The Helpless God

Thursday, May 12th, 2005

I’m long out of the active diaper-changing business, which may account for the sheer reverence, unsullied by worry or responsibility, with which I found myself cradling my week-old great nephew this past Mother’s Day and contemplating, well, God.

This is the privilege of great unclehood, perhaps. The ache of joy is an end in itself. Little more is asked of me than to love the baby, to bond with him, so maybe that’s why my lap time with him, my walking-around-the-room-time, my shhhh time, my stick-out-my-tongue-and-scrunch-up-my-nose time, felt like prayer. I know of no altar that can focus the soul quite like a helpless newborn, especially when his eyes pop open.

I’ve held babies before, but there’s no growing used to this. The tiny, curling fingers, the lively toes, the comically ancient face — life light as a feather. Shhhh. I invite you to join me at the altar of Joey — Joseph Michael Schipper, of Appleton, Wis., son of Carmen and Sean, brother of 4-year-old Jackson — for a moment or two, while I figure out what it was that seemed so important to say as I held him.

It was definitely connected to the helplessness. Indeed, my awe at beholding him increased in direct proportion to my sense of that quality in all its ramifications. Joey lay swaddled in my forearms as pure potential. This was not an abstraction. I could tell that my every curious touch of his elbow, of the sole of his foot, of his tummy, my every brush of finger across cheek, was openly received and fully absorbed, as though he needed my touch as much as he needed breast milk. There were no defenses. There was only hunger, sustenance and growth.

This was our dynamic. I was actively nurturing him as I held him — feeding him love. This is the secret of moms. I had never understood motherhood before, not at that level. And this was plenty of realization for one Mother’s Day, but seems to be no more than the starting point of what I want to say.

As I held Joey, I was still under the influence of an earlier conversation I’d had with my sister the psychologist (Joey’s grandma). Sue and I have wide-ranging talks when we get together, which often enough begin with the current political situation and end up groping in the unexplored depths of the human condition.

At one point she told a story from her professional experience about a teenager who committed suicide. The girl had been psychotic (saw eyes in the walls) and had endured a long period of sexual abuse, which wrecked her life. It is a common horror story worse than any invention of art and to hear it told even in cursory detail is to feel the flooring of one’s heart collapse beneath a great weight of outrage. Too many such stories and you’ll be mainlining hopelessness. Why do these things happen?

So there I was with newborn Joey in my arms, delicately supporting his head, watching him breathe and stir lightly in his sleep. I was trembling at the altar of his helplessness, extraordinarily alert, making small, silent vows to myself to be careful, to be loving, to be good. The pure potential of his helplessness was in perfect equilibrium with my awe.

But as I held him I couldn’t stop thinking about the abused, psychotic girl who began life as pure potential just as Joey has and all of us have: as malleable beings almost unlimited in what we can become but existentially naked, requiring everything of those who care for us. Only if they are selfless will we grow. This is what an infant demands, but we must give it freely. The choice is ours.

As I held this tiny boy, I wondered why I had that choice, to be careless or selfish instead of nurturing, able to do a harm whose consequences would be born by him, not by me. And this is when I thought about the nature of God — a term I do not use glibly. Indeed, I generally avoid all God language; this is the language that blesses the bomb and the buck. It’s the cheapest language of all.

But still, this is what I thought, that there was a quality to Joey’s helplessness that seemed more godlike than anything else I had ever encountered. What if, I thought, the nature of God were openness and helplessness? What if destructive power were a human quality, not God’s? This changed everything, from the creation myths (man expelled God from the Garden of Eden) to the day’s news and our relationship with our planet.

I understood this in a brief flash, as I held the planet’s future in my arms.