From Parent to Child: Values
Is there a more politically loaded word? Here, we take the opportunity to return it to an earlier, less baggage-encumbered meaning. Essayist Steven Schnur ’75 reflects on a moment when the values he and his wife, Nancy ’75, had worked nearly two decades to instill were shown to be a bone-deep part of his child’s very being.
Metabolizing Our Hopes and Prayers
I wondered how a child of mine could suffer such a blow—to her ego, her happiness, her core stability—and yet express no rancor, no anger, no self-doubt, nothing but a profound sense of loss, as though in deepest mourning.
We sat across from one another in a small Greenwich Village diner as she spoke of the breakup. It had been her first serious attachment, but one so free of the usual vicissitudes of adolescent romance that we had imagined it might one day lead to marriage. In the warmth of its embrace she had blossomed, discovering new academic interests, setting new career goals, becoming more expressive, more thoughtful, more compassionate. She had always been self-confident, ebullient, curious, independent-minded, trustworthy. And because she was able to keep a confidence, she was privy to the inmost conflicts and regrets of a wide circle of friends. After graduating high school, she walked clear-eyed into the mating maelstrom of Manhattan, a seventeen-year-old college freshman from suburbia intent on learning all that the city’s rich culture had to teach.
Weren’t we worried, friends asked, for her safety; didn’t we fear the predatory nature of college boys, the too easy access to alcohol and drugs, the wickedness of the city? Yes, we feared them all, and yet we felt, perhaps foolishly, that she did not enter that combustible world unarmored. Home and school and synagogue had labored to prepare her for this stage, and we felt that she possessed the intellectual tools and the self-protective instincts necessary to confront what awaited her. She committed Saturday mornings to the homeless at an East Village shelter; then she met a senior and began that tentative, tender dance of first love. She had metabolized our hopes and prayers, our teachings and cautions, the lessons of classroom and sanctuary and dinner table, and synthesized her own complex, highly principled personality driven by a voracious appetite for learning, a genuine desire to repair a broken world, and an endless capacity for joy.
Love, for her, was a radiance that clothed everything in generosity.
She spent the following summer in Berlin visiting the birthplace of her paternal grandparents, learning the cruel history that had sent them into exile 70 years earlier. I, who had never set foot in Germany, marveled at her easy intercourse with a land that had always filled me with loathing. Her response was informed by an intimate, adult awareness of the horrors that had befallen an earlier generation. And when, finally, I visited her and walked the streets my father and grandfather had fled, I felt reconciled through the sensitive mediation of my child. I suddenly saw that surprisingly youthful city as both the crucible of genocide and the cradle of hope, its legions of students, artists and entrepreneurs the vanguard of a Fourth Reich of civility and creativity. Together we walked among the granite stelae of the city’s Holocaust memorial as she tried to understand a malevolence so dark it held all light, all elucidation hostage. She concluded that the best response to hate was to refuse to add one iota of malice to the world, a reflexive reaction that manifested itself in countless small ways. I saw it in her rush to forgive the thoughtlessness of roommates and friends, her gentle and wise manipulation of her parents and siblings, and the resilience of her burgeoning romance. Her relationships were not about personal attainment or ego gratification but a mutuality born of shared interests, new discoveries and sheer exuberance.
So when she sat across from me at the diner in tears, I should not have been surprised by the absence of bitterness or regret. She lamented the loss of mutuality that had chaperoned her since their first meeting. They had spent a year discovering the city together; during that time, whenever she encountered frustrations or disappointments, she had only to think of their next rendezvous to feel her spirits lift and her outlook brighten. Love, for her, was a radiance that clothed everything in generosity. And now, with its eclipse, the world seemed a darker and colder place. Yet, astonishingly, her kind heart remained. She spoke as if widowed, as understanding of her beloved’s complex and troubled feelings as she was of her own.
She had given me every reason to rejoice. The world might repair itself, one caring soul at a time.
In my fumbling effort to provide comfort—what did I know about such hurt? I had married my first love—I was the one ultimately comforted: by the depth and intensity of her feeling, her charitable spirit and the knowledge that the abstract principles of compassionate interaction with the world that we had labored to instill in all our children had taken root and proven sufficiently resilient to sustain her. There was no room in her heart for hate.
“I’ll get through this,” she assured me as I hugged her goodbye that evening. “I just need time to mourn and to regain my equilibrium. He gave me the most wonderful year of my life.” And she had given me every reason to rejoice. The world might yet repair itself, one caring soul at a time, buoyed by such benevolence.