Picture your own life at age three – but subtract the love.
How do I know there was a lot of love in your home? Because you can read me. I am tough sledding just as grammar, but I also frequently and intentionally put people through excruciating pain – like I’m doing right now. Only folks who learned deep emotional resilience in childhood can put up with me.
So go back to being an awakening child-mind, but take away all the interaction, all the conversation, all the shared events, all the affection – all the teasings and ticklings and snugglings – all the attention. One or both of your parents – or a grandparent or an older sibling – paid an enormous amount of attention to you when you were a baby, or, baby, you could not be here now.
Probably it was a lot of people: A couple or a few all the time, and many more now and then. And each one of those people was working – by intention or not – to cultivate your humanity. Virtually all children get at least minimally-adequate nurturance, since they are ultimately able to walk upright and to bathe nearly often enough. But those of us who are delighted to embrace the life of the mind – my way or any way – are beneficiaries of an enormous amount of attention we can never hope to repay.
So take all that away. What does your life look like to you? What does your future look like? Everyone is somewhere at the age of three. Had you been there then – tended to but never attended to – where would you be by now?
Why does fatherhood matter? Why does art matter? Why does empathy matter, for heaven’s sake? Yours is a cultivated mind. What you are today is what someone wanted for you to be when you were three. You have every right to be proud of what you’ve done on your own, but your ability to do any of that is a gift from people who loved you more than you may ever know – and plausibly more than you ever deserved! Without that gift of cultivation, your life would be very different.
If we take all that away, we might not take everything, but we will have taken a lot. Yes, we can overcome adversity, and I think that should be everyone’s favorite story. But if a child’s mind is not in bloom at age three, it may never flower at all. Had you been deprived of those thick blankets of affection and attention back then, your life would be quite a bit colder now.
There’s an empathy for the opposite in there than you might draw upon when you are tempted to opine about what someone else deserves, but I want to trade you that for an empathy for the future instead:
What if we could make up some of that deficit? What if we could give underfathered children some of the attention, some of the affection, some of the moral guidance they’re missing out on? What if we could share with them some of your childhood?
With bedtime stories, that’s how.
There are half-a-billion children growing into their humanity right now. If you could show them what it means to be human, what would you do? Anastasia in the light and shadow is my answer.
I believe that Anastasia is the perfect bedtime story. I didn’t write it that way; like all Willie stories, it’s written for adults. But it works the magic of the bedtime story like nothing else: It illuminates the path to the fully sovereign life of the mind – the path to a mind like yours.
Archimedes is reputed to have said, “Give me a lever and a firm place to stand and I will move the Earth!” That’s a beautiful benedy even if it’s apocryphal, and it very much informs the business at hand: Subtle influences applied early and often will have a profound effect over time. Another way I have of expressing the same idea: Time and a vector. In the story, Willie is deploying Archimedes’ lever to put young Anastasia on a much better vector – for the rest of her life.
Does that make Anastasia the perfect bedtime story? That’s yours to decide. But bedtime stories like that one will make for better adults, over time, simply by setting children on better vectors. Their fathers should already be doing this, I agree – but what if they’re not?
And you know they’re not. The deficiencies you decry in 18- and 28-year-olds are the further expressions of the deficit of well-fathered cultivation among three-year-olds. If you want better adults, you want better three-year-olds. There is nothing you can achieve among adults that will make up for what they missed at age three, and the children of the underfathered are far too likely to raise underfathered kids of their own – if they have any children at all.
This is a difficult problem, but not a completely intractable one – not in the age of the internet. It would be sweet if one of the world’s many bazillionaires would catch a clue and realize that underfathered children don’t produce as much and don’t consume as much – and therefore don’t make bazillionaires ever-richer. Oh well. Each man to his own Mammon. We can do what needs to be done without their help, anyway.
Here’s how, in the form of some challenges. You’ll be able to measure how much you want something done for underfathered children by how much you yourself do. Accordingly, I’ll start with me:
Greg Swann is challenged to produce Anastasia in audio. While I was making the bedtime storybook edition of Anastasia, I realized I also needed to make an audio version for children who have no one to read to them at bedtime. Not every underfathered child has access to the internet, but a lot of them do. I’ll take care of this challenge with dispatch.
My polyglot readers are challenged to translate Anastasia. Almost no one reads this blog, but half of those who do are fluent in English and at least one other language. Some are ex-pat Americans, all at sea in an ocean of expectations they knew nothing about at age three. Most are native speakers of their own languages – and they amaze me with how well they navigate the swirling swells of Anglophonic expectations. Either way, I think it would be wonderful for them to translate Anastasia into the local language, and then to make it available to parents as a bedtime story. Too subversive? Maybe. But it’s also a bracing cultural immersion into the depths of Hellenic expectations. Audio, too? Yes, please. Your favorite bedtime stories as well, translated and recorded? Yes, very much yes.
Everyone is challenged to record bedtime stories. Is Anastasia the perfect bedtime story? If you think not, you can place your vote for the tale that tops it by making a recording of your own. That brief window, from ages three to six, is when the human mind comes to full flower. The child is old enough to listen to your story, but not yet old enough to read to himself. You can help to set the vector of his future just by giving him a better world to grow into, every night at bedtime. Accordingly, please choose wisely. The adult you hope to meet twenty years from now should emerge from the story you pick.
I would love to see a free repository of recordings of ennobling bedtime stories, but I fear this is where we might expect to hear from the bazillionaires – demanding payment when they could be shedding grace instead. Again: Oh, well. If you run into copyright problems, write your own bedtime stories. They’ll be better-focused, anyway.
Whether you translate stories with a poet’s passion, record them with the loving theatricality you thrilled in as a child or craft your own better worlds for children in prose, every work of the mind makes your own mind work better – at a minimum – and everyone who drinks from your fountain will be enriched by your excess.
And that’s how you can shed grace: Archimedes’ grace and Anastasia’s and your own.