Being Jewish I don’t know from such things, but my friends tell me this season celebrates the birth of a child. The truth is that completely apart from the identity of a particular baby, each new life brings joy into the world. And if one good thing emerged from 2006, it was this: an invisible corner was turned in our culture, and having children is now in fashion. Little Cruises and Pitt-Jolies and Spearses and Paltrows and Smiths everywhere, along with adopted Stones and Madonnas.
It is fair to say the prejudice against bearing children was cultivated over a full century, but it was incubating for another hundred years before that time. Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, written in 1798, expressed a view that untempered growth of population would ultimately outdistance the capacity of the earth to provide subsistence. (Although this is a fair snapshot of its most noted conclusion, the essay itself is textured and brilliant, well worth perusing.) Added to the ideas of Darwin, as secularly rendered, that Man is an accident of nature, it became plausible to fear that his days of mining the earth for nutrients might be numbered.
But ideas are remote catalysts to cultural change. The proximate causes are moods and attitudes. It took the 20th century to really squelch procreation. First there was eugenics, in which humanity could arrogantly improve its own species by culling its sickest stratum. This was seen as part of a new scientific sophistication, and it represented modern enlightened thought.
Then there were genocidal movements like Communism and Nazism, which made men despair of populating so grim a world. The Talmud deals beautifully with this motif, by passing on a tradition: When Pharaoh started killing babies, Amram began a movement to stop Jews from reproducing, leaving his own wife in the process. His young daughter, Miriam, chastised him. “Your premise is worse than Pharaoh’s. He may or may not succeed in catching all the children, but your system guarantees there will be none.” Amram admitted error and returned to his wife, who then became pregnant with Moses. In other words, surrendering to tyranny forecloses the possibility of a redemptive future. The child — the future herself — saw this clearer than the parent.
The positive side effect of this horrible turn in history was that it eliminated eugenics as an approach to be advanced in polite company. A lot of de facto eugenics still happens through abortion of children with birth defects, but per se it is a notion that dares no longer speak its name.
The final two factors to squash demographic growth were prosperity and the neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich school of population paranoia. The affluence made it possible for people to have so much recreation they began to shun procreation. Children were a drag, slowing down the merry-go-round of earthly delights. There were men who chose not to have children so they could spend their money on themselves, and women who chose (or were pressured by selfish men to choose) not to mar their beauty with stretch marks. (Jewish tradition teaches that before the Flood, men would sterilize the beautiful women and reproduce only with the ordinary ones.) And Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb, convincing many that we were at the end of our natural resources. In the 1970s and ’80s especially, people would approach large families and berate them for ruining the world.
All of this has been discredited now in the intellectual realm. The world produces vastly more food today than it did forty years ago, as more land is tilled and agricultural methods improve. And having too few children is destroying all the nations of Europe, who continue to shrink in numbers and become progressively more dependent on immigrants for labor. But again, ideas shift more quickly than behaviors, and the national ethos has many entrenched barriers to change. So it is exciting to see celebrities and cultural leaders embracing a fresh eagerness to invite a new generation into our midst.
God, as always, gets the last laugh. His first instruction to man was to be fruitful and increase. Note the use of “fruitful” to ground it in the context of all nature, signaling that the ecosystem was as equipped for the fruit of the womb as for the fruit of the tree. It seems like mankind has to stupidly try to outsmart God on every front, with each experiment collapsing in disaster. There are very many bitter people today who had their epiphany too late in life and mourn the children they chose not to have.
Children, like all valuable achievements in life, bring a sizable element of burden and responsibility. The decision to have a child also includes risk of disappointment, even grotesque deformity. Yet it is undeniable that this is the only way your life can be extended into the physical future. The theological idea is that man really lives forever, except it is an existence in parts. A relay race, not a marathon. When one has a child, the sense is palpable: my life is something greater than what is contained in my body.
Singer Gwen Stefani said it best when she acknowledged having a child to keep up with other celebrities; but now, she sees, her life has been transformed. Why shouldn’t there be more of the likes of you and me, for goodness’ sake? We honor the past, celebrate the present and envision the future, all in one act of love. We can love another person so much that an entire new life can materialize from that love. Wishing the world well into the future, let us say: Happy New Year! Let there be life!