Fully honouring the meaning and value of being adult

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 21, 2008

Several coffee companions were less than satisfied with my past two columns on the dangers adulthood poses for a newborn infant’s simplicity of faith, hope and love. I’ll share two especially compelling responses.

Toronto musicologist Alan Gasser picked up on my assertion that the newborn’s faith-hope-love longing toward God is as real as its instinctive longing for its mother. He wrote:

I've been wondering about that since the morning of January 31, 1999.

I had been up all night getting to know my daughter who was born the night before; we have a picture of the rooting instinct as she practiced it on my finger.

And in the church service that morning, someone said that there was an instinct for God, much as you have said it.  I just can't figure that out.

I don't know whether I've never seen it, or never believed it, or what, but it seems to be an overstatement of the concept of instinct. If innocent, then how believing?

The innocence I totally get, and wonder sometimes how much I've "ruined" my own kids, who seemed perfect when they were born, and have only been taught stuff by "us" that they don't need; well, maybe they've also been taught some stuff that they do need, as well.

In fact, they seemed so perfect as to be beyond faith, not to need hope and to be able only to understand love as it was practiced upon them, but not to love, exactly, just to learn about love as it was practiced upon them. Once learned, love can be practiced, but before it's learned, it can only be experienced by the loved person.

I know my kids give love now, but I don't think they were born with that. I don't think I gave them all of it, either. I don't think they have an instinct for love, nor for faith. Just as they learned to kiss, so to love.

What they did have an instinct for – and this was clear in both of them – was for rooting.  And that instinct turned into a habit: sucking for milk.

What I remember hearing back in 1999 was: babies have an instinct for God, which is why we should teach them about faith. I totally don't get that. I believe in teaching them, but I don't understand where the instinct comes into it.

Maybe my idea of what instinct is is different from yours.  Maybe I've never felt that thing that you're talking about, or just believe differently from you. And if I haven't felt it, or believe differently from you, then, is it an instinct?  Or is it culturally determined?

Retired clinical psychologist Laurie Seaman, a loyal Calgary patron of Cochrane coffee shops, focused on the importance of adulthood. “I have for most of my adult life been an explorer in the grand domain of human adulthood, seeking to understand what it means to live the days and years of my life in a fully adult way.” He wrote:

The adult years of life extend well beyond those of our childhood years. And the quality of adult life connects directly to the personal resources we use and the choices we make after leaving childhood.

Any parent who wishes an offspring of adult age to revert to a pre-adult state for the satisfaction of their own need or desire is seldom deemed healthy. How can such a relational dynamic of dependence and self-discounting then be good in a relationship with God? My earthly father honours and celebrates the ways I have expressed through my unique adult individuality what he passed on to me.

Maybe it’s time to launch a conversation with your coffee companions on the meaning and value of being adult. How can we more fully honour adulthood?

I really like where this conversation is going. From my perspective, the greatest calling in life is the calling to become fully human; all of life, from cradle to grave, is a classroom to bring us to our full humanity.

But experience and our ability to think and speak about it are not the same thing. The newborns’ instinctive faith-hope-love longing exists independent of their knowledge about it, just as surely as gravity exists whether we understand it or not. The experience begs for mature understanding, yes, but while knowledge may build confidence, it is no substitute for experience.

I think both Laurie and Alan rightly address the meaning and value of being adult, and here I have no conflict with them. In fact, I see it as holy longing come full circle.

Which brings us back to Laurie’s question: How can we more fully honour adulthood?

What do you think?

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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