How Babies Teach Us Our Essential Nature

Economist Michael R. Strain is a wonky thinker, but as a devout Catholic he has an ethereal side too, and he has recently connected to the joys and fears of fatherhood

Strain recently described some of the new learning he has achieved.

I have understood for many years that death is a great equalizer. I now understand that birth is, too. We were all babies. The guy selling me a cup of coffee, the guy who cut me off on my drive home from work, great kings and tyrants — yes, we will all die. But we were all born, too. That we all start life helpless and completely dependent means we have much more in common than I appreciated a year ago. I’ve learned from my son the strength of the human impulse to discover and explore. Humanity is extraordinary in part because we were compelled to leave the cave. And then to climb the hill. And then to search the valley. And then to harness fire. Every day with William is a case study in this appetite, which is barely second in strength to his desire for food, water, and love.

In William, I see that much of the claim we have to the divine is mixed deeply with our humanity. He is an earthly creature. He engages with the world by touching and feeling. Many things he encounters go into his mouth. For many months, he took his food from his mother’s body. But his intense physicality is infused with great beauty and creative power. His earthliness is permeated with the image of God.

God has been on his Catholic father’s mind quite a bit this year. I profess that the creator of the universe — of all that is seen and unseen, all-powerful and all-knowing — two millennia ago was born a little baby to a young mother. This is quite a claim. Imagining Jesus fussing with his mother, desperate for milk, learning how to crawl, awaking in the middle of the night, frightened by a thunderstorm — imagining Jesus learning about the world as William does has challenged my faith. But much more than that, it has strengthened my faith by strengthening my sense of mysterium tremendum.

We often describe babies as creatures of pure love. You are loving, my son, but you are not only that. You are in many ways a slave to your passions, and seeing that has helped me realize that I am so often trapped by my own. But mastering that — mastering yourself — is a challenge for another day. You have a lifetime to learn how to be free.

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