Love your children without justification

April 25, 2002|By Thomas J. Cottle

BOSTON -- We traveled to Haifa, Israel, by train, a slow but enjoyable journey that made me wonder how it was I hadn't gotten to know her better.

Arriving at the Haifa train station, we were met by the young woman's mother.

Within minutes we were in her car passing the B'hai Temple and beginning our ascent up Mount Carmel, the road lined with luxurious foliage, when suddenly the young woman's mother leaned forward to study me.

"And so, young man," she said in an austere tone, "just what do you do to justify your place on this earth?"

Fourteen years of progressive elementary and secondary education coupled with four years of private college proved a complete waste; I had no answer. But it was a reminder that I was hardly the only one to live in the shadows of parents with powerful temperaments.

The woman's demeanor and flashing eyes were again in evidence that evening at dinner in her elegant home where, seated around the long dining room table along with the young woman's father, a prominent attorney, were businessmen from Israel and America.

Sparked by who knows what, I leaned forward to study my hostess and, before all present, announced: "I have an answer to your question" -- the one, of course, she had asked hours before about how I justify myself. "I love."

My words fell as a dull thud, a perfect confirmation of what this woman must have originally thought of me, which presumably prompted her question in the first place. Better she would ask me that question, however, than ask her daughter why, of all the interesting visitors to Israel, she would bring home this schlub? I recognized the question troubled the young woman, a person I knew only slightly, even though I had received such generous gifts from her.

Within months of my return to America, I learned that the young woman committed suicide in the bedroom of her Haifa home. As her parents were on holiday at the time, it was several days before her body was discovered. Unfairly, of course, I never have stopped blaming her mother for her death, just as a part of me always battles a dangerous tendency to blame all parents for the turmoil and sadness of their children.

It is a thoughtless tendency, but it reflects on the notion that children must justify their being to the very people who brought them into the world. Is it still true that so many of us require our children to succeed -- on our terms, naturally -- in order to convince ourselves that we have worth?

Are the lives of our children ultimately the measure of our own value, the ultimate proof that we were worth it all? Who invented that fatuous notion of "conditional love"? There can be no conditions with love, as inevitably there are with human conduct.

The word "justify" derives from justice, the very concept that ought to underwrite our designs of schools, communities and, most assuredly, families and friendships. Indeed, the designs any of us have on anybody ought to be ruled by laws of justice.

Without justice, the sins of the, well, mothers shall continue to be visited upon the daughters, and handsome, educated, virtuous people who others imagine are perfectly splendid find nothing of worth in themselves.

Nor can they discover the strength to overturn a pounding impulse to destroy themselves if only to relieve their parents' -- or, perversely, confirm their parents' -- misguided assessments of them.

Thomas J. Cottle is a professor of education at Boston University. His latest book is Intimate Appraisals, forthcoming this year from University Press of New England.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.