So Beautiful It Breaks Your Heart

Sadako Sasaki, Peace Child

I recently came across a young family of tourists. The father was a walking ahead of the others, carrying a baby. The mother and her two older daughters all appeared to be struggling to maneuver a stroller. As I got closer I recognized it as a battle between the two girls over who got to push, while the mother intervened. The older girl's face twisted into an expression of anguish as she began to let out a high pitched sound.

The mother responded, in a tone devoid of firmness or command, like a prayer or a wish, "We're not going to have a fit right here."

No one tells you about this before you start having babies. Or maybe they do, but because we aren't yet parents, we don't listen. Or maybe we do listen, but tell ourselves that for us it will be different. My point is that it's impossible for any of us to really know what we're getting into until it's too late. Before you're a parent, you are, quite simply, a different person than who you become the moment your baby is born and it goes way beyond wishing away fits over strollers while you're trying to enjoy your vacation.

Author and Yale University professor of philosophy and cognitive science L.A. Paul proposes a puzzle in which you are to imagine that you are approached at a party by a charismatic stranger with whom you exchange a few minutes of delightful banter. He says to you, "I'm a vampire and I think you would make a terrific vampire." He goes on to offer to make you into a vampire, telling you how wonderful it is, how you will be immortal, how you'll have super strength and speed, the ability to fly, and, like him, you'll be irresistibly charming. You have to admit, that all sounds pretty good, but you have some concerns. "What about the blood drinking? I don't like the sound of that. And I don't know if I can live without ever seeing the sun again. Those seem like a pretty big downsides." The vampire nods, "I get it, but let me assure you, once you're a vampire, those things won't matter."

What do you decide? Becoming a vampire is an irrevocable decision. You can't really know if you'll be able to abide the negatives so you have no choice but to take the vampire's word for it. Becoming a vampire means you will become a whole new individual. Not only will you have super powers, but you be someone for whom drinking blood is not repulsive and never seeing another sunrise is no big deal.

Paul's point is that transformative experiences require something irrevocable to happen. Of course, we don't always get to choose our transformations, such as the type that happen when, say, someone loses a leg, but others we do get to choose, but only if we have the courage to make irrevocable decisions. Deciding to become a parent is in many ways quite similar to the decision to become a vampire. There's no going back and the moment that baby is born everything changes.

Our own daughter is now launched into the world, living thousands of miles away from us. She is still our daughter. The process of moving away has not been like the sudden transformation of her birth, but my wife and I have slowly come to realize that while we will always be vampires, we are not the same sort of vampires we once were. When I overheard that mother's wish, I was briefly transported back to the vampire I once was. I realized that those gripes and whines and fits had been transformed by time. Even as I was able to feel with this mother in her moment, I wanted to tell her, vampire-like, that one day this moment that seems so fraught, this entire family vacation, will be transformed into something beautiful.

Over the weekend, I spoke with an historian, a professor and author from an Ivy League university. I told him the story of this young family and my reaction to it, saying, "They say the past doesn't change, but I think it does." I thought it was a provocative statement to make to an historian, but he replied, "Oh, the past definitely does change. That's my entire profession: we take a fresh look at the evidence and re-interpret it. And when we do it well, we don't just transform the past, we transform the present and future as well."

This is what we do as humans, or vampires, as the case may be. There is the transformation that comes from irrevocable decisions, but there is also, this other kind of transformation, the one that involves continually taking a fresh look at the evidence and finding truth in it that was hidden from us because of the narrow perspective of the present moment. The past changes because our perspective of it changes. That child on the verge of a fit, from the perspective of decades into the future, transforms from something we want to wish away into a moment so beautiful that it breaks your heart. 


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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