We live in two times, the natural and the historical. In this season of contraction, historical life seems to me a weary slog toward an ever-receding goal. My garden promises a surer satisfaction. Spring always arrives. I’ve manured my beds; I’ve planted more bulbs.
History is a continuing nightmare. What’s so depressing is that it no longer need be. Collectively, humankind possesses the knowledge and material wealth to end the scourges of famine, plague and war. Pain and loss and death are natural, but when they originate in hardheartedness, that’s different. That’s suffering.
No suffering matches the pain we inflict on children. It’s the measure of our moral retardation. In a “60 Minutes” segment that aired on May 12, 1996, Lesley Stahl asked Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, whether the half million children who already had died from the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq were too high a price to pay for pursuing that policy. Albright replied, “We think the price is worth it.” They weren’t her children. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. They weren’t his either. But they were, both hers and his.
When I think of the pain of children, two adults come to mind. One is my father, who practiced pediatrics for more than 50 years, built the largest practice in Louisiana, and as president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics catalyzed the establishment of the state’s child protective services. Each time — there weren’t many — that Dad lost a patient, it hit him hard. He regarded death as a commonplace of nature and faced his with tranquility, but not the death of children.
The other adult is Charles Dickens. Only a handful of novelists have equaled his sheer vitality or scope. Much of his power lies in his ability to view the world as a child does, and his depiction of interior human landscapes have the directness of a child’s feelings, unembarrassed by their sentimentality. So this, for instance, from Esther Summerson of “Bleak House”: “I have not by any means a quick understanding. When I love a person very tenderly indeed, it seems to brighten. But even that may be my vanity.” Or from David Copperfield: “What meals I had in silence and embarrassment, always feeling that there were a knife and fork too many, and those mine, an appetite too many, and that mine, a plate and chair too many, and those mine, a somebody too many, and that I!”
Dickens’ measure of human accomplishment, individual and collective, is our treatment of children. The focus of his one work that still commands a mass audience is Scrooge’s ordeal on Christmas Eve. At stake is Scrooge’s humanity, but also Tiny Tim’s life, and the two stakes are inseparable. We know that Scrooge has come alive again when he is moved to save Tiny Tim from a death he has the power to prevent.
In so many ways, being human is a complex challenge, but in the most fundamental way it’s simple. “Back out of all this now too much for us,” begins Robert Frost’s imaginative return to childhood in “Directive.” At the end he comes across a cup he had hidden in the cavity of a cedar tree by a brook. He now refigures it as a chalice. “Here are your waters and your watering place / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.