the baby’s hungry cries. Babies begin almost immediately to encourage this profitable relationship with sympathetic adult faces by smiling, gurgling and cooing. They are saying, love me! Care for me! Clean me! Feed me!
They do this out of desperation, but also with love and appreciation. Tender, loving caregivers will be repaid with the child’s love as it grows through the stages of life. As helplessness is gradually replaced by independence, the child’s gratitude will remain if the relationship, like the child, is nurtured. This is the greatest gift of parenthood for those lucky enough to have been successful at the job.
Well, that’s a nice story, but how do I come to write it up today, on this day in particular? It happens that during a taxi ride yesterday it occurred to me that the baby’s experience in infancy was the beginning of the child’s understanding of right and wrong. It was no less than the foundation of the child’s value system for life. Looking for those happy, helpful faces taught the baby what is good in life. Worrying about those stern, unhelpful faces taught the baby what is bad. Helping people is good. Letting them suffer is bad. In the baby’s simple, straightforward life-and-death situation, compassion and the willingness to help the weak were identified as the best attributes of all of mankind.
This is not all speculation on my part. I have read about studies that involved older babies, immediately pre-verbal babies, say six or seven months old. They are propped up in a car seat in front of a kind of Punch and Judy show. As puppets are introduced, the baby’s facial expressions are videoed and studied. The babies’ emotions regarding the puppets and the dramatic action can be readily seen. The puppets are not designed with visual clues as to their personalities; whether they are kind or unkind can only be seen through their movement and their actions. They do, however, have features that can be recognized. Perhaps one puppet is short and faced with food on a high shelf. It tries to reach the food but cannot, and it appears to be in distress. The babies read this information very well. Now another, taller puppet enters the stage, and helps the first puppet reach the food, which the “hungry” puppet enjoys. The baby is delighted.
In another vignette, a puppet enters the stage eating something. Another puppet comes onstage and steals the food, causing the first puppet to act upset. The baby observing this action is horrified.
Later on, one of the “good” puppets comes on stage alone, and the baby shows delight at the very sight of helpful puppet. By the same token, the mere appearance of the “unkind” or “bad” puppet causes the baby distress. Voila! Their understanding of good and bad is fully formed.
I am sure that this experience leaves a permanent presence in the baby. We grow up with a “conscience,” a voice inside of us that counsels us on the correctness of a particular course of action. As in, “his conscience was bothering him,” i.e., because he had done something that he knew was wrong. Or asking someone who is considering a course of action, “what does your conscience say?” My hypothesis today is that this voice inside of us is God.
Yup, I just said it. And I mean it just that simply. The voice that most of us have inside of us that guides us towards empathy, compassion and cooperation is God. We all have our own God in our minds, and the general chorus of these multiple Gods acting in concert is God overseeing the progress of life on earth. Observed in practice, it is the chief force for good in the universe and the one thing that allows human life to prosper. Without it, we would be much less than dogs, less even than the apes. We would be struggling in selfish chaos like alligators or something.
Without it, we would be sociopaths, considering only our own needs and wants. Without it, civilization would collapse into anarchy in a matter of a few years. We struggle these days with the curse of those among us who lack it entirely or in whom it exists only weakly. I’m talking about these Ayn Rand following lunatics that have become unaccountably successful in politics and the justice system of late. Even in Hollywood, if you count the Scientologists. It’s like a virus that has entered our public discourse. But I guess that’s another subject.
So, parents, do all that you can to strengthen the developing consciences of your children. Help them to become right-thinking adults. And people, listen to your consciences as you go through life. To fail in these attempts has consequences. The God in our heads is powerful. It can make you ashamed of yourself, or it can make you proud of your actions. Which do you prefer? As you lay dying you will judge your own life. This is the only judgment that you should fear. Would you prefer to lay there feeling like you did a pretty good job of it, recalling family and friends whom you loved and helped, and times when you were thanklessly kind to strangers? Or would it please you more to remember only your money and possessions, while realizing that you missed every good opportunity to be kind to anyone, as your family goes about their business wondering what to do with your money? “What the fuck was I thinking!” is not a thought that anyone should want to be the last on their minds.
Make your beds, my friends. Someday you will find yourselves lying in them.