Put down the shot gun. Take a deep breath. Consider the importance of those words and of their being used ritualistically to pass legislation.
Then consider something William Patterson used in Heinlein’s bio (first book.) I will not quote him exactly. I have the book on my shelves, but my shelves are a salad because of the boy-who-doesn’t-know-his-alphabet and who most assuredly does not read my non fiction books (rolls eyes.) so to find it might take me the rest of the morning and I have an appointment. However, the phrase said something about “the broken children of mid-century” finding an ethical guiding hand in Heinlein.
I’ll confess I did find a guiding hand in Heinlein, even if I couldn’t be considered in any way to come from a broken family, not in the sense he meant. My parents were married. My brother lived with us until he got married at 26, and my entire extended family lived around us, all over the village. (In fact, the amiable habit of the village was to call any adult over the age of having children “ti” short for tio or tia i.e. uncle or aunt. We did this I suspect as a throw back to a time when everyone in an area was related, whether or nor you could trace it back. We did it even to people we knew were new arrivals, I’m going to guess on the principle that eventually their genes would enter the pool and we therefore adopted them, retroactively. Keep this in mind. The assumption was wrong, and it’s been fifty years and this is important.)
On the other hand, in many ways, I was a broken child. Well, I suspect mostly through being an Odd, but there were other things. Mostly I rejected the simple morality of the tales told to me in childhood and I couldn’t find guidance that fit me, until I fell into that first Heinlein – Have Spacesuit will Travel. What spoke of me out of it? We’ll go into that.
I was “broken” in the sense that the instruction given me wouldn’t take. It wouldn’t take partly because I was surrounded by skeptical voices all over: my brother, his friends, my cousins; and partly because the circumstances around me no longer fit the instructions I was being given; and partly because I was thrust into a world that didn’t figure into any of those tales, not even grandma’s inventive stories. Which was part of the reason I liked science fiction. It also wasn’t the world I lived in, but it was a world in constant change and it made more sense, internally. (BTW this is why the idea that kids today don’t read science fiction because the world has changed too much and “they’re living in science fiction” should be met with derision and contempt. They don’t read science fiction because it has nothing to say. It’s either vapid, human hating, or a continuation of the preaching they get in school, which they know is wrong. [There are exceptions of course. More fantasy than SF but I highly recommend Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell trilogy for instance.])
I don’t mean to imply that the stories I was told were Bowdlerized. A lot of them were, of course, but certainly not grandma’s. (If grandma had spoken English and had access to a typewriter and a publisher, she’d be a more imaginative Stephen King.) It was just that I couldn’t make those stories fit the world that had gone upside down and sideways forty years or so before I was born.
Most of the stories that were told to me assumed I would grow up, get married, have kids all within the relatively narrow confines of the village (or other villages. Even the upper class “ton” of Regency England was about the same number of families as a largish village.) It had to do with keeping relations with people you’d see every day for the rest of your life. It had to do with raising the children to fit in in the same narrow environment.
By the time I was five, I knew they were wrong. There was that gut feeling – even in an environment that was superficially static – of “this is wrong” kids get when they’re told fables (and why I think insisting that girls of ninety pounds can beat men of 200 will only create idiots and cynics. Idiots are the girls who think they HAVE to believe it or be gender traitors. Cynics are everyone else. Even the all-pervasive propaganda of communist countries can’t do better than that.)
Anyway, if I – who was raised in a relative stable environment, in a religious family, in a traditional village – felt adrift in the world, how about all those other “broken children of the mid century”? Those whose parents uprooted and left the ancestral village, or even the vicinity of family; those whose parents engaged in Marital Blanket Bingo; those whose parents lived for career or other considerations? I.e., most of them? And what about those even more broken kids who came after? Those who are farmed out to total strangers because mom and dad MUST work? (And I truly don’t want to argue this with people who think that mom and dad can choose not to work to stay home with the kids. Some can. Some purely can’t, not in their circumstances, which include taxes to pay and DEFINITELY include the social disapproval few people – even Odds – fully want to incur.) And whose parents, themselves, wouldn’t do a much better job of raising them because they have no clue WHY they should sacrifice that way – not unless they’ve arrived at some sort of morally coherent internal sense before having kids.
Because, the truth is, the reason our society screams so much about “It’s for the children” is that nothing is. No, seriously. We live in the least child-oriented society ever to exist.
And before you jump me and point out all the things that are forbidden to adults so as to keep them from the children; all the things that exist for children or people with children (like certain restaurants, or movies for kids, or…) and tell me that our predecessors had none of that, I’ll tell you “precisely.”
We are like the very wealthy of times past, shoving toys and gifts at the kiddies which we ignore the rest of the time, because we’re busy pursuing what we want to pursue.
A few years ago, I was talking to a friend who is single, childless and gay. I would consider him a very moral person (in his dealings with others) though he’s by no means “moral” by what the left thinks the right’s morals are – if that makes sense. He was outraged as I’ve seldom seen him. You see, he rarely projects his morals onto other people and rarely condemns other people as doing wrong. (Unless they’re celebrities, and that’s just fun.) BUT he was rather incensed at an acquaintance of his who had “realized his true orientation” after he was married and had a three year old child. Upon which he’d left wife and child to pursue love in all the wrong places (though my friend put it rather more graphically.)
My friend thought this was horrible, because what would the child think when he grew up. My first reaction to his outrage shocked me, too. I thought “yes, but would you want the poor man to live a lie all his life?” I don’t think I said it, but I might have. I sometimes have the self preservation instincts of a mouse teetering on the edge of a whiskey barrel. I must have said something because what I got was the double barrel of “if you have assumed an obligation for a young and helpless life, particularly one you’ve brought to the world, one who depends on you for guidance, instruction and security, you LEARN to derive your happiness from fulfilling your obligation and doing your duty.”
I’d never heard it put that way, and most people would say it was an arid life. But that’s what most of our ancestors would have done, and done unflinchingly.
It’s useless to project into the past the sort of uniform morality of a fairytale. It wasn’t like that. Every era had right and wrong. Every era had reprobates who put themselves ahead of their obligations and those who depended on them.
However the idea that you owed others something was there stronger — as in the time of Romeo and Juliet, where you owed your family EVERYTHING — or weaker but it was there. Those who didn’t were at the margins of society and justly reviled.
But now… now even I who was properly brought up, thought (at least until I was glared at, which is weird since we were talking over the net, but the man has a glare that can cross the miles) first “but you can’t expect the man to sacrifice his every hope of happiness because he made a mistake.”
Part of it is the definition of happiness. I know people are going to come and pile on and say we lost that sense of obligation because we lost religion (my friend is an atheist, btw) but I don’t think that’s it. I grew up in a place where it was noticed if and when and where you went to church and where most of the conversations ended in pious shibboleths of consolation or condemnation. And yet even there, it had crept in, this feeling that “you can’t expect people to throw their lives away just because they made a mistake.” (The concept of gayness was very odd indeed there – at least openly – but people still made mistakes aplenty, from babies conceived out of wedlock to “I thought he was nicer when I married him” to “She ain’t no fun anymore.)
There was this idea that it was right and just – the only right and just thing to do – to “pursue your happiness” regardless of whom it affected, whom it hurt, and whom it shocked. Phrases like “you only pass this way once” and “you have to be yourself” had penetrated into the culture, particularly among the younger people.
I don’t think it was the breakdown of religious faith except insofar as it resulted from the same thing. I think it was the end result of two wars, back to back, and so many men who died young, without in fact getting to be themselves and, more importantly, the women who stayed behind and regretted the fun they hadn’t had. Though Portugal hadn’t really been part of the wars (technically of the first world war, but in miniscule numbers) the zeitgeist had percolated there and the idea was “don’t give your life to something not of your own choosing at that moment” and the idea that “life is short, eat dessert FIRST.”
The other part of it was, of course, mobility. Starting after WWI but really after WWII people moved away from parents. They moved to other places, they fragmented. I know that this sounds like I’m hankering for the ancestral village. I’m not. Villages are terrible places. If you’re an Odd, it takes a village to drive you totally insane.
But they do exert surveillance and enforce laws. (Though by the time I came along, as is obvious from above they were a little uncertain about what laws and rules to enforce. Was it “never be alone with a man you’re not married to?” or was it “To thine own self be true, even if thine own self has a tendency to fall on her back?”)
Humans are social animals. We try to fit in – even outliers like us – and therefore not having a well defined community and clear rules that enforce the raising of the next generation will lead to… broken children. Who don’t know what the rules are, and what to do.
Our mass media jumped on this too. You may attribute bad intent to it, but I think they were mostly reflecting “life is short, eat dessert first” back at people. The rules they proclaimed were the sort of anodyne rules of “love yourself” (There is only one you! Seemed to be a refrain on TV when I came here in 1980) and “be nice to people” (which is not the same as living up to your obligations to them. Heck sometimes it’s the opposite. And nice isn’t the same as good. Not by a mile.) and “be polite and outwardly accepting of everyone” not to mention “if someone does wrong he’s a victim and society made him do it!” or the reverse “If someone is a victim, they’re automatically good.”
The broken children of mid century had my generation, who in turn had severely broken children, because by then things were completely upside down.
Understand, I’m not complaining of people being immoral or of people having odd sexual preferences (in the science fiction community these are often very odd) or even of people living a life of what they consider “fun and excitement” – I’m not the mother or father of other people, and they are what they are (or to quote grandma, we don’t “each make ourselves”.) What I’m complaining about is where the focus is for society and where it remains, even after people have made choices that mean what they’ve done will affect people who depend on them. What I’m complaining about is people shirking obligations – particularly an obligation to the next generation – for the sake of some undefined “don’t worry, be happy.”
I’m complaining of the fact that not only do we not shun people who offload their responsibilities brought on by their own actions, but we enshrine them as a sort of heroes because they’re living the imperative of “pursuing their happiness” or in the words of the sixties “finding themselves.” This ensures they’re free of “hangups” or “complexes” or “frustrations” or whatever the heck we’re calling it today, and makes them a sort of secular saint.
Yes, everyone makes mistakes – but it’s how you deal with the mistakes that makes the difference.
They don’t stay in that oh-hum marriage for the sake of the children (Yes, I do recognize reasons for divorce. Among them are “he hit me” and “she was hurting the children” – morally or physically. There are others. We all know marriages where a partner and the kids would be far better off without the other but “it wasn’t fun anymore” is not one of them.) They don’t pretend to be something they’re not for the sake of the children. They don’t volunteer to fight for the sake of the children. They never even consider doing something “for the children.”
They do instead insist that society be as a whole brought down to child level: that everyone be insulated from their choices and given everything they need as though we were all toddlers; and that everyone obey the rulers as though they were mommy and daddy. And every time they want to force this on us they scream “do it for the children.”
This is because – and this is what Heinlein taught me and what my friend’s glare (it is a very nice glare, truly!) brought to mind – what makes us adults is not stomping our little feet and “expressing” ourselves. Any kid can do that with finger paint and a free hour. It is assuming our place in civilization and in the march of generations through time: it’s shouldering the burden and moving on and doing our best for the next ones in line; it’s assuming responsibility for those weaker or in peril and doing our best for them too. Your obligation might be to a child of your blood, or to a sick friend. It might be to the person you love with all your heart, or to some old relative wished on you because no one else would take him/her.
It is still your obligation. Being human means having obligations to those around you. We are social apes.
Government or impersonal bureaucrats ARE NOT the means to help our brothers and sisters. We are. In recognition of our common humanity; in recognition that there might be a life after in another world, but there will surely be one here, after we’re gone, we pay our dues to those who came before and build for those who come after.
Sometimes the best choice for others is not what you want to do. Sometimes it’s not even close to nice. Sometimes there is no good choice — but the way forward leads through a life of duty, not happiness. And sometimes you find a sort of happiness in that. (To quote the epitaph of a Heinlein character “He ate what was put before him.”)
We can shirk it. We can pretend that there is nothing in the world bigger than ourselves – “There is only one YOU!” – and that we are all that matters – “I’m gonna live forever; I’m gonna learn how to fly!” – but in the end, the only one you’re lying to is YOU! In the end there will be centuries and millennia after you, and the broken children of the broken children of the broken children will either die with their civilization or relearn.
Would you rather shoulder your responsibilities and make sure they relearn from our ancestors and those who made our civilization the most successful and comfortable and, yes, just, on Earth? Or from the barbarians at the gate?
One or the other will teach those children and give them guidance.
Who’s it gonna be?