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Babies Against Despair
"The Meaning of Birth" and the comfort of unmerited love
This week, I’m discussing a book where two men discuss the meaning of birth. On Thursday, I’ll share a round up of your thoughts about when women are asked to “catch up” to a malign model of masculinity.
I’m re-upping Kelsey Piper’s list of recommended places to donate to support Ukrainians. And Kate, an Other Feminisms reader and my friend, passes on another recommendation: Rebecca Blady, a Hillel rabbi in Berlin is working directly with refugees. If you donate to her paypal, the money will go to the people she’s helping.
In the last week or so before my daughter was born, I was reading The Meaning of Birth, a dialogue between Giovanni Testori, a gay, Italian writer and Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation.
As you might expect, a dialogue between two men was a lot less about motherhood than I was looking for at that moment. But the book is focused on the universal experience of birth—everyone is born. Everyone begins radically dependent, unable to earn affection.
The dialogue is between friends and it has a familiarity to it (which can sometimes be a little hard to penetrate). But Giussani and Testori’s conversation isn’t simply intellectual exploration for the pleasure of thinking together. There’s an urgency to their conversation; a problem they hope it will solve. (It’s a conversation that I picture over coffee, not tea or whiskey).
Testori says, “Most of us are born from a moment of total love, from a moment of love which arrived at the point of no longer being able to know itself except with the help, intervention, and presence of God. . . . This is how I became a son.” The promise faith offers, this book argues, is that this sonship is equally available to all, regardless of whether their physical conception was an act of abandonment to love or predatory violence. And sonship is a condition of being loved because we are dependent, not in spite of that dependence. Alongside the “humility” of birth, the “sense of one’s limits,” there is also “the possibility of security.” We aren’t self-made men; nestled within that rebuke is a promise that we are loved before we make anything of ourselves at all.
This confidence wards off despair, which is this book’s great target. If we are responsible for justifying our own existence, we swiftly discover that we can’t. Giussani and Testori hope to make that discovery of our helplessness in itself a reminder that our life was given, not seized; we were wanted, even if we don’t yet know by Whom. To be grateful for this dependence, rather than resentful or frightened of it, offers “the possibility of being children and of being human”—and we can either be children, or be alone. When we forget this dependence, our “birth,” our status as children, we forget that we are loved. As Testori puts it, “[I]s not original sin the failure to recognize oneself as being wanted?”
I was a little scattered at the end of January, and I got a ways into the book before I noticed that the dialogues had originally taken place in the 80s and were being newly released now. The anxiety and despair the men describe, and its possible salve in remembering we were loved without regard for our merit, seem like a modern problem, too.
This is part of why I’m so interested in writing and reading about parenthood and childhood. It’s the experience of dependency that everyone shares, no matter what the rest of their lives looks like.
It’s tricky that we don’t remember it (and, in smaller families, don’t see younger siblings loved in this way). But any problem for babies is never just a women problem or a parent problem (though it may fall more heavily on those groups).
Everyone is a baby to begin with.
Being a baby is the most universal human experience there is.