Sunday, September 25, 2011

McCarthy's The Road and Parental Love

Cormac McCarthy's tour de force The Road depicts a father and his young son crossing a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. Ostensibly the novel is a harrowing epic struggle for survival against virtually impossible odds. But not far from its surface is an intense mortal conflict between the forces of good and evil.
"Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again." 
So the man comforts his son about another boy they encountered on the road. And as a result of his herculean efforts, the boy survives.

But ultimately the book presents a profound moral lesson about the supreme power of love, specifically the kind that a parent has for his/her child. Again the father:
"No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you."
What makes The Road such a great book is its gut-wrenching rendition of the extent to which a parent will sacrifice him/herself unquestionably in the service of love and caring for their children. (It is important to note that McCarthy has a son who was the same age as the boy when he wrote the book.)

There are at least a handful of essential forms of love, but as a parent I want to argue partisanly that this is the strongest one. If some harm of the sort that the hero in this novel prevents from being inflicted on his son should come to one of mine, then my heart will surely be torn asunder for the rest of my days. 

I'll begin to defend this by simply pointing to the fact that my children are in part my flesh and blood. But that is actually the least of it, because I am certain that I would feel the same way about my children even if they were not. Indeed, the more important thing is that maternal/paternal love has several layers of complexity that involves other kinds of human bonds. 

For one thing, if you have a spouse/partner/relative/friend who has shared in the rearing of your child, part of your love is likely bound up in respect if not love for that other adult, as well as in an emotional attachment that has grown out of that unique personal history. And that shared history, beginning (again not necessarily) with the process of pregnancy/giving birth and ending in the current age/stage of development of your child, is certain to be an essential component of what you see when you look at your child and will compound your love. In The Road, the man has lost his wife, and that figures prominently in his will to save his son.

Another important aspect of parental love is all the time and love and commitment personally given to one's child over the course of his/her existence, from changing diapers to doing homework to attending soccer games.... This is the true meaning of the phrase, "a labor of love". Of course it is not always easy, and sometimes downright challenging, but the rewards multiply daily as you watch your child growing up and increasingly interacting with you and the world.

Having a child and being a parent is arguably one of the most fulfilling things one can do in life. Think of it like creating a work of art that is in progress for a lifetime. The caring and mentoring that goes into it is an invaluable investment of time and energy, and the returns are plentiful and perpetual. It is almost cliche to say that our children represent the future, but that is very true. They are the embodiment of our vision of what the world should look like someday, and we hope that they will perpetuate our history and knowledge and values. So it is perfectly reasonable that we make every effort to protect our children, to usher them safely into the world, to provide an environment for them in which they will thrive and prosper and find happiness.

To this picture I further add that my children have become over time very good friends, albeit in basically an intransitive way. That is, partly because I've been with them every day since infancy, partly because we enjoy each other's company with an appropriate sort of limited equality, and partly owing to the fact that we continue to share so much together, there has developed a bond of companionship between us that I never expected and now cherish. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine something coming between those very friendly relationships (but sadly I know that can happen).    

Finally, if you combine all the aspects of parental love that I've considered, you have a form of love that can be powerful and profound enough to to move mountains. Thus what affected me so much by McCarthy's The Road is that I completely identified with the absolute love of the father for his son and understood perfectly his purpose to the very end.