“The little human animal will not at first have the right responses,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. “It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”
As a parent, or for anyone who has spent time around children can tell you, they are full of both wonderful and regrettable impulses. The two girls in my house, some days, play for hours together without interruption. On others, they come to me every ten minutes complaining of one being mean, which is the complaint du jour in our house.
Much of parenting isn’t telling these children how to behave; it’s talking them through those behaviors. Parents create an inherent community meant to shape the desires — and the behaviors — of their children.
“The head rules the belly through the chest,” continues Lewis. Our sentiments — what we like and prefer — make us the people we are. Otherwise, we are all mind or all appetite. Our hearts modulate and control.
A few weeks ago, our youngest daughter stormed in from outside and ran up to her room. Our oldest daughter also appeared, complaining that the younger had offended her. Both girls were hurt, and I had no clue as to why. And, as any parent or judge knows, the stories behind the incident were likely to be wildly disparate.
For once, I waited. I let the younger stew in her room, while the other went back outside to play. I didn’t know how to solve the problem, and did not think it merited a moment-by-moment rehearsal to determine who was more at fault.
In a quarter of an hour, our youngest daughter came downstairs and opened the front door to return to her game. I asked what she intended to do, and she said, “Say I’m sorry.”
This may have been one of my proudest moments as a parent, not because I parsed out the minutiae of the disagreement, but because I saw built into my daughter’s habits the recognition that apologizing would lead to reconciliation, and the awareness that she had overstepped her bounds.
Much of parenting is imagining a better way to live and practicing it, and the successes are when we see our children take up these practices. Of course, I could replace “parenting” with “life” in the previous sentence. This is what we’re asked to do as adults: to imagine a different way to live than our impulses sometimes drive us and practice it.
As adults, however, we no longer have these indwelling communities of (ideally) parents and teachers to guide us. We need good religion, not to create rules, but to focus us on the practices of habits and sentiments. We need to learn to desire the right things. This is part of any religion, whether Christian or Muslim or American, in that the American religion preaches an accumulation of experiences and goods. Every religion is about desire.
But our desires are not formed alone, whether we are children or adults still becoming the people we want to be. Imagining and practicing who we want to be happens best not alone — for we’re little better than large children, if we’re willing to admit it, when we’re utterly alone — but in community. Each community will have some rules, but the best will have a center, a heart, that each member is aiming for — that each member desires.
And we gather regularly, in whatever religion we practice, to tell the story of our desires. We tell the story of inhabiting these desires. For some, this story happens around a shared table. For others, it’s worship at a football field or shopping mall. I suppose, if we’re honest, that we all feed our desires and worship in many places. But it’s important that we recognize the center of what we’re worshiping. If, that is, we’d like to become as wise as my youngest daughter. I know I hope to.