Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reproductive Rights

I read three books last week. I spent too much time doing it, but it was the end of the Summer Reading Program at our local library and I wanted to get the most possible chances to win the prize drawing.

One of the books, which will remain unnamed so as not to give anything away, touched on a subject I've been struggling with for a while - thus the title "Reproductive Rights." It's not about abortion. It's equally, if not more, sensitive. I will try my best to respect that sensitivity, but that is not necessarily my strong suit. I apologize in advance if I offend you; my intention is anything but that - the exact opposite, in fact. I hope there's some hope here.

When I cleverly say "reproductive rights" I'm referring to those "rights" people claim surrounding the topic of sex. There is this assumption underlying our discussions of sex that the "right" to exercise our freedom or express our humanity through sexual intercourse is some cosmic right and any claim that it's less fundamental is a violation of human rights. That makes it sound dramatic, but it's real. Don't believe me? Tell someone, anyone that they shouldn't be having sex with the person they're having sex with - that it's not good for them - and you'll likely get a spirited defense.

This book I read touched on (and only tangentially) the same sort of right in connection with reproduction. Without getting into detail, the assumption was that having children is essential to human identity. Like having sex, reproduction is treated as some fundamental, inviolable right.

Two things: Forcing someone into celibacy or sterility is terrible. I'm not talking about oppression. I'm talking about when people find themselves in those situations and become defined by them. Single women who long for a relationship, but never find the right person and maintain a Christian belief that sex is best expressed in marriage. Parents who just can't conceive or are somehow foiled by the adoption system.

The second thing is that biologically, these things do feel like part of our identity as human beings. We're hardwired to reproduce. It's in our very nature and we're physically constructed in such a way that we feel incomplete without them.

One of the best lessons I learned from my father is that our feelings are real, but that doesn't make them reality. You can't let your feelings run your life.

Those feelings, those deep longings, often become dreams in our lives. These deep down desires that we believe make us incomplete without their fruition. I suspect we all have such dreams.

I would love to be a good singer. I can't carry a tune very well or very far. I still harbor some belief that, given a lot of patience, hard work, and vocal lessons, I could be a passable singer. I will never be a good singer. Thus passable doesn't seem worth the effort. It seems cosmically wrong that this reality exists in my life.

I believe I've got unrecognized talent in both trivia-answering and witty-writing. I know I'm good at both, I just feel like there're millions of people out there who don't know that who should. Basically, I want Ken Jennings' life. I'm fairly confident I shall never have it. It seems cosmically wrong that this reality exists in my life.

I feel like there's some mythical monetary windfall out there waiting for me. Why? Because I have all these awesome things I'd love to do for other people. Yeah, I'd finally pay off my school loans, but for the most part, I'd give it away. That seems noble right? Noble things just seem like they should happen.

These dreams pale in comparison to those biological imperatives of reproduction (both the attempt and the realization). I'm not going to claim to know the pain, anguish, and devastation of such deferred dreams because of other dreams. They are not the same - but they are analogous. There is a lot more emotion and pain to overcome, but the response is the same. We have to come to grips with reality that some things are just not going to happen.

I'm not saying we should stop chasing our dreams, just that we should make sure we're not defining ourselves by them. That's a real temptation.

The second book I read last week was The Fault in Our Stars, which I rush reviewed last week. The book has a subplot with a character dealing, not with reproductive rights, but with an unrealized existential dream - to such an extent that it's defined his life in problematic and troubling ways.

He gets this advice:

This can never be enough for you. But this is all you get. You get me, and your family, and this world. This is your life. I'm sorry if it sucks. But you're not going to be the first man on Mars, and you're not going to be an NBA star, and you're not going to hunt Nazis.

When it comes to rights, you have a right to be loved. But that means loved as you are, not as you imagine yourself to be. That can be a difficult distinction to make. We often have a hard time loving ourselves without the possibility of those dreams, so it becomes doubly hard to imagine others could love us the same way, that we could really be complete with this huge incompleteness as part of our psyche.

What this means is that we have to come around people and love them. We have to avoid those stereotypes and assumptions that create these unrealistic worlds for each other. Thirty percent of people will never get married and twenty percent of people will never have children. It's not an inevitability; treating it as such can be really harmful - as much as assuming your kid will be a pro athlete or an award winning singer.

We have to create communities where people are loved and valued for who they are, without expectations or preconceptions. I don't want my daughter thinking she needs to get good grades and go to a great college. I don't even want her thinking she has to save the world. I want her to love and be loved - whatever else comes, comes.

John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, sums up the tension that exists between the world as it could be (but won't be) and the way we experience the world. It's a profound example of approaching life from a hopeful, yet present and persistent perspective. I'm not at all sure how to do what I say we should do, but I think this is a pretty good start:

There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities... There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get... But... I cannot tell you how thankful I am for [my] little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world.

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