We expect – of course – for it to be the other way around: we teaching them. But they have a host of important lessons for us too, if we dare to pay close enough attention.
1. We’re dependent creatures
It’s easy to play it tough now, to overdo our autonomy and independence. But to have survived, we all had to be recipients of continuous exhaustive ministration and attention, at all hours and in multiple ways.
Babies are a reminder that no one made themselves. And therefore, that we’re heavily in someone’s debt (and should – perhaps – call our mother).
Mary Cassatt; The Child's Bath (or The Bath), 1893 (oil paint on canvas)
2. What love is
As adults, we give love chiefly because of what others can do for us: entertain us, charm our eyes, explain things, soothe us.
Babies don’t deserve much of anything from this point of view. They can do nothing at all for us (there’s no ‘point’ to them, as slightly older children sometimes say), they have little to talk about and are asleep for a lot of the time.
Yet we help them nevertheless. They, in turn, teach us about the truest, purest, ego-free kind of love, which is about giving affection without an expectation of receiving anything in return, but simply because someone else needs help – and we are in a position to give it.
3. People are usually tired and scared; not mean
They can’t – of course – tell us what is wrong with them. We have to guess – and what’s striking is how generous we are in our interpretation of what is going on.
When they cry, we don’t accuse them of being mean or self-pitying. When they hit or kick, we assume they must just be frightened or momentarily vexed. We are constantly aware of just how much the workings of hunger, a tricky digestive tract or a lack of sleep may affect human character.
How helpful it would be if we were more often able to apply a similar method of interpretation around adults. How kind we would be if we could look beneath the surface behaviour – the unpleasantness, viciousness and desperate grumpiness – and see that what could really be going on is just confusion, fear and exhaustion.
4. We have more in common than we think
It’s the simplest truth: we were all babies once. It’s an especially alien thought in the context of people we find weird or off-putting. The tramp, the maniac, the thief.
They all once started off in exactly the same place as us. However different we may all be now, we share a common heritage – and there is therefore always material to hand from which a sense of identification – and a measure of compassion – can arise.
5. No one is that scary
Others may be impressive and frightening now, but they were all once tiny and fragile and retain some of that early vulnerability somewhere beneath their armour. It’s a basic levelling democratic thought, like the idea that everyone, even the very important, serious and wealthy, have to visit a bathroom every few hours.
6. There is hope
It’s easy to get sickened by our species: the greed, the status consciousness, the vanity. But we should hang out with babies as a corrective; they don’t care if the car is big, they don’t pay attention to what one’s job is or how much one’s making.
They care about the fundamentals: cuddles, laughter, friendship, being with people who are nice to them whatever they look like. Deep down, we’re perhaps all like this. It’s society that corrupts us and encourages the wrong impulses.
Babies are on the side of utopian politics. They argue that the world should be different from the way it is now. They’re messengers of hope. Each one is an example of how we might all be, if only our societies could be differently and better arranged.
7. They are artists
They correct some of our disenchantment and boredom, for they are pleased by ostensibly ‘minor’ but important things. A cup with a peculiar sort of lid. A flower. A puddle. The sunlight on the carpet. The taste of milk. Things that have become boring to us – unfairly so.
Vermeer, Renoir, Proust, Tolstoy all knew how to renew our enthusiasm for minor things. Babies are not so different, and deserve a little of the respect we naturally find ourselves giving great artists.