Baby Face: A Christmas Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec

Christmas

I don’t need a holiday or a feast to feel grateful for my children, the sun, the moon, the roof over my head, music, and laughter, but I like to take this time to take the path of thanks less traveled. Paula Poundstone

I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate.  John Adams

If we had paid no more attention to our plants than we have to our children, we would now be living in a jungle of weed.  Luther Burbank

Christmas represents an outlier moment for many persons, including those who work on “peace and security.”  After months of pondering solutions to some of the existential threats that we have manufactured for ourselves –the clever ways we have concocted to subjugate and humiliate each other – the attention of many of us turns to a baby in a barn, a baby in whom some invest mountains of hope, but a baby nonetheless; a baby as shocked and bewildered by the profound implications of the short voyage from womb to world as the rest of us were; a baby experiencing its first chills in the evening air, its first experiences of “distance,” its first uncomfortable naps in some seasonally dry hay, its first hiatus between desire and accommodation.

Yes, that baby: a miracle at one level; a life form struggling to cope with unfamiliar “rules” and surroundings at another.

In the Christian tradition, we tend to sentimentalize this singular newborn.   We just assume that this baby can manage the frosty air filling its lungs; we just assume that this baby has no genetic predispositions to childhood disease, is not allergic to his mother’s milk, is invulnerable to the many germs hovering around the barn to which he has not had nearly enough time to develop a resistance.

This baby apparently is the beneficiary of some divinely-procured pathogen defiance, apparently exhibits some innate ability to tolerate changes of 20 degrees C or more from the womb where it lay snugly only hours before; this baby –with blanket protections but no proper blanket — has taken on sacred significance in ways that have captured the imagination of persons from all monotheistic faiths and a fair number of others besides.

A baby so much like other babies of his time; so much like other babies of our time; yet underscored by such a hopeful and enticing narrative, such a different set of expectations.

This hope is not so different from the hopes we have for the babies born in settings from modern hospitals to tents in refugee camps.  When a child is born, there is a real sense in which the world begins anew.  It begins “anew” because of all the potential locked up in that squirming ball of humanity that has survived perhaps the most dramatic and difficult transition it will ever face over the course of its life, potential that too-often neglected and even traumatized parents must find some way to unlock.

It is this potential that we continue to squander, at times neglectfully at other times intentionally and even murderously.   We cut off health care to children at their most critical developmental moments. We bomb hospital and schools creating mass trauma while eliminating the institutions that might help children recover some measure of their emotional bearings.  We lie to our progeny (and to ourselves) about the future these babies are destined to inherit; a melting, more militarized, more divided world that is virtually guaranteed by the reckless, self-interested decisions that we (and our erstwhile leadership) make each and every day.

With all due respect to the UNICEF team here in New York, it still amazes me after all these years that the human community needs some large multilateral agency (and its numerous national counterparts) to guarantee a modicum of respect and care for children, a modicum which, by the way, we are a long way from ensuring.   What is the matter with us?   How can we pour so much sentimental significance into a long-ago baby in a makeshift manger and then so little into the babies – in Yemen, in Honduras, in rural areas of Central Africa, in urban favelas around the world, even in our own neighborhoods – whose life-enhancing potential is being undermined the second their umbilical cords are severed?

I don’t get this.  It remains for me a Christmas mystery matched only by the star that functions like a GPS device and parents gathering around a manger in rapt attention despite what might well be their own hunger, fatigue, nausea and chills.

In trying to get through this mystery, I have benefited greatly from contributions from two friends of mine (and this office), two of the many women of great substance and thoughtfulness who have helped me (and many others) interpret the times and navigate a way forward in both personal and institutional aspects.

Marta Benavides reminds us frequently from El Salvador about the degree to which “greed and ambition are clouding vision and action,” blinding us to the inequalities we create and the human potential we rob in the name of power and “progress.”  In a similar vein, Lisa Berkley has noted that “If there is one thing the #metoo movement is showing us, it is just how wounded we all are.”

There is, of course, much beyond greed and ambition that clouds our vision, much beyond #metoo that exposes the wounds to which we give so little attention and which are thereby likely to become a most unwelcome slice of our babies’ inheritance.  The greed and personal ambition that we won’t curtail results in decisions that barely benefit the present but surely undermine our prospects.  In the same way, the wounds we will neither confront nor heal in ourselves will surely morph into infections for which no metaphorical antibiotics will ever be sufficient.

Being a baby in this world – not to mention caring for them – is simply too challenging now.  We are as a species, indeed, too damaged, too greedy, too smug; we are too ambitious for our own interests and too little concerned with the general interest.  These deformations of character are things we can address.  Indeed we must, as the consequences of our folly will consume the elders as readily as they will our youngest.

This year, my Christmas prayer for our “lands of confusion” is that our reverence for the manger child becomes not a substitute for, but an enabler of our active reverence for all the babies who enter this world, most entering not under a star but a cloud.

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