“Love of life begets a love of life”
– Natalia Ginzburg
‘Teach the children… Show them daisies and the pale hepatica;’ Mary Oliver’s urging to show children the art of attention takes the long view of what we need to prioritize when raising a new generation of humans. In her essay, The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg explores a similar question, where she insists that instead of instilling little virtues like thrift, caution and shrewdness on the young, we should instead be demonstrating the large ones: generosity, courage and frankness. Ginzburg, an Italian author who wrote around the Fascist years and the Second World War, was emphatic about the importance of a having and nurturing a vocation, something that she held to be ‘man’s one true wealth and salvation.’ Pursuing our passions for the world, and allowing our children the space to develop their own, according to Ginzburg, are paramount in rasing healthy children and developing healthy relationships with them as they grow.
What we must remember above all in the education of our children is that their love of life should never weaken. This love can take different forms, and sometimes a listless, solitary, bashful child is not lacking in a love of life, he is not overwhelmed by a fear of life, he is simply in a state of expectancy, intent on preparing himself for his vocation. And what is a human being’s vocation but the highest expression of his love of life? And so we must wait, next to him, while his vocation awakens and takes shape. His behaviour can be like that of a mole, or of a lizard that holds itself still and pretends to be dead but in reality it has detected the insect that is its prey and is watching its movements, and then suddenly springs forward. Next to him, but in silence and a little aloof from him, we must wait for this leap of his spirit. We should not demand anything; we should not ask or hope that he is a genius or an artist or a hero or a saint; and yet we must be ready for everything; our waiting and our patience must compass both the possibility of the highest and the most ordinary of fates.
A vocation, an ardent and exclusive passion for something in which there is no prospect of money, the consciousness of being able to do something better than others, and being able to love this thing more than anything else—this is the only, the unique way in which a rich child can completely escape being conditioned by money, so that he is free of its claims; so that he feels neither the pride nor the shame of wealth when he is with others. He will not even be conscious of what clothes he is wearing, or of the clothes around him, and tomorrow he will be equal to any privation because the one hunger and thirst within him will be his own passion which will have devoured everything futile and provisional and divested him of every habit learnt in childhood, and which alone will rule his spirit. A vocation is man’s one true wealth and salvation.
“Our relationship with our children should be a living exchange of thoughts and feelings, but it should also include deep areas of silence.”
What chance do we have of awakening and stimulating in our children the birth and development of a vocation? We do not have much; however, there is one way open to us. The birth and development of a vocation needs space, space and silence, the free silence of space. Our relationship with our children should be a living exchange of thoughts and feelings, but it should also include deep areas of silence: it should be an intimate relationship but it must not violently intrude on their privacy; it should be a just balance between silence and words. We must be important to our children and yet not too important; they must like us a little, and yet not like us too much—so that it does not enter their heads to become identical to us, to copy us and the vocation we follow, to seek our likeness in the friends they choose throughout their lives. We must have a friendly relationship with them, and yet we must not be too friendly with them otherwise it will be difficult for them to have real friends with whom they can discuss things they do not mention to us. It is necessary that their search for friends, their love life, their religious life, their search for a vocation, be surrounded by silence and shadows, so that they can develop separately from us. But then, it will be said, our intimacy with our children has been reduced to very little. But in our relationships with them all these things—their religious life, their intellectual life, their emotional life, their judgement of other human beings—should be included as it were in summary form; for them we should be a simple point of departure, we should offer them the springboard from which they make their leap. And we must be there to help them, if help should be necessary; they must realize that they do not belong to us, but that we belong to them, that we are always available, present in the next room, ready to answer every possible question and demand as far as we know how to.
“If we do not have a vocation, or if we have abandoned it or betrayed it out of cynicism or a fear of life, or because of mistaken parental love… then we cling to our children as a shipwrecked mariner clings to a tree trunk.”
And if we ourselves have a vocation, if we have not betrayed it, if over the years we have continued to love it, to serve it passionately, we are able to keep all sense of ownership out of our love for our children. But if on the other hand we do not have a vocation, or if we have abandoned it or betrayed it out of cynicism or a fear of life, or because of mistaken parental love, or because of some little virtue that exists within us, then we cling to our children as a shipwrecked mariner clings to a tree trunk; we eagerly demand that they give us back everything we have given them, that they be absolutely and inescapably what we wish them to be, that they get out of life everything we have missed; we end up asking them for all the things which can only be given to us by our own vocation; we want them to be entirely our creation, as if having once created them we could continue to create them throughout their whole lives. We want them to be entirely our creation, as if we were not dealing with human beings but with products of the spirit. But if we have a vocation, if we have not denied or betrayed it, then we can let them develop quietly and away from us, surrounded by the shadows and space that the development of a vocation, the development of an existence, needs. This is perhaps the one real chance we have of giving them some kind of help in their search for a vocation—to have a vocation ourselves, to know it, to love it and serve it passionately; because love of life begets a love of life.
Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991)
From: The Little Virtues