When we have just had a baby blessing for a boy, it may seem slightly perverse (but I don’t mind that) that what I want to talk about today is to speak about 3 remarkable women. They each belong to a different generation, and I want to say a few words about each one – and particularly their attitude to bringing up children, the world of children, and what children need and want.
Let’s start back in the middle of the last century, in Italy, with Natalia Ginzburg, author, publisher, social critic, parliamentarian. If the name rings a bell at all it might be because we have a couple of texts from her in our High Holy Day machzor – she had a Jewish father, and with her Jewish husband Leone was part of the anti-fascist resistance to Mussolini in the 1930s; during the War they were forced into internal exile with their three children, they were sent to an impoverished village, where he was eventually arrested, tortured and executed; but she survived and began to write about everyday life, the experience of bringing up children to have humane values, and the complexities of surviving with one’s moral compass intact when times are difficult; she focused on the small practical and ethical components of domestic life, in her fiction and in her essays, and how to combine parenthood with a larger vision of building a better society. She is representative of a very 20th century Jewish story.
In 1962 she published a book of essays called, rather modestly, ‘The Little Virtues’, in which she suggests what we should teach our children:
“I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”
That’s a powerful, even provocative, passage but uncompromising in its commitment to a hierarchy of values – psychological, moral and spiritual. I don’t think it’s necessary to agree with everything she says here – I think she underrates the value of tact, for example – but I think it’s always worth listening to these kind of texts, from women and men who have been tested in the crucible of history and have been able to distil some personal wisdom about life and its deepest values from circumstances that were so much harsher than our own more relatively pampered times. To survive the painful dramas of history and still maintain the centrality of teaching children generosity, courage, a love of truth, love of one’s neighbour, self-denial, a desire not for success but ‘to be and to know’ – Natalia Ginzburg is the first of my remarkable women.
She died in 1991 aged 75 – and by the way that essay collection, ‘The Little Virtues’, has just been re-published in English, if you are interested.
In that year, 1991, my second remarkable woman was working as Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and dating a dashing young civil rights attorney soon to be appointed by the University to teach constitutional law there. He later went on to do other things. And his wife tagged along with him. She, Michelle Robinson Obama, has recently published her autobiography – ‘Becoming’. It sold 3 million copies in the first month, so unless you have been living on Mars for the last year you will probably have registered its existence. On the very first page of her book she says something really quite wonderful, but also in its own way provocative, about children.
“One of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child is – What do you want to be when you grow up? As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” Implicit here is an idea that the title of her book , ‘Becoming’, also hints at. That life is an unfolding of multiple possibilities, and a life well lived is one that is open to growth, change, development, changing one’s mind, changing one’s circumstances. It is a profoundly optimistic vision, and in that sense quite American, but the wisdom of that opening remark about what not to say to children (though we have all probably done it) is striking in its wish not to trap children into a cul-de-sac, a narrowness of thinking. And it’s a reminder to the rest of us to question how often any of us might get trapped in one version of ourselves: we are a solicitor or a businessman or a mother or a husband or retired, as if our lives cohere around one part of ourselves and that is who we are. That way of thinking, Michelle Obama intuits, is a spiritual and psychological diminishment of the opportunities inherent in being human.
Any of you who saw her visit the Elizabeth Garret Anderson school in 2009, or a couple of months ago when she came back – and listened to the way she inspired those children with the possibilities for their lives – will have seen the importance of the message she carried to those youngsters about ‘becoming’ their best selves, in whatever shape that might be.
In her book she says that there’s no real choice, morally and spiritually, about the message she carries to youngsters:
“We have to hand them hope”, she writes, “Progress isn’t made through fear…It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once – to have one’s feet planted in reality, but pointed in the direction of progress…You got somewhere by building that better reality, if only in your own mind…You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be”.
It can be painful to read from the ex-First Lady this deep commitment to personal and societal transformation – a commitment that she shared with her husband – in the light of the aggressive bombast and self-serving fearmongering that now issues forth from the White House. (But that’s another topic, I’m not going there). Let me stay with the future-oriented optimism of Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’.
By the way, ‘becoming’ is a good translation and understanding of one Hebrew word threaded through the Torah and that comes up all the time in our liturgy: Yud Hay Vav Hay, the four-letter special name for God, the divine energy that permeates all being, is made up, as I am sure you know, of parts of the verb ‘to be’: past, present and future tenses of the verb ‘to be’ – ‘was, is, will be’, that was the revolutionary new understanding that developed in Hebraic consciousness 2500 years ago, that God was not a being, but ‘being’ itself. You could translate Adonai as ‘being and becoming’ – God as a verb , not a noun. Each one of us, even if we don’t realise it, is a fragment of unfolding divine energy: while we are alive, we are always ‘becoming’. This is just to say that Michelle Obama’s moral vision of hopefulness, a vision that circles around staying open to ‘becoming’, has a deep spiritual core.
And the third remarkable woman? Another woman, young woman, with a vision. On the 20th August last year a 15 year old schoolgirl started to sit every weekday outside the Swedish parliament building with a placard ‘School Strike for the Climate’. (It was in Swedish, but my Swedish is not what it used to be, so I’m translating). After a series of heatwaves and wildfires, Greta Thunberg started a solo protest that her government were not fulfilling their Paris Agreement commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The rest of the story is becoming history: still-unfolding history. She has inspired school children across the globe to take to the streets for the sake of their (and our) futures. By mid-February this year 70,000 youngsters in 270 cities around the world were joining in these weekly Friday strikes. And this coming Friday, March 15th, will see up to half a million youngsters out on strike around the world in a major co-ordinated day of action.
So far in a few brief months she has spoken to the United Nations, to the European Union in Brussels, at Davos – this young woman is not going away. Along with other new groupings like Extinction Rebellion, with its campaign for non-violent civil disobedience, we are witnessing an exponential change in campaigning on the most important political and ethical issue of our times. And when the story of these decades comes to be written – if there are people left to record our history – Greta Thunberg’s name will be writ large.
She speaks in a simple, direct way, but in a very different manner to Michelle Obama, in some ways she’s the opposite of Obama. At Davos for example Thunberg said: “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
She’s a different generation from Michelle Obama, and maybe she’s right, as the prophets of Israel understood, that sometimes hope is not the message a people need to hear: sometimes it’s fear that motivates, fear for the future if we don’t change. “You say you love your children above all else and yet you are stealing their future in front of their eyes”. She’s uncompromising, this remarkable young woman. And it’s exciting and scary what might become of her. She exemplifies something that Natalia Ginzburg insisted upon in relation to the upbringing of children: “What we must remember above all in the education of our children is that their love of life should never weaken” (from ‘The Little Virtues’).
Ginzburg, Obama, Thunberg – three different generations, all sharing a profound love of life. But what Thunberg is challenging us with, we who also love life, is if there are to be future generations whose love of life will not be overshadowed by a desperate fight for survival and resources on a ravaged planet, then alarmism needs to become the new realism. ‘To fail to be alarmed is to fail to think about the problem, and to fail to think about the problem is to relinquish all hope of its solution.’ (Mark O’Connell, Guardian review of David Wallace-Wells, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future’, 2 March 2019).