Our Terrible Vulnerability


my vulnerable ones

Last week, a precious little boy named Lane Thomas Graves was playing in shallow water on the edge of a lagoon when an alligator dragged him into the water and killed him. His father tried to fight off the alligator but could not. When I think about this story, I think of my own little boys and I weep for those poor parents. How do you recover from such a random, unpredictable, horrible loss? How do you return home without that child?

But if I’m honest, sympathy wasn’t my first reaction to this story. My first reaction was to investigate the details. Was this a recognized play area, or a random alligator-infested lagoon where only crazy people would swim? Was he just splashing in the shallows or was he waist-deep? Only after I learned the truth—that he was wading in ankle-deep water in a beach area intended for play along with many other families, all watched over by lifeguards—did I open my heart. My first instinct, like that of so many others, was to see if I could apportion blame.

Incidents like this bring out our human tendency to blame. The nasty comments directed at these poor parents remind me of all the hateful blame thrown at the parents of the little boy who got into the gorilla enclosure. Why must we humans do this to each other?

On the face of it, it seems that the problem is a lack of compassion and empathy, a failure to put ourselves in the position of others and to feel the full weight of their suffering. It seems that our hearts and imaginations are just too small.

But perhaps that’s not it. Perhaps we blame not because we don’t feel the full weight of suffering, but because we do, and we don’t want to shoulder that burden. We don’t want to acknowledge that that horrible thing could just as easily have happened to us. We want to shove away the unwelcome reminder that these sorts of events provide: that all of us, by virtue of being human, are vulnerable to random suffering, pain, and loss. When we blame, we’re saying, “That wasn’t really random. I am safe from that. That form of suffering can’t happen to me or mine.” We blame to reject the possibility of suffering in our own lives and in those of our loved ones.

The ancient Greeks had a saying: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” At every moment of our lives—crossing the street, falling in love, giving birth, going in for our annual check-up, watching our child splash in the water—our happiness is a terribly fragile thing.

Every human culture has to find an answer to our horrible vulnerability to suffering. Our pagan ancestors burned sacrifices to curry favor with the gods. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle insisted that living a virtuous life in pursuit of truth could make life meaningful, even in the face of misfortune. But it was Christianity that provided the ultimate answer to the problem of suffering. In Christ, God Himself suffered for us. Jesus’ suffering on the cross gave new meaning to our vulnerability to suffering. We serve a God who suffers with us, who loves us in our suffering, and who promises us that our suffering is not the end, but the beginning of an eternal life of unimaginable joy, a life He suffered to provide for us.

As our culture turns away from Christ, we are also turning away from the Christian answer to suffering. And without Christ, suffering loses meaning.

Of course it is good to alleviate human suffering. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, shelter the homeless, tend to the sick and dying, work to cure diseases, and engage in all the works of mercy. But there’s a big difference between sacrificing to aid the suffering and refusing to accept human vulnerability to suffering. We can do all these good works and nevertheless, many of us will suffer without cause or warning.

If we live only for happiness and success, then suffering robs of us of everything that matters. It cannot be borne. We cannot bear the thought of children being born poor and unwanted—better that they should die in the womb than to emerge so vulnerable. We cannot bear the thought of terminal disease—better to die before suffering and seeing one’s loved ones suffer. We cannot bear the thought of a random killing of a child by an alligator—surely his parents were negligent. And when we can’t kill or apportion blame? Then we look to laws and government programs to protect us from the horrible weight of our neighbor’s suffering. (This is what it means to make the government your God.)

When we can’t find meaning and hope in suffering, we end up denying the innate value of human life. We start thinking that life is only worth living under certain conditions. We privilege the lives of the healthy, the lucky, the intelligent, the wanted, the educated, and the successful or potentially successful over the lives of the weak, the disabled, the failed, the ill, the ignorant, the unwanted, and the poor.

Our vulnerability is essential to our humanity, and when we deny that vulnerability, we become less than human.

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My Poor Daughter

My daughter and I in 2007 at my graduation

According to a recent study out of the Harvard Business School, I’m impoverishing my daughter by raising her myself.

The study’s authors found that women whose moms worked outside the home are more likely to be employed than women whose moms stayed home, and in the United States, they earn 23% more. According to the study’s co-author, Kathleen McGinn, “These women earn more money in the jobs that they do hold. And those women who do work are significantly more likely to hold supervisory responsibility in their jobs. So they earn more money and they’re more powerful at work.”

Oh no. Looks like I’m putting my daughter on the fast train to loser-ville. How could I be so selfish?

Actually, I’m not at all bothered by this study, which tells us something kind of obvious that we should be glad to hear: our daughters emulate us. If I work, my daughter will think that’s normal. If I don’t, she’ll think that’s normal. She will be more comfortable making the same sacrifices I do, whether those are the sacrifices necessary to earn tenure or the sacrifices necessary to be home with her.

Last week she told me, without any prompting, as if she had been pondering the issue, “You know, I want to have a career when I’m older, but when you have kids, one parent needs stay home with them, so I’ll do that for a while. It’s important.”

Did I react to this by saying, “No, no, no, then you’ll make less money, dear! You’ll have less power. You won’t be as famous or as honored. What if you never get hired again after you quit? And have you thought about how you’d be making it harder for other women to succeed?”

No. Truth be told, I would love for my daughter to stay home with her children, even if it means she makes less money when she does return to work. That’s how happy I am with my choice.

I realize that I am privileged to have had the choice not to work full time. It’s a blessing to have had a decision to make, but it was also agony. Deciding to forgo a prestigious full-time job was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make. For years I went back and forth, imagining what my life would be like if I took one path or the other, asking friends for advice, and agonizing.

I didn’t want “balance.” I wanted the weight of my life to be squarely on the side of my family. I wanted to be firmly for them, not balanced precariously between work and family. Part-time work sounded perfect, but I was ambivalent about the possibility of a demanding full-time tenure track job, as desirable and prestigious as the work was. Back then, the choice was all or nothing. I did take a full time, tenure-track job that I loved, but ultimately I chose to stay at home.

While I was agonizing, I’d scour the internet looking for wisdom. Most of what I found was along the lines of “What are you thinking, fool? Get to work. You’re too important to take care of messy, little, dependent, barely verbal people all day.” That was the gist of Linda Hirshman’s insultingly-titled book, Get to Work … And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late, which came out just in time to chime in to my internal debate. From Hirshman (or rather from reviews of Hirshman—I didn’t have time to read outside of work then) I gathered that being a full-time mom is a life of meaningless, pointless tedium compared to all that I could achieve for me and for the cause of gender equality if, like her, I became a professor. She also cautioned me not to bother looking for meaningful volunteer or part-time work. The best I could hope for would be stuffing envelopes for a good cause. I didn’t fully buy all this, but it got to me. It made me feel foolish, short-sighted, and selfish for even thinking of opting out. With the power of hindsight, I now know her advice was crap. Ahhh, hindsight.

When I was searching the internet for wisdom, there were words I longed to hear. In the wake of the Harvard study, I thought I’d write them now, just so that they’re out there to counterbalance the fear-mongering and guilt trips.

To the mom facing a decision to work or not: I don’t know what God is calling you to do. It could be to have a career and be a mom. But if devoting the bulk of your days to your family is what God is calling you to do, listen to Him. He can be trusted. Give your life to Him and in the end, not a single talent or skill you have will be wasted. If you live for Him, you do not need to live in fear of boredom or purposelessness. The life He has planned for you will take everything you have to give. His plans for you are guaranteed to be better than any plans you could make for yourself. Harder, maybe, and less glamorous, but more meaningful, more loving, and more fulfilling. Go for it.

Or to borrow from Linda Hirshman: Say yes to God … and live the life He has planned for you, before it’s too late.

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