The Vale of Tears: From Babe to Adult

There are times when I hear my little baby girl crying yet again–perhaps when she is hungry, or tired, or needs a diaper changed, or perhaps worse of all, has been ‘put down’ to sleep for one of her daily naps–and the thought crosses my mind that it makes perfectly good sense for our species to be one afflicted by ‘common unhappiness’ throughout our lives. How could we not, when we spend so much of our initial time on this planet wailing and bawling, expressing our terror and anger at this unfeeling, uncaring and mysterious world?

This is a rather superficial thought, especially when you consider that it is infected with the genetic fallacy: an infancy of tears does not necessarily entail an adulthood or even a childhood similarly afflicted. But still, one of the most common reassurances offered to anxious parents in this domain–to address the speculation expressed above–that “They all turn out pretty well in the end, don’t they?” isn’t particularly, well, reassuring. For I, like many others, do see ample evidence of psychological, psychic, and emotional dysfunction in the world of adults, dysfunction that one is all too easily tempted to posit as an explanatory factor for the visible and vivid failings on the political and moral fronts of our times. You’ve heard it before: a helpless being, terrified and alone, at the mercy of his hopefully-benign-and-loving caretakers, matures via a long process involving repeated traumas of separation, abandonment, rejection, and harsh disciplining, into a deeply conflicted, neurotic, self-and-other destructive entity. The world becomes the stage for the resolution of his neuroses; we, the sufferers of his miserable thrashings about.

In expressing this worry, this fear that the childhood experience of utter helplessness and sporadic, gut-wrenching anxiety and panic might translate into long-term afflictions I’m merely joining the ranks of generations and legions of anxious, guilt-ridden parents. (In seeking to use these experiences to explain the pervasive sense of ‘things falling apart’ in the wider world, I’m leaving the parents behind and flirting with a rather more  ambitious crowd of theorizers.) The problem, of course, is that it is all too easy to engage in that most common of human activities: to try to imagine, for a moment, what another human might feel like, given the presumption of a roughly similar inner life and outwardly directed first-person perspective. Our success at doing this forms the basis for our empathetic experiences and underwrites the resilience of many of our personal relationships and codes of ethical conduct. And so, we cannot but speculate on what it might be like for a baby: alone, surrounded and enveloped by a sensory field of unknown dimension, subjected to pains and discomforts and discombulations. Comforts, too, yes, especially of the breast, the cuddle, the hug, and the kiss, but the mystery and terror of it seem overpowering and dominant.

Perhaps the only reassurance that I can offer myself at least, is that the baby’s perspective is nothing like mine, that she does not have the experiences that I do, equipped with language, a richer arsenal of concepts (especially ones like ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’), and perhaps most importantly, more extensive experience with the unwillingness of this world to offer any confirmation that things will just turn out just fine. Perhaps the baby’s fears are mild ones, just expressed loudly and piercingly; perhaps the real fears are the ones we experience when we’ve grown up enough to understand more of this world of unconscious action and unforgiving consequence, of laws drafted without human consultation.

2 comments on “The Vale of Tears: From Babe to Adult

  1. Noor Alam says:

    And of course, there is the fact that crying is part of her limited ability to communicate at all. The fact that it gets a reaction from us reinforces the crying. But this limitation in communication skills also makes me think again of that Jonathan Lear book on Freud. His description of the scramble of emotions that one can try to deal with through talk therapy seems like a plausible explanation of how the little baby may feel.

  2. […] year or so ago, I wrote a post on how my infant daughter’s crying sometimes provoked, in me, thoughts that seemed […]

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