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In Herman Hesse’s spiritual coming-of-age novel, Siddhartha, the enlightened ferryman gives Siddhartha advice on how to raise his child: “Would you think, my dear,” he says, “that somebody might perhaps be spared from taking this path himself? That perhaps your little son would be spared, because you love him, because you would like to keep him from suffering and pain and disappointment?” Siddhartha remains silent because he knows his friend is right and yet he cannot let go of his son.
How do you really let go of a child, after all? When does self-sufficiency become neglect and when does protection become cloistering? Letting your children eat what they like, take drugs, or drop out of school seems like a clear line of neglect. That rhizome, society, recognizes that the parents have failed to give their children the best shot at life. But what about protection? What about the natural instinct to keep your child from suffering, perhaps at bottom from the knowledge of its own mortality?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that all children were born natural and unformed. But scientists from Charles Darwin to Noam Chomsky have opposed this belief, by means of the genetic codes that predispose to language, to combat, to survival. Oliver Wendell Holmes, champion of United Supreme Court ruling, Buck vs. Bell, which permitted compulsory sterilization of the “mentally unfit”, was also a firm believer in genes. Some children, he argued, are born so disadvantaged or written so wrong that they are a liability or, worse still, a burden to society.
In this jungle, childhood is a battle to overcome the scars of growing up. Our children, after all, will become our adults. In this brief and precious period of their adolescence, psychologists tell us, it is crucial that parents make the right decisions: the right school, the right skills, the right friends, the right clothes, the right atmosphere, eventually the right internships and A-Levels. Maybe if, and only if, the parents miraculously follow this path through, their child will be a success. Maybe their child will even turn out happy.
Independent schools may be breeding grounds for trauma, but no parent shells out the exorbitant fees to watch their child suffer. Private schools also teach those increasingly rare skills, for instance, Latin and Russian and philosophy; they harbour the golden children of the wealthy and the famous, and they promise to produce determined, confident, and well-mannered citizens. The lists of accomplishments that will give children a leg up in the world seem to get longer by the day and they root deep insecurity in parents, the way that paediatricians tend to. Like Siddhartha, they exert themselves to keep their children from suffering, and like Siddhartha, they cannot.
Violence, poverty, death, confusion, rape and murder – is it possible to keep them at arm’s length? Will secluded homogenous neighbourhoods, exclusive, homogenous schools, and run-of-the-mill jobs at a bank, fight the encroaching tides of social unrest and crime? I think the real moral of Nero playing his lyre while Rome burns is not the decadence of the ruler, but his inability to escape. Even the emperor of Rome is diseased, collapsing, and mortal.
Even if we can escape it, argues the enlightened ferryman, it is not our job. Our path and our purpose in this world are mysterious and bewildering and we cannot prevent our children from following their desires, even if it goes against our beliefs, our social code, and even our love. To create a full individual, that individual must live out his own pain, he must make mistakes, and he must see the injuries he has inflicted. Inside the comforting umbrella of parental, societal, and governmental protection, the individual is shielded from full understanding of himself.
Clearly, this is a hornet’s nest for parents, already bamboozled by the wealth of parenting advice offered or forced upon them. But Siddhartha is not really concerned with the son or his journey. It is the story of its protagonist, who comes to realise that time and our lives are an endless cycle, and through this realisation achieves enlightenment.