A pity beyond all tellingIs hid in the heart of love:The folk who are buying and selling,The clouds on their journey above,The cold wet winds ever blowing,And the shadowy hazel groveWhere the mouse-gray waters are flowing,Threaten the head that I love.
—”The Pity of Love” W. B. Yeats
One night when he was perhaps eight months old, my son woke me, not by crying but by gurgling and laughing. He was in an extraordinary mood. Fully awake, his face broke into a wide smile as I came into his room, his eyes glistening in the glow of the moon above the Brooklyn rooftops. His movements, still uterine, as though he were weightless, were clearly giving him great physical pleasure. And the attention he was directing toward me, the central object of his massive happiness, was as powerful an experience of primal love as I had ever known. Basking in it, stroking my son’s hair, I found a nearly unbearable sensation of regret come over me.
What was it? I asked myself, standing in the moonlit room. Why was such pain attendant on such massive love? The koanic opening line of Yeats’s short poem had long haunted me as an enigma: “A pity beyond all telling/is hid in the heart of love—” koanic because I sensed its truth intuitively, enigmatic because the list of anodynes that followed—regular, everyday occurrences, from markets to clouds—did nothing to explain what that pity was. This night, the poem’s enigma seemed to me more urgent than ever. What is the pity that hides in the heart of love, and why was it overpowering even the magical immediacy of my child’s joy?
Already, I saw, my daughter had transformed from a wondrous baby into a curious, cheerful, intensely imaginative little girl. Already she had friends, interests, secrets. These moments with an infant in a crib—moments stolen from sleep—were likely the last such moments in my life.
I was more right than I knew. My son never again awoke laughing—at least not loud enough to wake me—and soon that eight-month-old face was two years old, then three, and the fat cheeks had smoothed to show my wife’s cheekbones, and the thin baby’s hair had grown into the thick bangs I once had as a boy. And from that night and for a long time after, my experience of my children came to be infused with this pity of love. So much so, in fact, that I thought it was something very like depression. But as I became more versed in this emotion—and particularly as I watched it in my practice of meditation—I became more and more convinced that this pity was not pathological but existential; that there was within it a dharmic insight.
That was not a surprise. Nothing in my practice of meditation has been more powerfully illuminated than my experience of my children. And yet, I had found little that helped me understand what had happened to me, that night with my son. On retreats, in dharma talks, children were mentioned sometimes, but usually as part of the array of generously tolerated, somewhat tangential elements of the lay practitioner’s life. But as I sat with the experience, I began to feel that the question posed by that night when my son was eight months old was not tangential to my practice but key—that it had, in fact, a very precise dharmic analogue. What was plaguing me was an insight into the irredeemable, nonnegotiable temporariness not of attachment—as I first thought—but of experience itself.
I had always associated the central Buddhist insight of impermanence, somewhat abstractly, with loss. In the context of children, that was an easy connection: from the moment of my daughter’s birth I understood that I would fear for her for the rest of my life. But the truth of impermanence that my son illustrated for me that night is that it is not by accident, or by biology, but by definition that love and loss are inextricable. To love children deeply is not only to risk a catastrophic loss; to love children is also to lose them over and over again, on a daily and momentary basis, not as they die, or move away, but as they, simply, grow. Moment to moment they become other than they were, and of their former identities nothing remains—nothing beyond photos and videos, gross approximations that capture the sadness of change every bit as much as they remind us of the happiness of our childrens’ former selves.
And yet, how to live with the shocking fact that loss is not accidental, but part of the very identity of love? How to love our children when each moment of doing so is by definition a moment of loss? How to live with the knowledge that a pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love?
The challenge of that question opens the radical heart of Buddhism: the key insight of the radical impermanence of all experience, the true nature of phenomena. I think that most who have confronted this truth—with or without children—will agree that after this insight, little remains quite the same. Yet it was not a meditation on a charnel ground that allowed that insight to come, experientially and directly, to me. It was a laughing baby in the middle of the night.