It appears my mother, having found no rational explanation for my choice to move to California and become a Buddhist chaplain, has concluded that I simply do whatever it is I want to do. While this characterization is rather negative, it is not exactly untrue. However, she appended her latest barb with “without caring about the impacts on other people, like mommies,” and then followed up with a short sermon about the selflessness of wives and mothers.
“Well, you wanted to get married. You wanted to have children,” I pointed out with a stinging ego.
She’s not wrong, of course. I am going to California to study Buddhism essentially because I want to. However, I want to because I see this as a path towards selflessly caring for others, much like my mother perceived her decisions to marry and bear children. In her cultural context, marriage and children made sense. They were rational, expected choices. And in all cultures, mothers are seen as nurturing, selfless beings, even more so than fathers.
But chaplaincy? And Buddhist chaplaincy? In a capitalist Christian context (and in light of my career track thus far) these decisions may cause a great deal of head scratching. It’s easy to chalk them up to a whim or a fancy and hope the person in question will someday “see the light.”
Oddly enough I know exactly how she feels, because I view the choice of marriage and children with exactly the same perplexity. I have nothing against either, per se, and intellectually recognize the merits of both. What I do not understand is how people can make them the primary goal of their life, the standard by which they judge their own success and ultimate worth. In fact, given the demands (and dubious successes) of childrearing, I view the entire activity with some skepticism.
Given the chance inherent in finding a good mate (even when you’re looking in the right places), the work it takes to build a successful marriage, the unrelenting effort of raising a child who, after around two decades, will leave anyway (and we call that “success”), and all the things parents and spouses frequently give up in order to create a family – you had damn well better want it! I think very few people possess enough genuine altruism to do it otherwise. And in regards to children, some philosophers will even argue the more altruistic choice, given the dangers and pain of life in this world, would be not to have them at all!
Now, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I am forced to ask: Is having a child essentially a selfless or selfish act? Can it be both?
A recent New York Times article described the switch from marriage and children as givens to “lifestyle choices.” The Atlantic just theatrically (and erroneously) declared “The End of Men” along with the decline of housewives and marriage in general, even among women with children and there are fewer and fewer of them. Countries like Japan and Italy (and perhaps the United States) are actually contemplating a financial crisis as their young population shrinks to the point where it can no longer support their elderly.
Several years ago I met a twenty-six-year-old man who had already had a vasectomy because he had no desire for children. Many people reacted with consternation. A woman is practically forbidden from a tubal ligation before the age of thirty-five. Many doctors will refuse to perform the procedure or provide a referral to the requisite specialist. My brother and sister-in-law are proud DINKs (dual-income no kids), but that is far outside the norm for their age group.
And as I approach my thirtieth birthday, I am forced to contemplate whether or not I ever want to bear a child of my own, given that my window of opportunity is closing. The probability (though still remote) of having a baby with Down Syndrome doubles just between the ages of thirty-two and thirty-five, in addition to other health risks for both child and mother with increasing maternal age. In addition, having examined my limited interactions with babies and children up to now, I am forced to conclude I am not an especially nurturing person. Nor do I have any special affection for children beyond my appreciation for them as individuals, and very strange, difficult to understand individuals who often make me rather anxious being around them at that. This leads me to conclude having a child would best be done with a partner who is a little more heart and a little less head, someone whose own comfort with kids and instinctual understanding of their needs could rub off on me. At this point, I may well have limited my dating pool to single, male, elementary school teachers who are preferably Buddhist or at the very least secular humanist or Unitarian.
I’ll forgo the overly dramatic sigh to once again reiterate that if I do have kids, I damn well had better want them! Because it’s going to take a great deal of luck and effort just to get them, let alone raise them. And from a personal cost-benefit standpoint, I’m not at all sure the scales tip in that direction in light of the other things I want in my life.
I know from a Buddhist perspective it would be nice to forgo all this discussion of wanting this or wanting that. But as some very smart Buddhist teachers have pointed out, desire is a necessary component of motivation. Many Buddhist teachings characterize nirvana or enlightenment as the point where craving is extinguished. They may be right, but one has to want craving to be extinguished before one has the ability to extinguish it. One has to want to end suffering before one can stop wanting and so stop suffering. And isn’t that a fun paradox?
I can let my desires guide me towards the things I am suited for in this life and motivate me to achieve them, but I don’t have to go chasing after them willy-nilly. We say suffering comes from desire, but I tend to think it comes from the mistaken belief that getting what we desire will make us happy (which in turn is born from an ignorant belief in our own ego, etc.). I know becoming a Buddhist chaplain won’t make me any happier than having children made my mother happy, in a fundamental, long-term, end-of-suffering sense. But I do believe she was a good mother because she wanted to be one.
I just hope I’ll be a good chaplain someday and as for the rest, we’ll wait and see.