For Part One of this post, please click here.
We return to find mom awake from her nap and slightly less fatigued. I’m always surprised how enthusiastic she is to welcome her little angel back against her sore and depleted chest. He clamours for the breast, and when he finally latches on, the intensity of his suckling would lead us to believe that we’ve neglected to feed him for weeks. It’s the first meal he’s ever eaten, each time. I turn my attention to preparing breakfast for those of us who eat solid foods.
Picking him up for the thousandth time, changing diapers in the middle of the night, waiting patiently for a post-meal burp: these small acts of love aren’t as glamorous as being on the front lines of a revolution (and certainly won’t land me on the cover of a magazine). With all the problems in the world, it could even seem downright selfish to devote so much energy to my son.
In the face of poverty, war, and economic injustice, raising a child with love might seem like an insignificant contribution. But as I’ve increasingly immersed myself in the long series of small moments that make up my day as a dad, I’ve begun to understand that vowing to serve is not about elevating myself to ranks of the rare, noble, extraordinary beings who have overcome selfishness. It’s actually about aligning myself with the way things are.
When I return with my wife’s breakfast prepared, ‘baby bird’ is calm and making unbelievably cute noises. We play with him a bit, sensing that this is our reward for the long night. Somehow his smile has the power to wipe away any traces of frustration. We return to spend a quiet moment lying together as a family, and I’m filled with peace, joy, and wonder as I observe the miracle of how two people can become three.
The more I head to the laundromat with bags full of clothes, the more I deliver glasses of water to my wife in bed, the more I look at how much she gives just to keep our child alive, the more I’m reminded that I am only capable of providing for them because others provided for me. I only exist because others dedicated themselves to ensure my survival and wellbeing.
If I think about all the things I’ve had to give up as a result of this child, or if I long for some kind of external validation for all the sacrifices I’m making, then I haven’t really understood that life was never really mine to begin with. By being there for my child and his mother, I’m simply playing my role in the cycle of life, merely transferring this mysterious gift of conscious awareness into another repository.
Each act of care is a thread that links me back to the origins of life and forward to generations I will never meet.
These moments of calm, when all of us are fed and relatively quiet,are infrequent and ephemeral. I begin to think that I should use this time productively, since I probably won’t have another chance to read or write or do anything else for myself. Feeling utterly incapable of mustering up any energy, however, I lie down and simply observe the breath flowing through my body. I draw the air deep into my lungs and feel that all I really have to do right now is just be here.
This is why so many teachers have emphasized service. Immersing myself in the daily, repetitive actions that my infant requires has slowly broken down the distinction between ‘server’ and ‘served,’ something I never could have seen had I continued to hold out for something I deemed more ‘worthy.’ With the baby, I’ve come to see how fluid our roles are, how we’re both teachers and students at the same time.
What greater service can one being provide than to remind us of the radical dependence, vulnerability, and indebtedness that we all share? His little eyes, so attuned to the mystery of the world around him, shift mine away from constant focus on my selfish obsessions, effortlessly unmasking the vanity of efficiency, comparison, and ambition.
Slowly,through all the headaches and exhaustion, my son is showing me what Khalil Gibran meant when he wrote, “it is life that gives unto life while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.”