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Commentary: The Sublime

By Keith Frome

Buffalo, NY – Most likely every parent does some time in an emergency room, where our primal fears meet antiseptic bureaucracies, unhappy and underpaid interns, and residents locked in power struggles with unhappy and underpaid nurses. This clash of parental anxiety, institutional inertia and professional sullenness is played out in a barren, whitewashed interior design suggesting prisons or old public schools. It is here that parents, especially new ones, dramatically face the underlying reality of their job we are really not in control; the unexpected is the only expected. Our children are separate from us and, despite our most diligent efforts, they will suffer.

I always associate my most helpless experiences as a parent with an essay by Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century philosopher who is usually a quite difficult read, called "The Sense of the Beautiful and the Sublime." Kant calls those sensations which we find pleasurable, "the beautiful." On the other hand, we feel "sublime" sensations when we are moved by a power that is greater than our own reminding us of our own humble place in the vast cosmos. Kant argues that we cannot have a sense of eternity and the sacred without having experienced the sublime. This experience is not necessarily pleasurable and can often be terrifying, as we suddenly realize the fragility of our existence. Kant puts the distinction well:

Great oak trees and lovely spots in a sacred grove are sublime. Beds of flowers, low hedges and trees trimmed into shape are beautiful. The night is sublime while the day is beautiful. Temperaments which have a sense of the sublime will be drawn toward elevated sentiments regarding friendship, contempt for the world and toward eternity, by the quiet silence of a summer evening when the twinkling light of the stars breaks through the shadows of the night and a lovely moon is visible. The glowing day inspires busy effort and a sense of joy. The sublime moves; the expression of a person experiencing the full sense of the sublime is serious, at times rigid and amazed.

A friend of mine told me a story that will always stay with me because it so clearly represents Kant's notion of the sublime. Edward led a charmed life. The son of a notable family, he attended the finest independent day and boarding schools. Tall, athletic and smart, he graduated from an Ivy League college and went straight to one of the best medical schools in the country. After his residency, he joined a prestigious private practice in Manhattan and moved into an apartment on Park Avenue. Edward soon met a pretty, articulate, and razor-sharp New York University graduate student who was just finishing her Ph.D. She eventually became a college professor.

After they married, Edward told me that they planned to move to a larger apartment in the city and purchase a country house for weekends and summers. Much as they had grown up, their children would have the day-light pleasure of life; they would attend the best schools, travel, enjoy long and loyal friendships, and choose interesting and satisfying careers. These plans were put into perspective when their first child was diagnosed with cerebral palsy soon after she was born. In addition to the mental and physical stress of having a child with this disease, Edward was subject to the added agony of never really being able to predict just how severe their child's condition would eventually become. Edward told me that it was this uncertainty that was hardest for him.

We had a long conversation one day about Edward's experiences as a father of a child with cerebral palsy. I will never forget it. He went into a great amount of detail about his family's navigation through the medical world, as well as his daughter's and his wife's day-to-day challenges. Edward said that the experience, though horrible and terrifying, had taught him that his previous values and priorities had been misguided. Schools and careers and addresses were ultimately empty. He prayed that his daughter would someday be able to walk. He would be thrilled and count his daughter's life a success if she could just do that. Edward told me that many babies with cerebral palsy are unable to respond to their parent's coos and cuddles. His daughter, though, could smile back at him when he smiled at her. Edward counted the fact that his daughter could respond to him as the most tremendous blessing of his life. In the simple formula of smiling and smiling back, Edward revealed to me the entire meaning of parenthood. He taught me that the joy of parenting comes from the give and take between you and your baby, between you and your toddler, between you and your little girl, between you and your adolescent boy. It is the forging of a deeply connected, tenacious, never-ending relationship that is the miracle of parenting. Edward was profoundly thankful that he could give a smile to his daughter; that she could receive it; that she could let him know that she got it; that she could give a little of it back to him.

Listener-commentator Keith Frome (FROHM) is former headmaster of the Elmwood-Franklin School in Buffalo. He's now working for a Washington-based non-profit agency that enrolls low income students in college.

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