The sun is shining and birds are chirping as leaves float lazily from the canopy of trees surrounding my suburban home. My children shout with glee in the yard and my baby coos in his high chair – three healthy little humans without a care in the world. At the same time, stories of disaster and devastation intertwine with the smells of supper as I listen to the radio while doing the day’s dishes. This month has seen record-breaking hurricanes and chart-topping earthquakes, as well as hydrogen bomb threats, racially-motivated shootings, terrorist attacks, a refugee crisis, several famines, and countless other tragedies occurring simultaneously all over the world. Is it just me, or has the never-ending stream of bad news turned into a flood all of a sudden? My idyllic life bears no hint of the horrors too many on our planet are facing, and yet, their suffering keeps me up at night and gnaws at my happiness.
I want to keep my kids inside their blissful bubble, safe from pain and even the ache of knowing there are others in pain. At the same time, I want my children to be grateful, empathetic, and informed citizens of the world. Until now, I have excused myself from talking to them about current events by reasoning they are too young to understand. But my four-year-old has started asking questions about stories he hears on the radio about far away places (fortunately, we do not have TV so we are all spared most of the agonizing visuals). He is also wondering about the less fortunate in our own community – those without new clothes for school, toys for Christmas, or even homes. I love that he wants to help, and I try to encourage that however I can by modeling generosity and encouraging him to give what he can. But sooner or later, my children will learn that the world is a hard place for many, if not most, of its human inhabitants. Worse than that, how will I explain that most human (and animal) suffering is caused by other humans? How can instill in my children a faith in mankind and a willingness to trust in the goodness of other people once they begin to see what we are doing to each other and our world?
The real problem is that I myself am losing faith. When fear, hate, greed, and ego are glorified, my belief in shared, sacred human values seems naive. I try to tell myself that it is darkest before the dawn, that we must be hungry in order to enjoy a good meal. But I am not sure I believe it enough myself to pass along this persistent optimism to my children. It does not appear that we have yet hit rock bottom. How much further can our country, and our species, fall before we recognize the spiral of self-destruction? What good is opening a 529 college savings account for my children if the world is destroyed by nuclear war / extreme weather / hatred before then? What will I say when my children cannot sleep because they are afraid of a bomb being dropped on our nation’s capitol? “I am too, my love,” is probably not very comforting.
Some suggest that I might feel better about the future if I become proactive about shaping it – join a movement, raise funds for a worthy cause, petition Congress, run for office. My first jobs were on Capitol Hill, in the House and then in the Senate, constructing U.S. foreign policy. At the time, I did feel empowered. I believed that my hard work meant something and that I was contributing to a greater force that did good all around the world. But that was a decade and a lifetime ago. Looking back, my efforts were not in vain, but they merely nudged the force along a path it was already barreling down. I could not change anything. Now that I no longer have the platform of a Senator’s press release or vote, who I am to believe I can make a difference? I still work for the Federal Government, because I feel called to public service, but every day I wonder who I am serving.
This sense of helpless despair is particularly disheartening because I am not a cynic by nature. To the contrary, I was a two-time Optimist International honoree in high school and still carry their creed in my wallet. Maybe it is the sleep deprivation, or the post-partum hormones, but the Pollyanna in me is feeling pretty beaten down by what I see happening all around. That is not to say I am sad; to the contrary, these are some of the best days of my life and I am enjoying them immensely. As I watch my children in their carefree play, however, I feel the chill of a shadow they do not yet see.
Maria Montessori wrote:
“If survival depended solely on the triumph of the strong then the species would perish. So the real reason for survival, the principle factor in the ‘struggle of existence’ is the love of adults for their young.”