Small Is Beautiful

commusings Sep 27, 2020

I fell asleep last Thursday night, a copy of E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful on my chest, only to be jostled out of reverie by what I perceived to be an earthquake. In retrospect, the jolt could have been the seismic gyrations of my sister-in-law, who was in throes of labor just a mile away. In the wee hours of Friday morning, Lewis Kofi Krasno entered the world, trading seats with Justice Ginsburg. Amidst the political chaos, the fires, the virus, the uncertainty, life miraculously presses on.

To behold this unadulterated innocence in your arms is to understand that indeed small is beautiful. This radiant helpless creature, fresh from the oneness of the womb, is closer to God than I’ll ever be, for he knows not the individuated self. He knows only connection. There will be a moment, probably in two years, when he will realize that he is not his mother. And, some years after that, he will become painfully aware of his own mortality and that of his parents. The double-edged sword of consciousness will be unsheathed. He will spend the rest of his life wandering, searching for this condition that he now inhabits, free of the conceptual mind, just being in the everlasting now.

My girls love babies. Even Micah dons the sling and totes little Lewis confidently around the living room so the adults can gossip. Lauren, the luminous mother, slurps the foam off her first Guinness and regales us with her birth story. Lewis is her first child and the labor was remorseless. From the blissful vantage of our snuggly dinner, she recounts the litany of obscenities shrieked between contractions. And we laugh now in direct proportion to her prior agony, as if to bring the world into emotional balance. I remember holding Schuyler, my arms bulging underneath hers, while she pushed. This act is so viscerally profound, so acutely personal that it is impossible to comprehend that it has transpired 108 billion times.

Why is being human - from delivery to demise - so painful, physically and psychologically? I don’t want to belittle the plight of the mare but, in comparison to human nativity, a newborn horse is foaled with minor difficulty and, generally, unassisted. The young filly wobbles for a mere moment and then she clumsily ambles off while humans nurse off their parents’ resources in an endlessly protracted and tortured tenure.

Patriarchal Christian society would blame Eve for this trouble. She desired what was forbidden and tempted her husband into willful sin. This malevolent disruption of God’s plan resulted in Genesis 3:16: “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth. In pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Indicting Eve for women’s perennial suffering is patently unfair. This mythology also fosters fear. And, if there’s one thing I have learned after three rounds, fear is the enemy of the birthing room.

Though I have no plans to breastfeed Lewis, I am reminded of how much I like Guinness. And while I am completely sober scrawling this text now, I did originally posit this potentially ridiculous theory under some influence. I have subsequently learned that this thesis is actually known as the obstetrical dilemma. It involves a number of opposing evolutionary pressures including bipedalism and increased cranium size.

The timelines of these evolutionary developments are murky. However, it appears as if our hominid ancestors, the aptly named Homo erectus, got firmly on their two feet some 1.9 million years ago. Human hips tapered to support locomotion. Male and female hips evolved differently both from a size and angle perspective as women needed to be able to carry out the process of childbirth and also be able to move bipedally. In fact, examination of the pelvis proves to be the most useful method for identifying biological sex using the skeleton.

Early Homo erectus had modestly sized brains, approximately 600 cubic centimeters. However, cranium size doubled over time. One possible explanation for this development relates to the domestication of fire. Somewhere around 500,000 years ago, it is believed that humans got quite proficient at harnessing fire for the purpose of cooking. There is evidence of ancient hearths and earthen ovens dating back 300,000 years.

Cooking added a number of new pages to the human menu. Meat could now be grilled and vegetables could be softened through boiling. Other delights, heretofore inedible, like grains and root vegetables, could now be prepared for consumption. It is substantially easier to digest cooked food. Think of the chimp who monastically spends hours upon hours masticating leaves. There is evidence to suggest that cooked food diminished the amount of energy the body needed to digest, thereby reducing the length of human intestines. The body then directed this newly-found excess energy toward the brain. The average size of the Homo sapien brain is 1400 cubic centimeters. Hence, the dilemma: narrower birth canal meets bigger brain in an epic evolutionary clash.

One possible compromise between these countervailing forces was a truncated gestation period. There is some anthropogenic data suggesting there was once a “fourth trimester” that provided additional development time in the womb. But that through an evolutionary imperative to accommodate our ever-expanding cranium, human babies needed to born “pre-maturely.” This would explain why our cherubic children are such helpless, if loveable, blobs at birth.

While this is an amusing rant at a dinner party, I can’t completely stand behind the science. And, now, I have read accounts that contradict pieces of this narrative. However, regardless of the evolutionary explanation, human babies are inarguably less self-sufficient than virtually any other mammals’ progeny. They require constant attention, feeding and tutelage. The prolific needs of our young children have had significant impact on our social structures. The well-worn African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child" suggests that an entire community of people must interact with children to insure their well-being. We need Gramma to help out (but not too much!). We need friends and neighbors to take shifts, mash avocados and share the burden.

The success of our species is predicated on our ability to cooperate flexibly at scale. And this human skill may be a product of our need for collective child-rearing. Certainly not every child is born into a loving community, but those who are gain a birthright of inestimable advantage.

The other dimension of our prolonged development relates to identity. Human children remain highly impressionable for an extended period. Parents and community have enormous influence over who we think we are. Virtually all Catholics hold their specific faith because their parents are Catholic. The same logic applies for any religion, political affiliation, language, opinion, diet and so on. It’s not until we get pimples and become malodorous that we remotely question what we believe in and why. We are convinced that we shape our world. Yet, so often, we are shaped by it. The awareness of our programming, imprinted not just by our parents, but also by our culture, rituals and media, often begets a personal reckoning. There is inevitably a solitary and reflective moment where we ask, “Who the hell am I?”

After three daughters and two nieces, I am over the moon to have a nephew, to engage in all the archetypal rituals of manhood; throwing footballs, going to games, drinking beer, telling dumb jokes. I know he’s but a week old, but is it ever too early to stock up on fishing tackle and poker chips? Or perhaps a broadening culture will afford him the opportunity to eschew these tired tropes of masculinity and hop in the dance class carpool with his cousins.

I am thrilled for my brother, Eric, and Lauren as they enter this delicious phase of life. I am delighted for my father that the Krasno name has precariously squeaked by into another generation. But I bear the same fears, and no small measure of guilt, for Sweet Lew that I shoulder for my own children. Nothing makes the global mayhem we have wrought more palpable then when we witness it through the prism of our children. We feel the hot breath of looming environmental catastrophe, vitriolic polarization and the unraveling of social cohesion on our necks. I have crested the summit and am now headed home. But, Lew, he’ll inherit what’s left. And if there’s anything in the world that should inspire us to live peacefully with each other and the planet, it is the glorious emergence of new life. It is he, small and beautiful.

In deep gratitude,
Jeff

P.S. As always, please email me with your thoughts. And if you are pregnant, thinking about getting pregnant, or know someone who is, I highly recommend our Empowered Birth course, a 21-day guide to pregnancy, childbirth, and early postpartum hosted by my wife Schuyler Grant and featuring 11 leading experts in the field.

P.P.S. And of course, I can't leave you without a photo:

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