As the father of an almost 11-month-old, I realize my ideas, dreams, hopes, and concrete parental practices may still have a bit of the new car smell on them.
By “new car smell” I mean I’m fully aware of the fact that I’ll probably never be seasoned enough to speak knowledgeably about what it is to truly be a parent, as there is always someone within earshot who has taken a bullet for their kids, or never slept through the night even though their kid went away to college 3 years ago, or who never became a parent at all and IS TOTALLY OFFENDED THAT YOU WOULD TALK ABOUT YOUR KIDS HOW INSENSITIVE SHUT UP THE EARTH IS ALREADY OVERPOPULATED!
So, I mostly never talk about parenting, because I naively still believe cheerios and farts won’t be eternally ground into the backseat of the first (used) new car I bought for someone who—I realize now—poops in their pants professionally.
"(audible bowel rumbling from the back seat)"
But my boy, he’s fantastic, you really should meet him sometime. For instance, he has this thing where, whenever he does something amazingly novel and profoundly cute (something, I’m sure, no non-genius has ever done before in infancy), my wife and I sputter to life in order to clutch at our phones and capture the thing on video so we’ll have something with which to annoy friends and strangers later. Except, that by the time our ancient smartphones have acknowledged our desires to use the camera and NO SIRI, NOT EMAIL, I DIDN’T HOLD DOWN THE HOME BUTTON WHY ARE YOU SPEAKING, AND NOW MY PHONE SHUTDOWN?! he’s not doing it anymore. Even if we’re quick, we have the camera ready, and all the important motivational implements in place, he eludes capture by pretending to be a mere babe once again.
It’s almost as if the presence of the phone, the lights, the staging, and the wild waving of two smiling lunatics goading him to perform, preclude us from ever actually capturing the thing we’re desperate to witness. In just 11 months, my son already has this intrinsic pull to hide parts of himself from ownership, which is what a recording is at its core, an act of ownership over a moment or an experience in order to use it for oneself and save it for a later date.
Much of my time in the early days of parenthood were spent surviving, trying to remember if I had pants on, when last I took a shower, and why the milk was in the pantry and our clean sheets cooling in the fridge, but as our son has grown older over the past several months things have slowed down, and, confusingly, also sped up. It’s easier now to make sense of our days and nights, to know that we have on clean underwear, and to finally feel free to cease accessorizing every ensemble with a spit-up stained burp-rag, but in the midst of these rather incredible changes, I realize my son is growing up, he’s changing, he’s learning, and it feels like any day now he’s going to be embarrassed of me and my desires to follow him and his friends around the mall to make sure no one’s taking marijuana tablets.
"Is your dad always like this?"
-my son's hypothetical adolescent friends
In those moments where I’m crippled by the forward trajectory of reality’s ceaseless onslaught of tomorrows, I reach for my phone and try to save something for later, but in so doing, end up missing out on the thing I’m stubbornly trying to hold on to. To my ongoing frustration, my son’s laugh, his face, his voice, his terrifyingly wobbly efforts at standing upright can’t actually be owned, they can only be experienced, savored, and enjoyed then and there. They’re like McDonald’s french fries in that right (HYPOTHETICALLY SPEAKING, WE ALL KNOW NO ONE EVER EATS AT MCDONALDS ANYMORE. NO, NOT EVEN LATE AT NIGHT, OR DURING ROAD TRIPS, OR ANY OTHER TIME THEY WANT TO DIP FRIES IN A MCFLURRY AFTER A LONG TUESDAY).
To spend the whole of our lives working tirelessly to trap and wrestle to the ground every worthwhile moment of our existences for posterity or our friends to notice on the Internet is to fundamentally waste the best parts of our lives. In my previous work as a pastor, it was sometimes difficult to talk about God authentically in a context where people are paying you to invoke and conjure the divine at whim in order to efficiently provide a theological underline for how they were already going to live their lives independent of this God’s existence and dreams for the world. Which, professionally, is a bit like swerving into oncoming traffic whilst trying to photograph the slow fade of the evening sun cresting over the hills on your drive home with your phone.
By that, I mean we do violence to ourselves and everyone around us, when we imagine God to be a force lured from the clouds above by the correct chord progression, the right lighting, and the proper incantatory prayers, rather than the very ground upon which we stand and move and have our being, as one early Christian pastor put it.
Disinterested religion is a continual willingness to release our fictive hold on God's whereabouts in the future, in order to remain focused on the ambiguity and beauty of the divine in every heartbeat and every breath.
“Isn’t that the goal of any would be religion: to return us to where we are with a renewed sense of gratitude? To simply be fully present with eyes remade for wonder…”
-Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
Disinterested living (much like disinterested faith) is an effort in being present to the moment and people in front of you, without expectation of what they can do for you later.
Disinterested living is an effort in trusting that even if you don’t save and attempt to own the best parts of your story for others to admiringly behold, you will in all likelihood find moments of profound beauty bubbling up unexpectedly time and again.
Disinterested living is an effort in believing that life is the thing in front of you, not the one behind or beyond your sightline.
Disinterested living is an effort in coming alive to the radical okay-ness of giggling uncontrollably while your son does something only you will see and know he can do, and believing that it is in the very uniqueness of that moment where its profundity is most truly realized. Primarily because, the laughter and the tears and the weird smells and the hazy end to the day is for you and him and no one else.
“Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
-2 Corinthians 6:4-10
And, I might add, when we attempt to own everything we end up possessing very little of it.
On the other hand, when we trust our present to be enough for us, it becomes a gift we experience again and again and again and again without provocation, precisely because we, through a process of learning to doggedly pay attention, develop eyes to see it and ears to hear it, as one early Jewish rabbi put it.
God, in my limping estimation, works much the same way.
*photo courtesy of Kevin Lau, Creative Commons