can't understand life while you are alive

Last spring, Oldest had the kind of existential crisis you can only have when you are seventeen and, for the first time, realize there is a good chance that human life has no meaning. I blogged about it last February.  He became very depressed and we covered some hard ground together.

Yesterday, the little iChat icon made its whooshing sound to alert me that someone was trying to chat with me.  It was Oldest.  "Hey," he wrote, "I just heard this really scary theory that there is no such thing as free will."  "Why not?" I inquired.  "Because everything since the big bang is just a series of chemical reactions," he explained, "and we are all ruled by our chemistry."

So in a nutshell, someone told him that free will is just an illusion because we are nothing more than links in a really long chemical chain reaction.  I knew that wildly expensive college tuition would pay off.

In any case, I responded to his overture by arguing about it.  I wrote all the reasons why I don’t believe reductionist philosophical ideas are really very useful. I trotted out the nature versus nurture debate.   Blah blah blah.  Even I wasn’t very interested in what I was saying.

He definitely wasn’t.  In the midst of my argument, he suddenly wrote, "Aight.  Got to go eat.  Later."  And, with a little whoosh, he was gone.  I felt unsatisfied by the exchange.  It nagged at me.  I knew I had missed something but I didn’t know what.

I woke up this morning at 4, puzzling about it.  And then I had my own little, personal chemical reaction.  I realized that when Oldest told me about the "scary theory", I had become afraid that he would go into another depression.  And since he is off at college, I wouldn’t be there to help him.  What would happen to him?  Would he be alright?  Who would take care of him?

In the moments after I read "scary theory" on my computer screen, I didn’t know I felt anxious.  In fact, I was completely unaware of the true state of my mind.

I now see that all my intellectual arguing was really just a way to try to talk him out of feeling scared because his being scared was making me really nervous.  Tolerating the anxiety that my children bring up in me is one of, if not the most challenging aspects of trying to be, as Winincott wrote, and Bettelheim absconded with, a good-enough mother.

All I really needed to say, when he wrote me about the scary theory was, "Tell me more about why it is a scary." 

Luckily and perhaps self-servingly, I believe in mothering do-overs. So today, when I saw that he was online, I wrote and told him that I felt badly after our conversation.


I told him how his fear had infected me and made me react in a way that doesn’t line up with my sense of my best self as a mother.  "My bad," I wrote.

"ha," he answered in IM shorthand. "not a prob"

I wrote,  "Even so, I do think there was more to the mystery of life than chemistry."

The reply came with a whoosh, "can’t understand life while you’re alive"

He is growing up on me, my Oldest.

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