There’s nothing new in what follows, nothing mysterious or intriguing. It’s that old old stab in the heart of wisdom that comes too late.
I’m reading Irving Howe’s magisterial THE WORLD OF OUR FATHERS. In this book bursting with detail, Howe documents the immigration of Eastern European Jews to the US – to the Lower East side of NYC in particular – from the 1880’s to the 1920s. He writes about long hours in factories, appalling housing, illness, loneliness, dislocation. He writes about hopes and dreams, the night classes and lectures, the workers’ groups. And he writes about the children of these Yiddish speaking parents, children who became Americanised, who, like so many children of immigrants, born out of the hardship of their parents go through a stage of resentment of those parents, even shame. It is not that they don’t love their parents, or are not grateful. But the parents are tethered to a past that simply has no relevance to these children impatient to plunge into the new world.
I read about these children of immigrant parents, many of who would go on to make their mark in education, the sciences, in business, and found myself thinking that their embarrassment, their shame, is not restricted to the first-generation of immigrant children. With few exceptions, all children lack understanding and empathy for their parents.
From birth the child is fed, washed, kept warm. S/he is supplied with toys, games, stimulation. S/he is transported here, transported there, friends and family circle admiringly. Pre-school and then school materialise. That the child comes to believe s/he is at the centre of the world can come as no surprise. It’s only in those exceptions – the child with a sick mother, the neglected child – that qualities other than egocentricity can come to dominate.
So in the very way children are raised, egocentricity as opposed to empathy is pandered to. And yet at some point, quite early on, the child is expected to take the point of view of the other, to step into the shoes of someone else. The traditional family used to facilitate the development of practical empathy within the essentially egocentric world of the child. Siblings learned to share, to take turns, to wait. But in these days of small families, coupled with mind-boggling indulgence of the one or two children, the family training ground in co-operation is very much compromised.
I am a happily childless woman. Apart from the scary fact that these indulged children will be running the world when I am in my decrepitude, why am I concerned about the lack of empathy in children?
The short ironic answer: it’s the egocentricity of the adult, this adult. And a certain sadness over opportunities forever lost.
My parents are both gone. My father died in 2001, my mother just recently. The opportunity to do things differently with them has passed. In particular I can no longer pose the questions, the enquiries I might have made of a man who loved a woman who did not love him, a man who must have struggled through times of high anxiety as he provided for his family, and of a woman born 20 even 30 years too early, a woman coffined by expectations and desperate for air.
Such struggles mean something to me now. I discuss them with friends, I ponder them alone, I’ve created characters with these issues. I have empathy in abundance.
But the empathy for parents? It comes too late.
I was a good daughter by any standards. But it saddens me that their burdens and pains, their quandaries and concerns were largely neglected between us. That it’s only now when it is too late that I can place my parents firmly in the centre of my own vision, my own sensibility, and see things from their point of view. It seems to me that such belated empathy reveals a lapse in essential humanity affecting those who deserved more.