Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What One Learns in loco parentis.


George Eliot’s Silas Marner is in part the story of a broken man, repaired by love of a child. From the moment that these two “lone things” find one another, the spidery existence of the miser expands as she forces his vision out and forward, warms “him into joy because she had joy.”

It is a beautiful story, though parts of it seem wildly implausible to me. But I am interested in this benign portrait of a kind of stepparent—a man who takes care of little Eppie simply because she is there, and because they both need love. For Eppie and Silas, there are no “real” parents in their story, at least not for quite a while. Yet Silas is still in that odd boundary position that we stepparents know too well: loving without the biological ground of love, without the recognition of bonds afforded to other parents, and without the security of the indestructible love that most children naturally feel for the parents they have known since birth.

Those of you who are parents of transitional children—those strange beings on the cusp of adulthood that we too innocuously call “teenagers”—may question that last part. Attempting to love these sometimes moody and narcissistic little beings can feel like a thankless, hopeless task. But—to generalize irresponsibly from my own and a few other cases—I can say that these little beings still love their parents, even as they are saying and doing things that break the parents’ hearts. And there is even hope that they may grow up, remember those ugly moments, and feel truly remorseful and grateful that you put up with them nonetheless. The tragic case of abused children who still cling to their abusive parents shows the power of this love. This is a horrible basis for security, but I maintain that there is security there to be had.

Such security is less available to a stepparent. Not only must she fight against the lack of early bonding, she must also overcome a cultural history full of stories of wicked stepparents, and perhaps the hostility that often results from divorce and remarriage. She must love in full knowledge that the love may never be returned. There is consolation in one’s spouse of course—who, if he is worth loving, will love you all the more for loving his children. Nonetheless, the stepparent’s love can never be rooted in the promise of strict reciprocity.

And now that I have mentioned the difference, I wish to do it away. The truth is that no parent’s love should be rooted in such a promise. It simply is not good for the parent, who is in a position of greater strength and therefore must exhibit greater magnanimity. We must love because we have the strength to love, and because others have given us that strength through their own love. This, I believe, is called grace.

So does this let those of us who were or are narcissistic little beings off the hook? By no means. As I recall from somewhere, the proper response to grace is unceasing gratitude. Expressing it is an excellent way to enlarge one’s own soul, thus making future magnanimity possible. We were all once lone things: if someone saved you from that, you owe them everything—at the very least the acknowledgement of their gift.

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