Archives For Choices

Some people become parents and others do not. This column isn’t about the complex considerations that determine which path each individual follow. We all know people in each situation who are happy—as well as those who are dissatisfied.

I want to consider here a single reason some people choose not to have children. There are, of course, many valid reasons for not bringing children into this world, but this one struck me as particularly odd.   

Before we look at the interview question, allow me to offer a thesis that I believe most writers would agree with. Not all would concur, but don’t you think there would be strong consensus with this statement:

Raising children makes being a productive writer more challenging.

It’s pretty logical that the time spent actively parenting children leaves an author with less time to pursue their writing. Especially if they are a good mother or father.

Sure, kids provide us with some great stories and inspiration that can occasionally be worked into an article or story. But unless we’re a Dave Barry, an Erma Bombeck or a Bil Keane, people won’t line up to read about our children’s hijinks. So, if you were to balance the scales, I think we’d be hard-pressed to make the case that the addition of children to our household will make our writing more prolific.

In a recent interview with Forbes columnist Amity Shlaes, the editor of World Magazine raised this subject in an unusual way. Here is the question: “I talked with a Harvard economist years ago who said he was deliberately not having any children because he felt each child would lose him a book. You and I each have four children, and yet we’ve written books. Did you ever do a calculation like this foolish Harvard economist?”

Shales’ response was thoughtful. “Well, I’m very lucky in the husband department. He wanted lots of children and didn’t mind the work. But the main thing is: Children enrich life, they don’t impoverish it. You’d often be richer in dollars if you’d had no children, but with kids you’re richer in social capital, in happiness . . .”

It will come as no surprise that I agree with Shales’ opinion (with the substitution of “wife” in the first sentence). But the idea that struck me as rather shocking in this interchange was the reason the economist gave for opting not to have children: “because he felt each child would lose him a book.”

Wow. That is a pretty honest, and rather crass calculation. I won’t argue with his domestic equation, but it makes me shake my head. I can’t help but wonder how he will feel at the end of his life when he looks at his bookshelf of soon-to-be-forgotten titles and contemplates whether his choice was wise.

Lewis’ Personal Experience

C.S. Lewis was one of the most prolific writers. And he wrote in an expansive range of genres. It could easily be argued that his bachelorhood provided him with the time to write. That, in addition to the creative fountain provided by the Inklings made for a productive environment.

When he became a father, he was extremely conscientious. The boys were sent to private (or, in British parlance, “public”) schools after their mother’s death. However, that was the norm for children in their comfortable economic circumstances.

Lewis loved his sons, and did the best he could to be a father to them, despite his lack of confidence. Lewis was still the man who many years earlier (in 1935) wrote to his closest friend: “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.” A decade later, in one of his most powerful books, Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself” (The Abolition of Man).

Self-awareness is a mark of intelligence and honesty. I strongly believe Lewis put the lie to his self-criticism about lacking a rapport with children, with his wonderful letters written to children.*

It could be argued that parenthood was one of the factors that affected Lewis’ literary production. Brenton Dickieson has a chart showing his annual production of books, here. Another scholar, Joel Heck, has done the world a great service by providing the definitive chronology of C.S. Lewis’ life and work, available here.

Lewis did not marry earlier in his life because he considered himself a confirmed bachelor. Joy’s unexpected arrival transformed his life.

But, even before he became a (step-)father, he would never have uttered the sentiment of the Harvard professor.

A book or a child? Which shall it be? If that is a difficult question for someone, here’s my advice: “Please just write your books; you’d probably make a lousy parent anyway.”

* C.S. Lewis was able to speak clearly to children. And, unlike so many adults, he did not speak down to them. While toddlers may have remained a mystery to him—and he never parented any—he respected children’s questions, and offered wise advice.

On putting one’s life in its proper order: “You are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s “good” to give it up, is all nonsense.”

And, how is this for a thoughtful, practical comment: “All schools, both here [in England] and in America, ought to teach far fewer subjects and teach them far better.”

Wise counsel to a young person (or anyone): God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.”

And, one particularly inspiring comment about faith: “Anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Up in Smoke

December 6, 2013 — 2 Comments

hookahsI have the misfortune of living in one of the two states that has legalized the growing, distribution, use and promotion of marijuana.

The fauna and (natural) flora of Washington are scenic beyond compare. But in order to enjoy them, I am forced to live in a location where what was inconceivable a decade ago has become commonplace.

This week, in my small town of nine thousand, they opened our first “hookah lounge.” Although the owner’s initial license only allows the sale and on premises use of various tobaccos and other weeds, it’s no secret the owner is eager to expand his offerings.

My purpose here is not, however, to debate the merits of legalizing cannabis. I want to share with you the utterly apropos name of this hookah palace. It is called “Up in Smoke.”

While I’m sure the entrepreneur thought he concocted a brilliant play on words for his establishment, I cannot help but shake my head at the irony.

After all, what does the phrase actually mean? The expression isn’t truly an “idiom,” since the words are quite straight forward. It means what it says, referring to something of potential value that has been burned and is now lost, spoiled or wasted. Of course, the last of those synonyms also has another connection to the world of drugs.

I suspect the actual meaning of the phrases pass right over the head of the owner. He certainly misses the irony, or he would not adorn his establishment with that moniker.

I assume the purveyor of lung destroying inhalants is consciously referencing the 1978 film by this name, that glorifies the drugged induced stupors of Cheech and Chong. (Not a pinnacle of cinematic achievement.)

The saddest thing about using drugs for “recreation,” or distraction from the responsibilities of life, is that it often results in lives going up in smoke. While marijuana itself is apparently used “recreationally” by many successful people, with little negative impact, that’s far from true for all who “inhale.”

As I try to recall every individual I’ve personally known who used the drug, I’m unable to think of a single person who stopped there and did not at least experiment with some other drug. From my subjective experience, it definitely proved to be a “gateway” drug.

While none of these acquaintances became what would traditionally be labeled an “addict,” I can think of several tremendously talented and gifted people who never lived up to their potential. And I attribute at least part of that regret to being distracted from school and employment as young adults.

Similarly, of all of the people I’ve counseled regarding drug-related struggles during the past three decades, I’m hard-pressed to recall a single one who did not begin his or her narcotic journey with the ubiquitous weed.

Drugs, of course, are not the only diversions that cause us to miss out on the full experience that life offers. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (The Weight of Glory)

I’m not casting stones here. I too waste far too much time and energy with fruitless distractions. In doing so, I watch part of my own life go up in smoke. Still, I doubt I’ll ever experience the slightest temptation to waste the briefest moment of my life . . . in an ill-named hookah den.

In our last conversation we considered the fact that life is a journey. And during this journey which encompasses our very existence, we follow a variety of paths.

Not all of the paths lead to “happy endings.” I almost wrote “fairy tale endings,” but then I recalled that some old folk tales conclude in a rather grim fashion.

Signposts stand as sentinels at the junctions. “Take this path to self-fulfillment.” “Follow this lane to explore forbidden pleasures.” “This way leads to power.” They offer promises aplenty, but their veracity is not guaranteed. In fact, the more outlandish the claims, the more suspect they become to the wise.

Speaking of wisdom, some of the most powerful words in the Book of Proverbs relate to this notion of choosing paths cautiously. Wisdom and Folly are personified as two women. One offers life-enriching knowledge and insight. The other proffers more carnal and transitory wares.

My son, keep my words

    and treasure up my commandments with you . . .

Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”

    and call insight your intimate friend,

to keep you from the forbidden woman,

    from the adulteress with her smooth words.

. . . and I have seen among the simple,

    I have perceived among the youths,

    a young man lacking sense,

passing along the street near her corner,

    taking the road to her house . . .

And behold, the woman meets him,

     dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart.

She is loud and wayward;

     her feet do not stay at home;

now in the street, now in the market,

    and at every corner she lies in wait. . . .

I have spread my couch with coverings,

    colored linens from Egyptian linen;

I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,

    aloes, and cinnamon.

Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;

    let us delight ourselves with love.

For my husband is not at home;

    he has gone on a long journey . . .

With much seductive speech she persuades him;

    with her smooth talk she compels him.

All at once he follows her,

    as an ox goes to the slaughter,

or as a stag is caught fast

    till an arrow pierces its liver;

as a bird rushes into a snare;

    he does not know that it will cost him his life.

And now, O sons, listen to me,

    and be attentive to the words of my mouth.

Let not your heart turn aside to her ways;

    do not stray into her paths,

for many a victim has she laid low,

    and all her slain are a mighty throng.

Her house is the way to Sheol,

    going down to the chambers of death.

The power of this proverb is in its truth. I have actually known the seductresses (and seducers) described in these verses. Well, I’ve been acquainted with emanations of both female and male versions of Folly, since they are legion.

Despite the Lies, There is Still Hope

The key to journeying through life with the fewest deadly detours is to rely on a trustworthy guide. A compass, so to speak. A map or handbook that soundly advises which paths to take, and what precipices to avoid.

Of course, if we would rather take the risk, we can rely on human ignorance (is West to my right or my left?) . . . or worldly counsel (let us take our fill . . .).

The Bible lays out the safe and proven path. What’s more, our Savior—who calls himself “The Way,”—promises to accompany us on the journey itself.

One of C.S. Lewis’ least read books is entitled The Pilgrim’s Regress. It is modeled on the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan in 1678. The Pilgrim’s Regress was Lewis’ first published work of prose fiction. His protagonist goes through a period of disbelief, mirroring Lewis’ own. It is well worth the read, although, perhaps, it is best preceded by a reading of Bunyan’s original work.

Toward the end of his allegory, Lewis brilliantly describes the course of travel for many who sojourn for a season in foreign (unbelieving) realms. The traveler learns that all who earnestly seek the Truth ultimately find it in a single Source. I offer the following passage not as a “spoiler,” but to illustrate the importance of following the right path—and to entice you to consider reading The Pilgrim’s Regress.

“What do you see?” said the Guide.

“They are the very same shape as that summit of the Eastern Mountain which we called the Landlord’s castle when we saw it from Puritania.”

“They are not only the same shape. They are the same.”

“How can that be?” said John with a sinking heart, “for those mountains were in the extreme East, and we have been travelling West ever since we left home.”

“But the world is round,” said the Guide, “and you have come nearly round it. The Island is the Mountains: or, if you will, the Island is the other side of the Mountains, and not, in truth, an Island at all.”

“And how do we go on from here?”

The Guide looked at him as a merciful man looks on an animal he must hurt.

“The way to go on,” he said at last, “is to go back. There are no ships. The only way is to go East again and cross the brook.”

“What must be must be,” said John. “I deserve no better. You meant that I have been wasting my labour all my life, and I have gone half-round the world to reach what Uncle George reached in a mile or so.”

“Who knows what your uncle has reached, except the Landlord? Who knows what you would have reached if you had crossed the brook without ever leaving home? You may be sure the Landlord has brought you the shortest way: though I confess it would look an odd journey on a map.”