CHAPTER V THE OBLIGATION OF BEING-Woodmam
But the primary duty of parents is to learn and to teach that happiness is not the supreme end of life and to dare to live it. We are so bent upon giving to our children that we forget to ask aught of them. We seem to be unmindful of what the wisest teacher of our generation has called the danger of luxury in the lives of our children. Those parents who in largest measure have learned to do without seem to think that they must overwhelm their children with things. How many parents are equal to the wisdom of the heroic Belgian mother who would not permit her children to leave Belgium in the hour of its deepest stress and suffering, saying: "Yes, we intended to take our children to England for safety but when we remembered that in the future they might hold important positions in our country and perhaps be influential in future leadership, we did not want them to come to this work ignorant of what our people have undergone and suffered during this terrible war. They would not have known because they would have spent all the period of the war in pleasant living in England. When we thought of this, we felt with sinking hearts that we owed it to them and their country to keep them here, though we knew and know now that there is great danger." Did not this Belgian mother serve her children infinitely better than do those parents who imagine that they must deny their children nothing save the possibility of discomfort and want?
Edward Everett Hale tells a story which clearly shows what Emerson thought best for a young man and wherein he conceived the responsibility of parents to lie. I congratulated him as I congratulated myself on the success of our young friend, and he said: "Yes, I did not know he was so fine a fellow. And now, if something will fall out amiss, if he should be unpopular with his class, or if he should fail in business, or if some other misfortune can befall him, all will be well." He himself put it, "Good is a good doctor, but bad is sometimes a better."
With one further evil effect, perhaps the worst, of the habitude of ceaseless parental giving, I have dealt elsewhere. It fosters more than all else the parental sense of possession. Have I not given my children everything?—asks a hyper-wasteful father or a super-bounteous mother. Yes, it might be answered, you have given them everything and that is all you have given them. Giving a child things without number is no guarantee of peace or beauty in the parental-filial relation. Giving, giving, eternal giving is bound to narcotize into sodden self-satisfaction, or at last to rouse to protest an awakening soul. If, Mr. Successful or Madam Prosperous, you think that you are satisfying your children because you are giving them an abundance of things, you may be destined some day to suffer a sorry awakening. Remember that too many things kill a home more surely than too few. Children may ask and ought to ask more of parents than things, and, far from being satisfied with things, they ought to demand of parents that these minimize things and magnify that of life which is unconditioned by things. To magnify the home is not to furnish it richly but to give it noble content.
Over-stressing the physical side of the life of children and under-emphasizing the spiritual side of their life leads inevitably to certain results. Some years ago, I knew a family in which both parents died within a brief period. There was some perfunctory grief, though in each case the funeral was one of the new-fashioned kind, marked alike by tearlessness and the use of motorcars. The interesting thing, as I looked upon these comfortable, unworried, immobile children, was that probably it had been the dream of the parents for a lifetime to make their children comfortable and happy. Well, the parents had wonderfully succeeded, had so succeeded in the matter of making their children comfortable that not even the death of parents in swift succession could shake them out of their deep-rooted comfortableness even for a moment. Within a few weeks of the passing of the mother, I met the son and heir—heir rather than son—at an amateur baseball game in which he was one of the vociferous and gleesome participants, with a cigar perched in his mouth at that angle which is, I believe, considered good form at a baseball game.
As I surveyed that sorry specimen of filial impiety, apparently without reverence for his parents or respect for himself, I was moved to ask myself where lies the fault, whose the ultimate responsibility? True enough, the children of those parents were rather empty-headed and superficial beings, but it was the parents who were primarily at fault. The mother was a blameless rather than a good woman, and the father was an unseeing, soulless money-grubber with but one aim in life—namely, to multiply his children's rather than his own comforts, and to enable them to indulge in every manner of luxury. These gave their children things and only things, and still there was something touching in the devotion of the parents, however poor and mistaken its objects. But there was something repulsive in the indifference of the children to the parents who had lived for naught else than their well-being, however mistakenly conceived.
Parents who give their children only things must face the fact that they make themselves quite dispensable, seeing that they are not things. For things and the wherewithal to secure them are alone indispensable according to the parental standards. The ultimate responsibility? Any possibility of change involves the re-education of parents. Parents must learn long before parenthood what are the values in life for which it is worth while to toil and to contend. The root of the matter goes very deep in conformity to the hint of Oliver Wendell Holmes with respect to the time at which a child's education is to be begun.
Some years past, I came upon a ludicrous illustration of the maximum care devoted to the physical nature and the minimum devoted to the moral and spiritual nurture of child-life. I heard a very well-circumstanced mother declare: "I never permit my child to have a crumb of food handed it by its governess which has not previously been tasted by me." Quite innocently I asked: "Where is the little gentleman?" The answer was: "Napoleon—I call him that because his name was Caesar—is at the 'movies' this afternoon." Upon further inquiry, I learned that the mother did not know the name and nature of the play upon which her son was looking, and that in order to keep him out of mischief he was sent every afternoon to the motion picture theatres. Here was the good mother tasting every mouthful fed to the heir-apparent lest harm befall him, and, yet, he was spending an hour or more daily in attendance at a motion-picture theatre where poison rather than food might be and probably was fed to the child's mind. But no hesitation and no fear were felt on that score. Underlying the one concern and the other unconcern is a crude materialism which assumes that the avenue of access to a child's well-being is feeding but that the mind, howsoever fed and impoisoned, even of a little child, could somehow be trusted to take care of itself.
There are certain things which we deny to our children partly because we have them not, and yet again because we are not often conscious of the need of them in the life of the child. I place first spiritual-mindedness; second, the sense of humility, and third, the art of service. These three graces must come again into the life of our children from the life of their parents and they can hardly come in any other way. If they come not, it will be an unutterable loss from every point of view, remembering the word of a distinguished university president, "the end of the home is the enlargement and enrichment of personality, the performance of the duty owed to general society in making contributions for its betterment."
I address myself particularly to Jewish parents when I say to them that it is a terrible blunder to ignore the spiritual responsibility which rests upon them. A Christian child is almost invariably touched by the circumambient spiritual culture but the Jewish child is in the midst of a non-Jewish culture and almost untouched by spiritual influences. The home gives little, the Jewish religious school gives no more than a fragmentary education in the things of Jewish history instead of exercising a characteristic spiritual influence. And, as for the Synagogue, it is the part of kindness or of guilt to be silent touching its hardly sufficing influence in American Israel in the creation of a distinctive spiritual atmosphere or the enhancement of definite spiritual values.
With respect to the spirit of humility, I happened not long ago to confer with two young men, one of whom is about to enter into the ministry. When asked quite conventionally what it was that had moved him to think of himself as especially fitted for the ministry, his answer was: "I feel that I am a born leader of men." On the other hand, I asked a young graduate of an American university who was about to leave for Europe what was his life's purpose, and he answered: "To serve in the foreign mission field." Is it not true that the youth who felt that he was a born leader and sought a field in which he could exercise the qualities of leadership lacked spirituality, was wholly without humility, evidently did not have the faintest understanding of the possibilities of service, and the other revealed the possession of spiritual-mindedness, of humility and finally the spirit of service.
There is no more serious indictment to be framed against the family than that it does little and often nothing to foster the social spirit. The home is not often enough a school of applied social ethics, and the home that is not is likely to witness such conflict as arises out of revolt against the smugly self-centered and unsocialized home on the part of those sons and daughters who have caught a gleam of the social life. If we had or could share with our children the spirit of service, would not great numbers of young people throughout the land rise up, eager for service to Israel in the midst of its terrible needs at home and abroad? Few were the well-circumstanced youth in the course of the war, who gave themselves to service through agencies classed as non-military, and fewer still such as volunteered for service as relief workers in East-European lands at the close of the war—again among the well-to-do. This is very largely a matter of upbringing, of the ideals implanted by parents and teachers. What is your son's ideal of living? Is it to serve or to be served? Do you try hard enough to get out of your son's head the notion that being served by butler and valet and chauffeur is the greatest thing in the world? The greatest thing in the world is not being served but serving, to be least served and most serviceable.
As Tolstoy put it, I believe shortly before his death, woman's bearing and nursing and raising children will be useful to humanity only when she raises up children not merely to seek pleasure but to be truly the servants of mankind. The ultimate question underlying every other is, what are you giving to the souls of your children? And the answer is,—what you are. "In my dealing with my child, my Latin and Greek, my accomplishments and my money, stead me nothing. They are all lost on him: but as much soul as I have avails. If I am merely willful, he gives me a Roland for an Oliver, sets his will against mine, one for one, and leaves me, if I please, the degradation of beating him by my superiority of strength. But if I renounce my will and act for the soul, setting that up as umpire between us two, out of his young eyes looks the same soul; he reveres and loves with me."
Thus pleads Emerson in the name of the child's potential oversoul. Not long ago, I made an attempt to interest a young woman of a well-known family in social service. She shuddered as if some verminous thing had been held up to her gaze. "Not for me that kind of thing." You must teach your children the methods and the practice of selfless service. If you do not, well, your children may rise up against you or fall to your own level, or, worst of all, awaken and discover what you are.