"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Loss Of Innocence–The Terrible Existential Consequences Of An Irremediably Bad Seed

Herbie Palmer had been one of those picky, irascible, unpleasant children who had whined and fussed from Day One.  To make matters worse his parents who had waited a long time before deciding to have a child, put up with the unpleasantness, inconvenience, and expense of in vitro fertilization just to conceive; and even at the very last were unsure why they had even decided for fertility.  There were few compelling reasons to have children these days, no funeral pyre to be lit, no expected support in old age, problematic in-laws the rule rather than the exception, and brutal adolescence and dysfunctional adulthood more than likely.  In terms of economics, children were all cost and little benefit – a ledger that no accountant would ever sign off on, and no financial adviser would ever recommend.  

Years ago people had children because of social and economic reasons. Henry VIII was so desperate for a son to continue the royal line that he married eight times, was indifferent to his wives and daughters, and chopped off the heads of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Peasants cared little for hereditary title, but relied on the labor of sons and daughters to survive.  In both cases, there were obvious, demonstrable benefits for childbearing.  Today the discernible benefits of children are indistinct if they exist at all; and the best that can be said for having them is the recovery of lost innocence.

Image result for images henry viii

So the Palmers, despite many misgivings, went ahead and welcomed Herbert McKenzie Palmer, a healthy, strong baby, on February 14th, happily and coincidentally Valentines Day and the day that Betsy and Ferdie Palmer had met on a beach in Goa ten years before.  It was a miracle, they said, putting pre-birth doubts well in the past, a gift if not from God then whatever powers that be; for what else could his conception and birth be called when all hope had been abandoned and a life of infertility and a long, lonely old age awaited? And for the first few days, they knew that they had made the right decision.  What could be more miraculous than a new being who never before existed, who was created by them alone, and was theirs singularly, especially, and wondrously?

Image result for images happy babies

Unfortunately Herbie was a colicky baby, ornery, selfish, and demanding from the very start; and so it was that the blush faded from the bloom of the rose more quickly than they had anticipated.  Yet the miracle could not be ignored nor avoided.  He was theirs with no pull-by or expiry date, no warranty, or guarantee.  ‘For better or worse’ was not a term they ever wanted to apply to poor Herbie, wet, wailing, and unhappy in his crib; but they came to accept the cards they had been dealt, hope for the best, seek counsel and support from friends and family, and make do with what they had.

Of course they loved little Herbie; and it was only natural to feel the frustration of sleeplessness and never-ending demands – ‘I’m hungry, I’m wet, I’m gassy, and I’m tired’ – but worse was the increasing sense that their new baby was just plain irritable and pissy.  Were they really dealt a bad hand?  Had Great Uncle Hiram’s ornery genes somehow gotten thrown into the genetic mix in the test tube?  Were they simply and inescapably unlucky?

Image result for images bad hand of cards

It was hard to conclude otherwise, either that God had ill-favored them, or the luck of the draw was horrendously, impossibly bad.

Grandparents, friends, and close relatives all insisted that ‘this too will pass’.  Little Herbie, what with the intelligence, equanimity, and centeredness of his parents, would inevitably turn out all right, and would be the joy that everyone expected.

Unfortunately for everyone, especially Herbie’s parents, these optimistic predictions were never realized.  With each passing month, the boy became even more irritable, ornery, and inconsolable.  In the words of his Great Grandmother, he was ‘a pill’.  Not only were his parents not able to enjoy and savor the miracle of his development from newborn to infant to toddler to little boy, but they felt increasingly angry, frustrated, and hemmed in.  The little bugger was ruining everything from the casual brunch to summer vacations.  Had they made the wrong decision after all?

More, perhaps most importantly, they had been deprived of the only modern-day benefit to having children – the perfect and pure innocence of childhood.  That marvelous expectancy, delight, and joy of a new being discovering the world, finding himself, and displaying pure, unalloyed, un-tampered-with love and affection. 

Of course they tried.  How could Betsy, smiling down on sweet, innocent Herbie suckling at her breast, possibly be angry, disappointed, or dismissive?  Yet from the minute he was through feeding, burped, bathed, and swaddled, he began crying – not just an unhappy whimpering, but a full-throated, defiant howl which lasted until he was mercifully taken up again, cuddled, and fed.

Image result for image happy mother breastfeeding her baby

“He’ll get over it”, repeated friends and family who had had children of their own.  “Be patient.  Relax.  Babies pick up on their mothers’ anxieties”.  Easier said than done, Betsy thought.  Her child was one of a kind, hors de série, unexplained and unexplainable.

Now, most babies work their way out of what must be infant misery – a combination of genetic predisposition to orneriness and lack of immunity to environmental assault – but Herbie Palmer was one of the few whose genetic combinations were simply ill-structured for accommodation.  As much as the parents of the pre-cognizant Herbie Palmer might have wished, the maleficence of some unreported ancestor, passed on through generations, could not be denied or ignored.  He was, and as it appeared, would always be a pissy, ornery person.

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The Palmers had been denied the gift of innocence, as had their parents who, after years of waiting and hoping for a grandchild, found themselves at the hands of an unattractive, unpleasant offspring.  They couldn’t turn their back on him, for doing so would be to ignore their son and beloved daughter-in-law, but were forced to demur, again and again, when it came to being with the little guy. 

As he grew older and no more socialized, giving, and loving, Betsy Palmer wondered what she had done wrong with her son.  She knew of the difficulties of his infant years, but assumed that he had outgrown them.  “Maybe he’s autistic”, she thought.  Since the definition of autism had expanded to include selfish, inconsiderate, stubborn behavior, perhaps it was indeed possible that his disruptive, antisocial attitude had a psycho-physiological disorder.  Like many parents, such a diagnosis would take her and her husband off the hook.  If he had a few wires twisted, a misplaced gene, or a chemical imbalance, then they could not be blamed for raising such a difficult, ornery child.

Both child psychologists the Palmers consulted agreed that he was not autistic nor did he have ADHD or any other medical disorder.  He was purely and simply bad; and his parents had better address his behavioral issues before he got much older or Herbert would certainly go off the rails completely.

Herbie’s  incipient psychopathy, however, had already gotten too deeply rooted for any discipline, cajoling, threats, or promises to have any effect. He kept grabbing for the last drumstick, stealing from his sister, spreading nasty rumors at school, and cheating at games. He was – and even his parents admitted it – a bad seed.

Image result for images movie the bad seed

The story of the Palmers would be hardly worth repeating if it did not have important existential implications. The only innocence that exists in the world is in early childhood.  Babies are trusting, loving, accepting, and expressive.  They have not been infected by experience; and have no reason to be suspicious.  The world from their perspective is good without reservation.  The only reason to have children is to be in the presence of such pure, unalloyed innocence – an innocence and a purity never again to be witnessed.  The fact that the Palmers had been deprived of this human inheritance –gypped, for lack of a better term, of the only unsullied moments of adult life – was tragic.

Rather than being depressed or left to founder in guilt and self-recrimination, the Palmers gained an unusual and admirable equanimity after Herbie had finally left home. The Palmers, good progressives, had always held out some hope for humanity; and while not so sanguine as their friends about human progress, assumed that things at least might get better.  Their son, however, showed them that there was no chance of this at all.  If human nature had in it the seeds of pure, unadulterated amorality – a quality far more subtle and complex than classic enlightened self-interest, self-preservation, or natural territorialism – then there had to be hundreds of millions of children like their son.  Innocence, even in newborns was fictive at best.

Despite everything, he was always their son, and they kept a picture of him as a young boy on the mantelpiece.  Caught unawares in an uncharacteristically serene moment – one of the very few in a childhood of grimaces, ugly faces, and demonic laughter – he looked almost normal.  But Ferdie and Betsy knew better.

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