10/20/2008 By Shawn Burns

Parents are obnoxious.

When confronted by the childless on any topic, and forced to try to explain their opinions, prejudices, and premises to an increasingly incredulous and smarmy audience, parents will sometimes drop a big nasty bomb on the conversation:

You’ll understand when you have kids.

This isn’t obnoxious because it’s a conversation-ender (although it is that), nor because it is utterly dismissive of the other perspective (although it is also that). It is obnoxious because it is a cowardly shorthand for what parents really mean:

You have yet to mature, and your opinion on this issue is as self-serving, and self-involved, as a child’s. Finish growing up and stop looking at the world as an imposition, a third period class you have to take while you’d rather be spending time with your own brilliant self.

But as obnoxious as it is to use the "when you have kids" shorthand instead of just saying what one literally means it is also a side effect and sign of the very maturity parents lament as absent in those who mock their sincerity.

I thought I had a great idea for a project once. Pondering the politeness that pervades the polis I thought it would be fun and interesting to think about the very worst thing I could imagine saying to someone, either a stranger walking by on the street or my closest friends. Easier, of course, to think of the most horrible accusation possible when considering friends. During the process I realized just how darkly I could view the world and the people in it, and I had to admit that I held some fairly disgusting opinions about people, even while at the same time holding them in high esteem. This realization made me feel miserable. Not in the "sad" sense of the word, but in the "wretched, deplorable, shameful" sense of it. It was shaming to know that I could have those thoughts about people I purported to care about.

Now I’m pretty sure that we’re all capable of those thoughts. But we don’t all express them. That we have these weapons at our disposal and choose, every day, during every interaction with someone, not to use them is precisely the difference between maturity and immaturity. Maturity is the recognition that authenticity for its own sake, for your own sake, is as unwarranted as hurling feces at people.

There’s a weird stage some people (including myself) go through, that involves a little regression toward childhood. Not genuine childhood, but a fantasy of childhood. We imagine, presume, hope, that childhood was the last time we experienced our own authenticity, when we last felt like we owned or controlled the world. In our post-adolescence (not "maturity", not "adulthood") we witness constraints, lies, manipulations, ugliness, and we long for the world to just leave us alone to do our thing. I can see in Erin’s spontaneous expression and in her fearlessness the inspiration for these later, post-adolescent dreams. But wallowing in authenticity, rooting around in spontaneity, is a depredation of the innocent ownership of childhood. My fun and interesting project, to imagine the worst possible thing to say to people as they walk by was authentic, yes. It was honest, insofar as it is an actual manifestation of my self and not some fabrication. And it was freeing in a way that I could imagine a child is freed when running around on wet grass after being imprisoned during a deluge. But it was also unworthy.

Because what the child has that I lacked was a view of the world, my world, the world I am owner and part of, as basically good, and wonderful, and built for experiencing and spontaneous dancing. Whether this view of the world is true, or even validated by the evidence, every damned day, is controversial. But what’s not controversial is this: "You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take." (Wayne Gretzky, folks. It’s not an accident that he is the Great One.) If you don’t try to see the world as good, and worthwhile, then you will make it impossible to see good in it. Miracles are few and far between, and if you wait for the world to impress you despite itself you will always be disappointed in it. And smug.

As a child matures into an adult the stage after the pupal is once again full of dancing. Parenthood accelerates this, but isn’t a magic pill: some people dance like Stairway is coming on next whether they are parents or not; and some parents will never dance. But for some, for many, for most, for the sake of dancing, and of having partners with whom to dance, we put our weapons down, and we say to those on the sidelines who laugh at the dance "You’ll understand when you have kids." It’s an obnoxious rejoinder, but one that takes the least time away from the dance.

Some days it’s harder to dance than others, and I just want to stand on the sidelines and throw feces at people like an angry monkey. And some days I fail utterly and I just do throw feces at people.

But some days I’m reminded of the dancing.

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

(Thanks to Jozet at Halushki for Tweeting this video the other day. It really helped.)