(Attentive readers will note that this is just one of today’s posts concerned with the relationship of parents and children. The other is by Sarah Puryear: “Wooing millennials with tradition, not pyrotechnics.”)
I love my children, and I love their books — works like Louise Fatio’s The Happy Lion, Robert McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine (CLAM CHOWDER FOR LUNCH!!!), or Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon. That last one has been a particular favorite ever since I saw this lovely appreciation (which hasn’t prevented my appreciation of this rather different set of observations).
Last year, a relative gave us several books by Nancy Tillman, including her On the Night You Were Born, I’d Know You Anywhere, and Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You. These are beautiful books, to be sure, and I’m grateful to have them. Tillman’s constant theme is “You are loved.” Sappy as it may seem, it always gets to me in On the Night You Were Born. At first glance it seems absurdly anthropocentric (really? The polar bears danced all night to celebrate your birth?), but I’ve come to the conviction that its anthropocentrism is not that far off from Christian claims about man’s place in creation (à la Romans 8). It just so happens that, as I first read Tillman, I had just reread C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra with its wild, beautiful description of unfallen humanity’s lordship.
Other Tillman books lean more heavily in the direction of parental love. The message isn’t just that “you are loved” but that “you are loved by me.” So far so good. I mean, what parent wouldn’t want their child to hear that message? But there’s more.
Is there such a thing as too much love? Well, not exactly. True love, the love of the triune God, is infinite in its plenitudinous fecundity. But our love, being imperfect, can miss the mark: we can love the wrong things; we can love the wrong things in the right way; we can love good things in the wrong way; we can love good things so much that we love better things less than we should. No one who knows anything about love (especially in its Christian description) can accept the recent flattening platitude “love is love” as if there is nothing more to say.
It’s not that Tillman’s Wherever You Go My Love Will Find You is creepy, though it doesn’t take much recontextualizing with that title to make it so. In any case it does, from the very start, put us in touch with a kind of “love” that gave me pause:
I wanted you more than you ever will know, so I sent love to follow wherever you go.
I’m aware of the complex socio-political baggage of having children who are “wanted.” We’ll put aside the loaded “pro-choice” connotations and stick with a more basic question: Should anyone “want” children? Probably the right answer is yes, especially in the context of Christian marriage, but does a book that is, ultimately, about love, need to start with want? I really wanted (more than you know) a new TV; I really want a usable dining room table; I want a good, stable job and place for my family. Did I want my children with the same calculus of consumer desire? I hope the answer is no.
Sure, having children is a choice: a choice made either (implicitly) by engaging in the marital act or (explicitly) by choosing to adopt. The trouble is that we take our admirable desire to avoid “unwanted” children and put all the emphasis on making them “wanted” as if it is being “wanted” that gives them value. There are alternatives, the most suitable being the givenness of marital openness to children: in authentic Christian marriage, all children are by definition “wanted,” even if they are not “planned” in the way that we plan an outing or a teleconference.
But back to the subject of love. In Tillman’s vision, strong parental desire leads to strong (even invincible) love for the child:
So climb any mountain… climb up to the sky! My love will find you. My love can fly!
My love is so high, and so wide, and so deep, it’s always right there, even when you’re asleep.
These are, again, deeply admirable lines with which I share great natural sympathy. I want to be able to say these things to my children (and to my wife). The trouble is that I know that my love cannot fly, and I know that my love is not “so high and so wide and so deep.” My love is a mess. It’s good, it’s real, it’s serious and committed. I hope, for my wife and children, that it’s reliable. But I’m not going to sing about it as if it isn’t vulnerable or difficult to sustain, as if it isn’t housed in this fleshly body burdened by sin and death.
There is another love so deep, so broad, so high, “beyond all thought and fantasy.” And this divine love is so much better and more reliable than mine.
Several months ago I noticed my wife reading Wherever You Are to my son, substituting “God’s love” for “my love.” Just so. I want my child to feel loved, but I don’t want that feeling of love to rest in my love as an end in itself. In the order of knowing, it probably goes without saying that a father’s love is useful experience for later apprehending the love of God — but such love should be (to use Augustine) used, not enjoyed.
We’ll keep reading the Nancy Tillman books, even if at times we need to alter them. They represent so much that is good and bad about our cultural attitude towards children. I’m glad that we take for granted that children should be told that they’re loved. At the same time we need to avoid deifying our parental love and desire. God is the one who “wanted us more than we ever could know,” and it is only in God’s selfless desire that our own hearts can find a stable home.
The image is Renoir’s Gabrielle et Jean (ca. 1895-1896). It is licensed under Creative Commons.