My wife and I have a three-year-old and a new baby. My parents, especially Dad, are very religious, but my wife and I are not at all observant. When our older son was about the age our baby is now, Dad and Mom offered to watch him one Sunday morning and acted somewhat tense and evasive when we came to pick him up. One of their neighbors eventually let slip that my folks had taken him off and had him christened that day. We confronted my parents—although we were mostly good-natured about it, so it wasn’t a confrontation in that sense. But we did insist that they not involve our son in any religious events or rituals without our consent, and they promised.
Fast-forward, and they have just offered to “watch” our baby (and not the older boy, which is itself suspicious) one Sunday next month. They live nearby and we see them all the time, but my Dad issued this invitation over the phone, which also aroused my suspicions, and he sounded like a bad actor reading his lines when he said they planned to go to a picnic in the park. How do you think we should handle this? My wife is sort of exasperated but also sort of amused. I am totally pissed off this time around.
—Annoyed in Allentown
I am going to make some assumptions here. The first is that you’re convinced your parents are in fact taking your new baby off to be baptized. It would be a shame to start a major row when this really is about some church picnic where they want to introduce their grandson, not yet another unauthorized sacrament. The second is that you have no reason to think there is any danger or other physical weirdness involved—no immersion in cold or stagnant ponds, no ingestion of anything, no undue amount of smoke, and no implements of any kind. The third assumption is that the church or faith in question is nothing you actively fear or totally deplore—no Westboro Baptist Church, no Allentown Association of Snake Handlers, nothing too venal or cultlike. The fourth is that you foresee absolutely no religious or other repercussions: nobody, including your parents, will assume that they have any special new rights over the child, or that the child has any new responsibilities, as a baptized person.
So I’m assuming that your parents plan to take the baby, in an approved car seat, to an untelevised one-off ceremony in a safe, known church where, at most, the officiant will recite some words, rub some chrism on the baby’s brow and chest, and splash around a bit of holy water, whereupon his name will be inscribed in a register and he will be issued a certificate for your parents to hide in a drawer. (There may also be some shadow godparents who renounce Satan on the baby’s behalf and so on, but I don’t see how that affects the equation.)
Of course, you have every right to insist that your parents do not interfere in the spiritual life of your child. And you are totally justified in being angry that, as it seems, they are planning to deceive you again and break a specific promise. (Well, technically it sounds as if their promise only covered your older son, but they are certainly violating the spirit of the agreement!) You know all this. Yet you imply, and I agree, that there are other factors to consider. One is how much this means to your parents. Do you think that they, and your father in particular, are doing this primarily to assert their perceived rights as family patriarch/matriarch? Out of unexamined adherence to tradition? To save face with friends or curry favor with the pastor? Just to mess with you? Or is one or both of your parents seriously concerned that without baptism their grandchild will be consigned to hell, limbo, purgatory, or some other seriously sub-par place? Saving your folks that level of pain might be the kindest course, and the one that will cause you the least regret in the future when they are gone. (I speak here from a related experience, although mine involved refusing to sing “Scarlet Ribbons” a capella at a retirement dinner.)
Another factor is your relationship with your parents. Are you still trying to break away from them? Do they disrespect you or try to interfere with your life in other areas? Will you feel like a chump if you let them go through with this, and resent them for years to come?
You should also weigh your and your wife’s feelings about your parents’ faith. Even if you don’t “totally deplore” it, as I assumed above, does your discomfort with the prospect of the baptism stem from any serious doctrinal or ethical objections?
Your letter leaves it open that you and your wife, though not observant, may be people of faith. If this is true, or even if you and your wife are agnostic, you may also want to consider Pascal’s wager. As we all learned at our mother’s knee, Pascal wrote in his Pensées that the most rational course is to behave as if God exists, being that the stakes are infinite: the infinite awfulness of burning forever in hell—or, if you are a glass-half-full kind of metaphysician, the infinite bliss of seeing God, to say nothing of the infinite “Whew!” of not burning forever in hell—however unlikely, still far outweighs the temporary inconvenience of comporting ourselves in a godly manner during our twinkling-of-an-eye here on earth.
One obvious limitation of Pascal’s wager is that you need to have at least a tiny, intermittent shred of belief in a particular faith and set of rules for the wager’s logic to apply—in this case, belief that your parents’ God or some similar God exists, that infinite rewards and/or punishments are part of His scheme, and that baptism is one of His key requirements. Say you are an atheist. No point in wagering zero against infinity. Or say you are an agnostic and have no particular preference among competing religions, with their various rewards and punishments. If you think it equally likely that (1) your son will gain eternal life only if baptized in the Church of Mom and Dad, or that (2) such a baptism will be irrelevant or harmful because some other supreme power and faith control the action—then, again, the wager is pointless. But since you wrote only that you were not “observant,” not that you had lost all faith in God, or in your former church, Pascal may be your man.
To sum up: try to ascertain that there really is a secret baptism afoot. Evaluate the depth and sincerity of your parents’ anxiety and weigh this against your and your wife’s own need for autonomy from them as well as the extent to which the baptism violates (if it does) your belief system. Since we are talking about your baby here, not theirs, you should feel free to put a pretty heavy thumb on your side of the scale. And finally, if you are not opposed to the Church of Mom and Dad so much as lapsed and uninterested, or only mildly dubious, you might also consider Pascal’s wager and let them proceed with the baptism on that ground alone.
If you do decide to let them go ahead with it, I suggest turning a blind eye and pretending that you believe the picnic gambit. That way you can avoid both an unpleasant open disagreement and an embarrassing, perhaps precedent-setting capitulation. Mutual feigned ignorance holds many families together.
I am a beginning writer. A more experienced friend told me that, if a writing idea or inspiration comes to me, I don’t need to drop everything and write it down. My friend says that I’ll remember it later if it is worth remembering. Is he right?
—Emerging in Eugene
I think that your friend is wrong. Ideas and inspirations may usually stay where you can find them, but I do not believe they invariably do so, and it is best to be on the safe side. Strictly speaking, there is no way to prove this, since there’s no way to tell whether an idea is worth remembering if you never, in fact, remember it. But there is no way to disprove it, either. Hence my counsel is caution. And I do know that several brainstorms I’ve had while sinking into sleep—or driving, or lying in bed, or presenting a power point, or listening to somebody’s troubles over lunch, or swimming laps—and somehow managed to write down before they vaporized, have proved useful. I suspect that I would have lost several of them if I had not committed at least a few key words to paper or smart phone.
Besides, even if your unrecorded inspirations will return to you eventually, it is wise to avoid that sense of loss and helplessness experienced by many people, and most writers (although perhaps not your friend) when they remember having had a promising idea, or a flash of brilliance, but not what it was. It can be so disheartening when your inspiration seems to have evaporated like a dream, and you wonder whether the germ of this century’s Gatsby is what you allowed to slip your mind.
I have also found that, the later at night and the closer you are to sleep when these inspirations hit, the more likely it is that they will softly and suddenly vanish away, like the hunters of the Snark, unless you jot something down. So I strongly suggest keeping a little notebook or electronic device handy at all times, but especially on your nightstand.
The harder question is how much you need to write down. This will vary depending upon the strength of your associative memory, the situation you find yourself in, and of course the nature of the inspiration. If the flash of brilliance in question involves sparkling dialogue or a beautifully structured argument, it’s best to record as much as you can. But don’t be a pretentious jerk about it—no tying up lap lanes or ignoring your lunch companion for too long. (An aunt of mine never forgave one of her friends’ sons, an aspiring poet, who kept her waiting in the hot car while he sat on the rim of some chasm in a state park jotting down an entire terza rima about a water vole.) And if your inspiration comes to you during sex you may have to make some difficult choices.
If your inspiration is broader or more general in nature, you will have to work out for yourself how much you actually need to commit to paper or your device or your jogging companion (“Hey, Steve, remind me to write down ‘all-female mafia flash’ when we get to the car.”) When some broad concept comes to me at an inopportune time, a few words will usually tide me over until I am fully awake, unencumbered, and on dry land. But I do remember waking up one morning, remembering that I had had a glorious vision the night before, looking for my memo pad, and reading “Duck Soup cousin Lorca — irony?? GREEN,” which I never came close to deciphering.
One related tip, from a colleague’s sad experience: make sure you’re set up for voice memos when you’re driving—and enunciate when you dictate, or who knows what you will end up with.
I wonder whether your writer friend was trying to reassure you after the fact. Were you afraid you had lost some important source of inspiration? If that is the problem, I would not worry about it. Onward and upward! The best writing advice I ever got was: “Don’t look back, no matter what.” Although some promising ideas may never return, I suspect that most of them do, often as something rich and strange. I am counseling caution before the fact, not discouragement afterwards. The most important point is that there are a million more ideas in your writerly sea. But do keep a notebook, paper or electronic. This is one of the few things almost everybody agrees about.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.