A Failure of Imagination
I remember the close warmth of the Texas night, the small bedroom with its peach-toned walls, and the humid air punctuated by my mother's swift, hard breath. I remember the smell; the pungent scent of the herbs I'd been told to boil, the greenish scent of olive oil, and a scent I'd never fully encountered before, that of skin and blood and sweat in a heady mingling of sour and sweet. "Stand closer, hon" said Tami, my mother’s impromptu midwife, "I need you to hand me that towel as soon as the baby comes. We're close. Pour a little oil over my hands... that's right." She looked at my mother, my exhausted, tense-muscled mother, and nodded. "One more hard push and the baby will be here." I watched my mother close her eyes in a sheet-white face blank of every emotion except hard concentration and pain. I watched her sweat-soaked chest rise, saw her teeth set at the last, and I witnessed the cost of that push upon every nerve and muscle in her body.
And then all I saw was the baby.
She was born. In a rush of water and blood, my sister emerged, as if on a tide from another world, this small, pink, compact body, astonishingly complete. "Hello, little precious" Tami whispered, taking the tiny body in calm, firm hands, leaning over, rubbing her wet, new skin, reaching for the towel that I had at the ready. I couldn't see for a moment and I felt suddenly panicked at the quiet. I leaned in close and was just in time to witness my sister's first, shuddering breath, the crinkling of her tiny eyes, and the wail, the blessed, startled cry that all babies give at finding themselves outside the warm contours of their first home.
People speak of newborns as perfect, and that is the word that comes to my fingers, but I don't think any of us really mean aesthetic perfection when we describe the wrinkled, raw, pink strangeness of a newborn child. I think we mean perfect in the biblical sense of complete. Whole. Lacking nothing. A tiny human being, each detail intricately formed, emerging into our hands with soul and mind and heart already beating. Perfect. Like the whole of the world at the dawn of creation. Here anew, with us.
I stared at my baby sister as she was cleaned and swaddled. It was only fair that my mother hold her first, but I hovered near, watching my radiant, exhausted mother with light in her eyes and on her face so clear and new it almost frightened me. She looked as I imagined people to look before they die, when they glimpse a world to come more beautiful than anything they have yet seen. Except, the world she glimpsed that night was the face of her newborn child. Together, we leaned over the flushed little face and round, wet head, and watched the big, new eyes open.
In that moment, I glimpsed a world beyond what I had imagined. In those dusky eyes, a sweet, murky swirl of brown and blue, I encountered the kindled flame of a new, precious life, a self formed and watchful, as its eyes first opened upon love.
I think of that first glimpse into the eyes of my beloved sister, Joy, every time I see another headline screaming further uncovered atrocities in the Planned Parenthood videos. I see her newborn face every time I read another article outlining the brutal, unthinkable practices of ‘crushing’ and ‘tearing’ that render a living child a pile of dead parts ready for sale. And I think of that night every time I see the face of Dr. Nucatola and others like her, the Planned Parenthood official filmed impassively discussing the ‘sale’ of baby ‘parts’. As I watch her face, I realize afresh the incomparable gift of my experience, at eleven years old, of watching my sister’s birth, the way it made me a witness to newborn life, in all the beauty and terror of childbirth, as a miracle. And I wonder what experiences and memories taught Dr. Nucatola to look at a child with an eye to dissect rather than to wonder.
What killed her imagination? Because amidst the rightly outraged rhetoric, the grieved calls for action, and rush to a fresh apologetic for the value of unborn children, I am struck by the fact that we who hold human life to be precious at all points and certainly before birth are faced not merely with the loss of an argument. We are faced with the loss of meaning. Dr. Nucatola and others like her can look at the same sum of parts that I saw in my sister, she can look at eyes just as dusky, at hands equally perfect, and with an educated mind and civilized mentality see merchandise where I see miracle.
We face a failure, not so much of rhetoric, as of imagination, that faculty that C. S. Lewis called ‘the organ of meaning’. We face a world struck by a blindness of biblical proportions in which people have physical sight, but no “in” sight, that inner viewpoint informed by the eternal by which we perceive value and depth far beyond the mere surface of things. ‘Insight’, which literally means ‘to gain an accurate, intuitive, and deep understanding of a person or thing.’
This is what Dr. Nucatola seems to be missing when it comes to babies. But insight isn’t restored by the operation of reason, as if argument were a scalpel with which we could cut away the growth of deception. I’ve spent a huge amount of time studying how children form a sense of self, and how imagination shapes the interior world from which we form our values and beliefs. The conclusion I have come to again and again on both a spiritual and educational level is that our inner sight is shaped by our narratives, by the stories both lived and imagined that immerse us in a certain way of seeing people, a certain quality of consciousness to the world around us.
Insight is powerfully formed by the lived sight of experience, something gained, not by a bullet-point list of memorized beliefs, but by a ‘taste and see’ knowledge in which we encounter first hand the love, truth, and goodness of God’s creation in the lives of redemptive people, in the felt love of our families, and also in the creation of novelists, artists, and musicians who use their craft to embody God’s reality. When it comes to a right value for the preciousness of childhood, the irreplaceable treasure of a newborn baby, perhaps what is needed is not only a trenchant apologetic attack but a rehabilitation of wonder in the gift of child life, a renewal of consciousness, a redeemed narrative regarding the gift of childhood.
Our current cultural narratives are increasingly focused on independence, pragmatism, and autonomy. We have submitted to a machinistic, technologically-driven mode of life in which we tacitly accept the materialist viewpoint of physical reality positing that only what can be observed, measured, and controlled is of worth. If something is not useful, fast, or easily accessible, we call it useless. We are busy, distracted, obsessed with activity and entertainment, eyes fixed on screens instead of faces. We are increasingly isolated from the people around us, and what little imagination we do have is dependent on whatever flickers across our screens.
The cultural narratives on which we are thus dependent have as their ideal the independent self, an ideal that unravels our connection to family, community, children, and even our place in the earth. The stories we increasingly tell are of those of personal autonomy and increasing utility, ones in which we throw off ‘the ties that bind’. We have embraced the narrative of the autonomous self and its rights, imagining in vivid films and satisfying novels the scenarios in which we throw off the shackles of family, tradition, and duty in favor of self-fulfillment. Self-discovery. Self-expression enabled by the boundless, impersonal world of technology. Self in total freedom from other totally free selves, none of us protesting any action of another unless it threatens something we desire.
But on a wide cultural scale, we live with the consequences of those narratives in the lives of lonely children, of families broken, of homes echoing with loss. For many, particularly of my generation, the only narrative known about children is that children encroach upon personal autonomy. Many people of my age were the confused children of freedom-seeking parents. Children have become a calculated cost, a measurable investment weighed against the more alluring investments of entertainment, pleasure, money, and career. Increasingly, they are viewed as the lesser end of the bargain. Apparently, their very flesh can be weighed and sold when their value for personal enrichment is exhausted.
Hard words are necessary for evil deeds. Something in my nature always holds back from judgment, it is both my gift and curse to want to stand apart, to see all sides. But the dismemberment and murder of children is wrong. Plain and simple. For once, I can think of no condemnation too strong for the actions and attitudes perpetuating what I believe is a form of murder. But I frankly don’t think any amount of accusation and argument will change Dr. Nucatola’s mind. She needs a renewed imagination, and the only way that will happen is if, somehow, someday, she is immersed in a narrative profoundly opposite to that of a utilitarian autonomy.
That is a narrative that we who are rooted in the life of Christ, children of a beloved Father, can richly offer. Dr. Nucatola needs to taste, see, and live the story of beloved childhood. She needs to be drawn into homes and lives in which the fact that we are all children of a loving God makes all children precious. She needs to sit at a dinner table with a three-year-old and have a wild-eyed conversation. She needs to take a walk with a six-year-old and see what can be seen (for oh, the little ones have such keen and different eyes). She needs to hold newborn babies whose families deeply desire them, because that shining-eyed desire, the same I saw in my mother on the night of Joy’s birth, will teach her something of a baby’s worth that no apologist’s argument ever can. She needs to look long enough into the eyes of an infant for new rooms to open in her imagination. She needs to touch a newborn, hold a baby until the tender skin and fragile, whole little limbs burn her very hands with their beauty.
She needs to be friends with women, with peers of mind and age who find the bearing and raising of children a joy. An endless work, a mighty challenge, yes. But also a fulfillment of the self in a way vastly different from autonomous pleasure, an expansion of the self in loving connection with other human beings. She needs to be in homes rich in peace, echoing with laughter, marked by prayer and a deep value for the memory of those before, a love for those to come. She needs to be surrounded by stories that challenge and change her narrative of childhood, by novels, films, essays, and art that teach her to see children as precious, that effect what Owen Barfield called ‘a felt change of consciousness’ in her view of infant life.
Perhaps Dr. Nucatola needs to perceive herself as a child, a wanted, delightful child. Perhaps she needs a radically different narrative of her own childhood. I cannot discern or judge her past, but her inmost understanding of babies wasn’t something that began when she got a degree. It was formed, day-by-day, throughout her life, by the narratives of parents and friends, by the atmospheres of love or loneliness in which she hoped and learned and grew.
Madeleine L’Engle once said that Hitler could only have risen to power because the writers and artists and musicians of Germany failed a generation. Sometimes I wonder how we have failed the children of our generation. I wonder if our cultural, even personal narratives, on a daily basis, have often diminished and devalued children. Have we presented them as precious? Have we, in our faith-shaped lives fully embraced children ourselves, as gifts and graces, as precious, as worthy of our work and care? Have we been willing to live, and create, at their slow, wondering pace, submitting ourselves to the service of another? Have we loved the homes in which they dwell? Have we willingly given the hours of ordinary work that they demand? Have we agreed with God that children are a gift, and a great, good work, and have we given ourselves to their love and care as God gives himself to us?
I am convicted, as I encounter the Planned Parenthood debacle, that one of the best ways I can affirm and defend the value of the unborn child is to create a narrative in my action and words that affirms my belief that children are a gift from God. I hope that these undercover videos will provoke, not just outrage and anger, but a renewed commitment to lives, homes, and creative works that celebrate children, make room for them, affirm their value not just as infants but at every stage of growth. I hope that we embrace anew the hard and beautiful work of raising, training, educating, watching, and caring for the children in our lives with love, grace, and verve. And I hope that we learn to invite those who have never tasted the beauty of childhood into the stories we create.
Dr. Nucatola needs new eyes, and until hers are healed, she may need to borrow those of a few gracious people around her. We need to condemn what is outrageously wrong, but condemnation alone won't create the good we desire. Saying no only creates a void. It is the yes of love, of new creation that brings life where there was death. I once heard a speaker say that ‘only the loved can love, only the found can find’. We who love, who consider ourselves found and rooted in a Love that orders our value for unborn life must present to those we consider offensive, not just a face of outrage, but a countenance reflecting the love that makes beloved children of us all in the first place.