Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice
I read something yesterday that I’ve been mulling over all night and all morning. It is a quote attributed to Thales of Miletus, a Greek philosopher of the 6th century BC, and is said to have been his reply when he was asked why he did not have a child.
“Who truly finds reality sufficiently desirable to introduce their son or daughter to the inevitability of death, to the treachery of man’s dealings with man, to the self-interest that fuels the world, to the burden of being forced to do tiring work for pay, if not to precarious employment? … How could parents be so naive, stupid and short-sighted as to love misery, illness, destitution, poverty, old age and misery enough to want to pass them on to their own offspring? … Should we really use the word love to describe the transmission of such evils to the flesh of our flesh?”
(The idea is quoted in a book I hope to review here soon and the word ‘misery’ appears twice there on the list of things-inflicted-on-descendents. I don’t know if it’s an error or if Thales of Miletus just wanted to make doubly sure we knew about misery!)
So, obviously I’m not a fan of calling people naive, stupid and short-sighted and I don’t think that parents are more likely to be any of those things than non-parents. Also, while I see a lot of misery in the world, I also see a lot of beauty and goodness that is absolutely worth passing on. But nonetheless, twenty-seven centuries later, I’ve actually had similar thoughts to these.
My own position is pretty firmly aligned with Buddhist teachings on suffering – the idea that life itself can be meaningfully equated with suffering, because our nature is to imagine a feeling of perfect contentment and then grasp at it as though we believe it to be not only possible but sustainable, whereas real life is characterised by absolute impermanence. The Buddhists don’t seem to me to be quite as hopeless as Thales of Miletus. They think we can deal with the problem of suffering at its root by learning not to grasp, but to make peace with reality as it actually is. But even they admit that it could take us several lifetimes.
Personally, I’m a pretty happy person (and I certainly never found life more beautiful than when I started to engage with these kinds of teachings). But I’m talking about quite a fragile kind of beauty and a tender sort of happiness. To me, it would feel like an incredible gamble to bring another human being into consciousness, in the hope that she or he would somehow learn to surf the painful reality of impermanence well enough to catch a life-long wave.
I don’t think non-parenthood is the only conclusion its possible to draw from this kind of thinking. Perhaps it also points, significantly, to the value of sharing everything we ever discover about creating lives that are meaningful and beautiful. That’s my own aspiration in the different kinds of work I do and I feel sure it has been the aspiration of many non-mothers before me.
But for all that, I really feel I know what Thales of Miletus meant.
But in the meantime, what about you? How do you respond to the defence for non-parenthood given by Thales of Miletus?
[The beautiful image above is presented with permission from the work of Yataro.]