He was magnificent: what you can do when you have to
One of my best friends had a baby last night. Noah, my new godchild slipped into the world at 8:10 last night, a healthy 8lbs, 3 oz, despite being several weeks early.
“Slipped” sounds so clean, and simple. And it wasn’t - and it was. My friend and her husband had had contractions on and off all day - they had been to the birthing center and were told that to come back when the contractions were 4 minutes apart for an hour. So they went home, took a nap, had something to eat, and when things got intense, took off for the 1/2 drive to the birthing center.
Then things got exciting. Her water broke in the car, and she hit transition. My friend who is a mild sort of person refers to transition in the front seat of a moving vehicle on a freezing night as “not much fun.” I would probably use stronger language, personally. And shortly after they crossed over from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, my friend ordered her husband to pull over, because the baby was coming right NOW.
My friend’s husband pulled over into an empty parking lot, raced around to the other side of the car, pulled her boots and pants off, managed to dial 911 and give a rapid precis of their situation, dropped the cell into the snow, pulled off his sweater, and caught his infant son, all in the matter of a couple of minutes. He was, from the description my friend gave me, utterly magnificent. The paramedics arrived in time for the wrap up, and mother, baby and Dad are all doing just fine.
What’s funny is that Dad had been very worried about just this scenario. My friend delivered her daughter in her previous pregnancy quite rapidly - with time enough for the midwife to arrive at their home for a homebirth, but still on the high-speed order of things. Several times during the pregnancy, my friend had joked to her spouse that he might have to deliver the baby, and my friend’s husband always disavowed any chance that he could do it successfully, expressing his fear of doing so. We were assured that he would do something awful, probably drop or harm the baby by accident, that there’s no way he’d know what to do, and that he’d likely panic.
Now from my perspective “not wanting to deliver your own kid in a car” falls in the category of perfectly reasonable preferences. My friend’s husband was gently teased about the possibility, but we were gentle, because he was so obviously worried about his own ability to do so. And yet, when the reality struck, my friend and her husband did everything right, with the speed, clarity and grace (except, perhaps for listening to the birthing center people in the first place) that were called for by the realities of the situation. My friend had little choice in her response, although she certainly didn’t panic or overreact to the scenario. My friend’s husband did have a choice - he could have been immobilized by fear - but doing so would have been completely unacceptable to him, and so he was not.
The distinction between “what you can do when you are sitting around worrying about possibilities” and “what you can do when the situation demands it” are, for most of us, quite vast. Most of us routinely understate our own abilities to deal with extremely difficult and stressful situations. And of course, we’d all rather skip those situations entirely. But I think it is important to make the distinction between what we do in times of exigency, necessity, or even when we are powerfully moved, and what we do when we are simply sitting around talking about what we might be willing or not to do.
Perhaps the single most common response I get to any given strategy that I propose that involves moderate inconvenience is “people will never…” This is always phrased with a certainty about the nature of human nature that cannot be argued with. And, of coures, it can’t be. Because if we “know” that people will never do something, there’s nothing further to be said.
But in fact, human beings through their history have shown themselves able to do all sorts of truly astonishing things. They endure conditions that are literally unthinkable to most of us - they tolerate cold and heat that most of us would say we couldn’t endure. They eat foods many of us would never touch. They live in social and economic systems that are completely alien to us. They go without food and water for religious and cultural reasons. They go to jail for their beliefs, put their bodies on the line in front of bullets and bombs for their beliefs, they find, for the things they value most, reservoirs of strength they did not know about.
But, of course, not Americans, I’m often told. American-ness is permeated with a chronic tendency towards a rhetoric of exceptionalism (almost always delivered by Americans about their fellows, and often by people who themselves give the lie to what is being said) - either Americans are fat, selfish, drooling idiots who stare at the tv all day and greedily and intentionally consume everything in sight, or they are the single noblest people in the world, superior in every way, acting as they are because of divinely ordained right to whatever they want (I realize I’m overstating a bit). In either case, the assumption is that Americans will never make radical shifts in their lifestyles. The former assumes they won’t because they are too fat, too lazy, too ignorant and too selfish. The latter assumes that we won’t because we feel we deserve what we’ve got.
The problem with this assessment is that either way, we slander and belittle ourselves. We tend to assume we will not change, or if faced with a crisis, we will fall apart, die, riot mindlessly or give up. But this, to me, seems unlikely. That is, I suspect that in the coming crisis some people will riot, and some will probably and unfortunately die or give up. But saying that we know from our present circumstances that “people will never sacrifice” ignores the fact that until this past weekend when Obama actually used that word, no one ever asked them to. Of course many people (not all - I am aware of thousands of people who sacrifice things even without such a call to action) would be unwilling to sacrifice without a clear rationale for doing so, without the invocation of a national crisis, without the sense that others too were going to be making sacrifices.
And just as my friend’s husband professed himself both unwilling and unable to a deliver a baby when no one was really seriously asking him to do so, most of us, speaking in hypotheticals, without our passions engaged, and while advertising and the weight of our culture push us firmly in the other direction, are unwilling to commit to anything really different.
And yet, within humanity is the capacity to live with almost any kind of reasonably humane circumstances - and often to live well there. In order for us to believe that our current rate of energy consumption is the only way we can live a decent life, we must slander our grandparents and their grandparents and all the people who came before us, slander all the world’s majority who live without the things we do. We must rewrite history to say that all those lives before us were ones of unendurable suffering, ones not worth living. For Americans, to say that Americans must remain as they are now, requires us to believe that living the life akin to the one that Benjamin Franklin lived - one with outhouses and no electricty, the ones that helped form our nation, were unworthy of us. Now it is one thing to say that you’d rather not use an outhouse (unless of course, you are our own modern Franklin, Greenpa ;-)) or get along without a washer, and still another to sit around in a party game about what is possible and claim you couldn’t live without your coffeemaker and washing machine. But those do not represent our real experiences of the world of urgent necessity, or even commitment.
Because just as my friend’s husband found, when something is needed - and by needed I mean either practically necessary because there is no alternative (ie, the baby is coming or the power is out) or when something is needed because a body of people are committed to its rightness and seriousness (ie, the embargo requires us to make our own cloth, or the bus boycott requires elderly women to walk miles each day) we find in ourselves capacities that we hardly knew were there. While sometimes the worst does happen, often we are surprised by outcomes - simply because we underestimate people.
Those remarkable capacities are particularly hidden by the culture of consumption (I initially wrote “the American culture of consumption,” but while it is a deeply American sin, it is not, I think by any definition American “culture” so much as culture’s antithesis), which constantly convinces us to rely on fossil fuels, on corporations, on anything but ourselves. The can of industrial peas convinces us that the production and preservation of peas is not our work - it belongs to industrial farmers and industrial canning plants. The rototiller convinces us by its very existence that it is needed, because the shovel is infeasible - never mind that using a rototiller can be as physically demanding and difficult as using a shovel. The constant narrative that if we buy this, our lives will be transformed denies us access to the real, internal, moral capacity for transformation.
But I for one do not believe that the capacities for adaptation that have made possible the tremendous range of forms that human lives have taken are gone in one or two generations. I think, instead, we are shifting from the conversational mode of estimating our own and one another’s capacities “Oh, no, I could never deliver a baby - I’d probably drop it” to the actual shift in society that drives us to push past our sense of what we or other people can and will do, and presses us to discover who we are at our deepest points, and what we really, truly can do.
I do not doubt that some people will fail these tests, or handle them imperfectly - in a world of human beings, there are always mistakes and failures. But I know this - had my friend’s husband truly been paralyzed by panic, my friend, gentle but courageous soul that she is, would have reached down in the midst of her pain, in that empty, icy parking lot, and caught her own son, and prevented him from falling. And in the next moment, her husband, broken from his moment of panic, would have recovered and called 911, apologized and done what he could to make things work. That is, even when we fail, often there are moments when we can redeem ourselves and move on to success. Even if we begin imperfectly, there are often second chances.
And, of course, my friend’s husband did not fail. He rose to the occasion, as most of us would. He was, as I have said, truly magnificent. And when events force us to become more than we think we are, well some of us, perhaps even most, will be magnificent too.
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