Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

I've just caught up on viewing Sidney Lumet's final film, "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the son of Albert Finney. There was a really interesting exchange between the two characters which set me thinking.

Finney apologises to Hoffman for not being the father to him that Hoffman hoped he'd be. Hoffman replies by apologising for not being the son that he wanted to be to his father.

While we all have hopes and dreams for our children, do we have the right to demand them to grow to be any particular type of person? I don't think we do, beyond non-specific notions of them being happy, healthy and fulfilled. I don't think a child when grown up ever has to apologise for not turning out the way a parent might have hoped. This is not to say that if the child hurt the parent directly, such as stealing from them to fund a drug habit, the child needn't apologise for such an act. But I don't think they are obliged to apologise for the person they turn out to be. While a drug addict, (extreme example that it is) objectively would be likely deemed to have lived a disappointing life that almost certainly didn't fulfill their own potential, the accusation that they didn't live up to the parent's expectation ought not to be added to the charge sheet. The psychology of addiction would be most likely to point some of the blame back in the direction of the parent anyway, but that's a different set of arguments.

Why do humans want to become parents? It's a multi-faceted question, ranging along a spectrum from our blind biological drive, the intricate tangle of emotions relating to relationship and one's own notions of being a child, through cultural and sociological need according to the meaning of 'family' within different cultures, through to sheer carelessness as the child may arise out of a drunken fumbling. No child asks to be born, our consent is never raised before we even exist as a clump of cells, since quite clearly it cannot be sought. So whatever reason the parent has to sire children, they can have an image of what sort of child they might like, but they cannot, must not actively try and shape that child into the image the parent has in their mind. This is not to rule out the parent modelling morals and other social behaviours. A parent can model the ethics of what it is to be a member of society, but ought not to narrowly channel the child into being a lawyer because that's what the father does, or aspired to do but never got the chance himself. For a parent to live out their own fantasies through a child is anathema to my mind, since it denies the child its own identity and individuality.

When Finney apologises for not being the father his son hoped for, this is far more unforgivable to my way of thinking. Having made the decision to bring a child into the world, the responsibility is all that of the parent. To not devote the time, energy, attention and love to the child is a dereliction of duty. Of course we are all fallible and we may fail in certain realms, but an overarching failure as Finney's character owns up to is unforgivable. Finney's character confesses to being emotionally remote from his son and to me this is an example of just such an overarching failure. The emotional charge behind the decision to want a child, does not permit emotional remoteness once the child is born. Of course there can be many factors that lead to emotional remoteness, depression, failure to bond, an actual physical remoteness of an absent or effectively absent parent. But the parent should never feel compelled by their own behaviour to apologise to the child for not being the parent they hoped they would be.

A child is absolutely entitled to hope for a certain type of parent, which will inevitably be centred around love. However, the same is not true for the parent. The greatest love a parent can show their child is not to have preconceptions about who they should develop into, but to facilitate and support them in finding their own being.

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