At the heart of Claire Denis’s 2018 film High Life is the bond between a parent and child. Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, is the parent. When he was a boy, he killed a friend of his and is now, as the film opens, serving a life sentence. Rather than living out his days in a cell, however, Monte is voyaging toward a black hole in an artless, boxy spaceship as part of a governmental bargain: volunteer your life for an energy-source search and you won’t spend the rest of your life on death row.
Despite Monte’s refusal to use “The Box,” a room on the ship designed for sexual release, and apart from his consent or even awareness, he ends up fathering a daughter through the artificial interventions of the ship’s doctor. As the film opens, we watch Monte, with no detectable joy on his face, though not without tenderness, hold his tiny daughter’s hand and coax her into her first erratic steps. We watch as he tries in vain to mend a piece of the ship’s exterior while communicating with his daughter through his headset. She sits in a makeshift playpen, cooing and crying, as her father’s voice crackles through the computer positioned just out of her reach. The camera lingers lovingly on her chubby forearms, the bulge that bunches around her wrists, her delicate fingers. Her skin is bathed in amber light, in disquieting contrast to the dark emptiness outside the ship’s windows.
With unsettling force, these scenes insist that we not forget what having children has ultimately always been about: the quest to stave off death, to make a bid, however improbable, for the story of which we’re a part to have a future. Watching a baby defy the odds by hurtling through space in a sci-fi horror movie is a thinly disguised parable for our own condition, if we have eyes to see it.
To parents unshielded by relational and medical privilege—which includes many parents in the modern West and in the United States—having children is at once risky and necessary: risky because pregnancy, still, carries with it at least a whiff of the possibility of death, for the child and also for the mother; and necessary because, despite the risk, it is the way to try to ensure we won’t be alone in old age and that our history won’t die when we do. We moderns have devised various ways to forget this historic entanglement of procreation with risk and necessity. We have children for all sorts of reasons that appear to have nothing to do with the project of species perpetuation or with the fear of being forgotten in our final years and beyond. And yet, like High Life’s devastating juxtaposition of the beauty and fragility of a young child with the pitiless indifference of intergalactic space, the awareness of how much children represent hope—hope in the face of loss, loneliness and nonexistence—stubbornly flickers on.
Despite not having children of my own, I know something firsthand of what it means to place such enormous hope in a child. Three years ago, my beloved friends with whom I share a home, a married couple named Aidan and Melanie, had a baby, and my future is now unimaginable without her in it.
I was there from (almost) the very beginning: my dog, a neurotic and yappy Yorkie mix who sleeps at the foot of my bed, woke me close to 3 a.m. one muggy August night with a clipped, worried bark. When he wouldn’t quiet down, I scooped him off the bed and together we went downstairs to look for the cause of his agitation. Before I made it to the second-floor landing, I heard groaning and crying from behind the closed bathroom door. It took me longer than I care to admit, naïve single man and absentminded professor that I am, to put two and two together: Mel was in labor. This was the moment!
Just as Aidan finished packing a bag for the hospital, Mel emerged from the bathroom. Within seconds she was doubled over from another contraction, down on all fours at the top of the staircase that led down to the ground floor of the house. My dog, relieved to learn that the strange noises he had heard had a familiar source, barreled toward her, thwarted in his effort to offer a cheering lick by the vet’s plastic cone around his neck.
Aidan and Mel were in the car five minutes later and were off, leaving me in an eerily quiet house.
After an hour I got a call from Aidan: Felicity had been born! Had they arrived at the hospital five minutes later, he said, she might have made her entrance in the lobby. I showered hastily and arrived at the hospital, my body glutted with endorphins, my smile involuntary and ineradicable. How to describe the feeling of taking a child in your arms who is not your own, biologically speaking, but whose fragile pink sleeping body feels suddenly like your bulwark against an unknown future and your consolation for the long loneliness?
When I first moved to Pittsburgh to take a new job as a professor of biblical studies at a theological seminary, I knew no one. I had spent the previous several years overseas, in graduate school, studying the history of the New Testament and Christian theology. For a long time, I had thought that I would pursue a vocation of pastoral ministry in a church, but by the end of my Ph.D., I was entertaining an offer to train future pastors, and it seemed, after much prayer and consultation with friends, like an offer I should accept. Academic jobs in my field are hard to come by, and theologians (like many other workers in transient Western societies) often find themselves moving far away from home for the sake of their work. On top of that, I am unmarried and unpartnered, and I wondered, as I unpacked boxes of books and made too many trips to IKEA that first week in Pittsburgh, who the friends in my new place of residence would end up being. My journal entries from those early days in my quiet house speak of loneliness and apprehension about finding people to know and love in my new place of residence.
Within days, I had met Aidan and Melanie. Aidan was one of my students when we first met, and we quickly bonded over our shared interest in theology and the Anglican branch of the Christian church. Within weeks, the three of us were having dinner together at least twice a week. Two years later, after Aidan had graduated and taken a job as an administrator at the seminary, we were sharing a house. As of last summer, we have a joint mortgage. The tired trope about feeling with certain friends that one has known them one’s entire life is apt in this situation: Aidan and Mel have become my family, and when Felicity was born, I became, in some true but mysterious sense, a parent. A few weeks later, I stood in a seaside church, surrounded by our mutual friends and family, and made promises to help nurture Felicity in faith and love. A priest sprinkled water on her head, and in that moment I became her godfather.
I am keenly aware of how strange all this may sound—and, more poignantly, how tenuous it may seem. I could have a spouse of my own, but I’ve chosen, for a variety of reasons, both religious and personal, a life of celibacy. I’ve opted out of the nuclear-family dream, but I haven’t thereby escaped its allure. As I grow older, I worry about being alone. When it recently became a question again whether Aidan should take a job that would require an international move, I couldn’t finish our conversation about it without collapsing into a paroxysm of sobs. Felicity, in addition to feeling like my bulwark, sometimes seems more like a treasure I might one day lose.
Years ago I read a Christian writer’s reflection on what it means in a life of faith to surrender the possibility of having children. “The married Christian ultimately should trust that his or her survival is guaranteed in the resurrection,” says Rodney Clapp, but “the single Christian ultimately must trust in the resurrection.”
The married, after all, can fall back on the passage of the family name to children, and on being remembered by children. But singles mount the high wire of faith without the net of children and their memory. If singles live on, it will be because there is a resurrection. And if they are remembered, they will be remembered by the family called church.
Yes, all that is still true, I think now. Christians who forgo marriage and parenthood are counting on finding their fulfillment in another world. But what if I can have it both ways? What if God’s promised future and Felicity together can be the basis of my hope? The resurrection often seems distant and, despite the vividness of the Easter narratives in the Gospels, abstract. But Felicity is right here in my present.
The early Christians thought that something shifted with parents and children after Jesus rose from the dead. Prior to the Incarnation, throughout the plotline of the Hebrew Bible, children were the guarantee that the life of Israel would continue. God had once led their ancestor Abraham outside and asked him to observe just how many cold white pinpricks made up the haze in the black sky. “That’s how many descendants you will have,” the Lord said (Genesis 15:5). Being unmarried or unable to conceive then was, like it is for many today, a trial and a grief, but doubly so. The single and the barren in Israel not only suffered a kind of loneliness but also represented a sort of social and theological aberration: without a way to contribute to the longevity of the community, the childless were on the margins.
Jesus, however, complicated that way of thinking. The Da Vinci Code notwithstanding, he chose a life of celibacy for himself and announced that one didn’t need to conceive children biologically in order to be a parent. His resurrection spelled the end of death’s dominion, which meant, as early Christian thinkers quickly saw, that having children wasn’t essential for the perpetuation of the church. With death defeated, one didn’t have to rely on a procreative strategy to elude it. The church would grow by evangelism and baptism, not primarily or at least not necessarily through sex and child-rearing. According to Stanley Hauerwas, Christians “believe that every Christian in one generation might be called to singleness, yet God will create the church anew.”
This new Christian point of view gradually changed the way believers thought about the children they welcomed into the world. Although the church recommended the immediate baptism of newborn infants and developed its own fascination with genealogies and ecclesiastical dynasties, it has never quite lost its sense that there is now a clear way to appreciate children without pinning all your hope for the future on them. Children, after Christ, are not simply to be seen as links in a generational chain that will preserve the church’s family name or guarantee its future flourishing but instead are gratuitous gifts. Hauerwas again: “Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world.”
Paradoxically, then, Christianity would say to me that if I don’t treat Felicity as my guarantee of an unlonely future, if I don’t treat her as the source of my resurrection and my joy, then I stand a better chance of being able to recognize that her life itself, apart from anything she will ever achieve or accomplish for me or for anyone else, is sheer grace—something I should rejoice in, the way a child delights in the mysteries of the universe when they discover them for the first time.
Whenever I try to write about Felicity, I feel that I never quite escape the temptation to instrumentalize her. To make her the solution to some problem, or the opportunity for me to be taught some lesson. I can write easily about the gifts she brings: the way she runs to the front door when she sees me putting on my shoes and hoisting my backpack onto my shoulder and then stands with her back to it and says to me, scowling but with a teasing gleam in her eye, “Don’t go! I don’t want you to go!” To be the recipient of such unabashed longing catches me off guard, makes me realize how lonely I am still, and heals something in me. I can write all day about those things. But how to write about the gift that she is?
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that living a Christian life is practice in perceiving yourself as loved. “The life of the Christian community,” Williams says, “has as its rationale—if not invariably its practical reality—the task of teaching us to so order our relations [with one another] that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.” What this implies, I think, is that such a task is never finished, in this life anyway. We are each of us all the time either helping or hindering those we love—and those we don’t love for that matter—to see themselves as gifts, as occasions of joy, as desired and loved simply because they are themselves.
It is frighteningly easy, whether on a sci-fi spaceship or in a shared home in Pittsburgh, to spell out what the people in my life—what the children in my life—are for in pragmatic, self-enhancing terms. It’s far harder, and, no doubt, the work of a lifetime, to rejoice in a child’s life itself. To ask nothing more from them than that they be. To receive their life as grace.
Last week I returned home from a long trip. Felicity was happy to see me and asked if I would read her a story—“Two stories,” she self-corrected, holding up two fingers—before bed. I sat in the rocking chair in her bedroom with her on my lap, while Aidan looked on from where he was sitting on her bed, and I read the stories to her. When I finished, I said that I needed to say goodnight now and go downstairs and finish cleaning the kitchen while Aidan put her to bed. That did not go over well—to put it mildly. She circled her arms around my abdomen, buried her face in my chest and said, “But I really love you.”
Toddlers are fickle, and maybe she did just want another story and knew from long experience how to tug at my heartstrings. But I don’t think so. I think she wanted to be with me whether I was reading or not. She wanted my presence, my attention. How can I live in such a way that she feels the same thing in return?
Art credit: Lene Kilde