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Sarah Churchland

Wise Sorrow (or Wise Tears)

“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.”

In everyday adult life, there are two basic ways most people deal with the inevitable pains and sufferings of human existence. And unfortunately, as we might expect, these methods we have developed for coping with pain are deeply unwise. After being hurt by some painful aspect of the world, we typically either turn away from life in order to avoid the potential future harms a full engagement with life would necessarily entail. Or we turn inward and fixate on our sufferings, dwelling over them and amplifying them until they become a central, and often emotionally crippling feature of our existence.

By this point in our exploration of the wisdom of babies, it must be clear that both of these ways of dealing with life’s tragedies are in complete conflict with the truly wise attitude towards suffering we see exhibited by babies when they experience pain.

It is not easy to watch a child cry. In fact for a compassionate adult, it is one of the most distressing sights one can witness. And yet I have devoted much of my research to investigating this aspect of infant wisdom because the benefits of coming to understand how our youngest children experience and deal with pain and suffering are so profound.

Ask yourself the following questions. When you see a baby cry, what do you see? Do you see anguish and sadness? Or do you see something far more primal, more fully human in a child’s tears? Have you ever noticed that it almost seems like a child immediately forgets that he’s been hurt the moment after he’s cried or acknowledged the suffering directly? How can this be?

It hardly seems worth mentioning something as obvious as the fact that babies experience pain and then scream and cry as a result. Everyone knows this. But unlike adult experiences of pain, babies do not feel anguish or sadness when they suffer. Rather they simply experience pain directly and immediately and their tears or cries reveal this to us.

What distinguishes the way babies experience pain, and what we can most profoundly learn from, is the infant’s freedom from both memory and forethought, that is to say from a reflective consciousness of their pain under the aspect of time.

Consider the following. Unlike adults, babies do not project their fear of possible pain into the future course of experience. They experience no such fear, and in fact do not experience fear at all until later in their development.

And unlike adults, babies do not dwell on past pains, and never render themselves miserable in the present. And this is not simply due to an underdeveloped capacity for memory. Not at all.

Rather, infant suffering is entirely encompassed by the tears and crying brought forth in the unmediated moment of pain. An infant feels pain and then releases it. He does not turn away from it or hold on to it, but rather is directly immersed in suffering and then simply lets it go. Like a sudden thunderstorm whose winds and rains burst from the sky only to end as quickly as it began, an infant’s sorrow is directly and fully felt, it is manifested in tears and crying, then it is spent leaving no trace behind.

His sorrow is Wise Sorrow. His tears are Wise Tears.

The two ways adults typically deal with sorrow could not be more different from the wisdom of babies.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century philosopher of metaphysical pessimism and author of the words quoted above that begin this chapter, advocated for the first way we mentioned, the turn away from life’s pains.

Schopenhauer saw man’s conscious life as a never ending series of sorrows culminating in death. “Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as if through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness.”

His proposed solution for overcoming the “troubled dream” of life is not that much different from the advice found in the Upanishads: renounce your individuality, your will to live, and all desire. Only then will you find peace (for there is no happiness). You may then even do the world some good. According to Schopenhauer, those who fully renounce all desire and adopt a purely contemplative, will-less attitude towards it may, like the Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, be in a position to perform saintly acts of charity by helping and teaching others also how to turn away from life.

This approach to suffering is far more common than one might think, though the degree to which most of us engage in it is far less than that required to become a saintly figure. Everyday we see people cut themselves off or withdraw from life and life’s potential sources of pain.

How many times have you seen someone cut themselves off from the adventure of life for fear of getting hurt, or getting hurt again? Such people, and perhaps ourselves as well in our more timid moments, would rather sit on the sidelines of life rather than run the risk of misfortune by participating in the game to the fullest.

And who can blame us? Pain, the kind of pain one suffers after trying something for the first time and failing, or having one’s heart broken in the attempt to find love, or not achieving and accomplishing something you have set your heart on is, to state it simply, painful.

And yet we do not see babies turn away from life every time they feel pain. As a pediatrician will tell you, physical and spiritual withdrawal is rarely if ever seen in infancy, and then only as the result of acute illness.

One of the marvels of childhood is the child’s ability to get hurt and yet continue her engagement with the risks and perils of life. In fact, this is the one aspect of our innate wisdom that seems to remain with us the longest, oftentimes even through our early childhood and into adolescence if we are lucky. It is what allows children to experiment, to try new things, to suffer failure and pain, to cry and yet “shake it off” and continue to live with the same excitement for and involvement in life that they had prior to “getting hurt.”

Again, children have not yet been conditioned to the temporal framework of adult consciousness and have not yet learned to use their memory to “think out into the future” the possibility of future painful experiences, nor to “think back into the past” and fixate on prior suffering.

But for most adults, negating the will to live and adopting an ascetic, saintly life is the last thing that would occur to us to do after suffering one misfortune or another. Rather, most of us take the second route to “pain management” by learning to dwell on our pains indefinitely. We even at times seem to deliberately magnify them to such a degree that those pains continue to dog us long after we’ve actually endured them. Why is this?

It is because we have lost touch with our innate wisdom, and our sorrows and tears have ceased to be wise.

Have you ever met someone who can’t let go of the past? Someone whose attachments to their past sufferings or failures haunt their present life to such a degree that they become morose, a burden to those around them? Someone who always emphasizes the negative parts of their lives and who holds onto them like an alcoholic holding onto a bottle of liquor?

You probably have. And you know how they can cast a cloud over life whenever they enter a room.

We say that such people carry a lot of baggage. That they’re damaged. That they just can’t seem to get over a painful period in their lives or a true tragedy, like the death of a loved one or the experience of being abused.

It is undoubtedly difficult for adults to let their sufferings go. And this is primarily because we never truly experience them to their fullest extent.

When was the last time you had a powerful cry? Not the kind of crying you might do during a sad movie or when you happen to be feeling particularly blue for one reason or another. When was the last time you cried with your total soul the way a child cries in the immediacy of her pain?

Adults have developed techniques to mediate their painful experiences. Like someone suffering a schizophrenic episode, we split ourselves into two people: one who suffers and one who intellectualizes, rationalizes, or denies that suffering.

Rather than feel to the fullest our sufferings and our moments of darkest sorrow, we try to ignore them or explain them away only to have them stay with us and lead us to the path of turning away from life or the path of a dim existence darkened by the memories of past pain.

And what do we lose in this if not also the possibility for true joy?

The Ecstatic Joy and Wise Sorrow that we find in wise babies are not opposed or antithetical to each other. Rather they are both manifestations of the same fundamental wisdom embodied by babies.

In order to live in Ecstatic Joy babies acknowledge the painful moments of existence when they occur and they experience that pain fully and profoundly. By so doing, they completely exhaust themselves of the sorrow they feel and do not harbor it in a way that could potentially separate them intellectually from the Ecstatic Joy they embody in their wisdom.

If we are to remove ourselves from the two ways adults deal with pain that we have described and return to an experience of our native joy, it is essential that we learn from the Wise Sorrow and Wise Tears of our infants.


We mentioned in passing during our exploration of Ecstatic Joy that infants, especially very young infants, exhibit a remarkable resiliency to love even in the face of the loss of a parent.

And yet how well do we understand the way in which babies love?

Many of us today still believe in some form of the “reinforcement theory” of infant love which argues, with variations, that infant love develops first towards the mother and then is extended to others as a result of being fed, cared for, and generally treated as an object of affection. Because the infant has basic needs that must be met, she learns to have affection for those who satisfy those needs. Erich Fromm, wise as his book The Art of Loving is in many places, falls prey to this conception of infant love when he writes:

“Infantile love follows the principle: ‘I love because I am loved.’
Mature love follows the principle: ‘I am loved because I love.’
Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’
Mature love says: ‘I need you because I love you.’”

While we can learn much from Fromm’s exploration of “mature love,” it’s a mistake to think that babies love because they are loved or love out of need for some object of love. To call such an attitude “infantile” simply lays bare the way many of us, especially psychologists and child development “experts,” look down on babies and fail to recognize their innate wisdom. That “infantile” has become a pejorative term in our culture speaks volumes about our separation from the innate wisdom we once embodied ourselves.

Contemporary scientists and psychiatrists working in child development have made some progress beyond the reinforcement theory in their understanding of infant love, but they still fall short. Following the theoretical work of John Bowlby and later Harry Harlow’s study of infant rhesus monkeys, most theorists in the field now believe that infant love develops out of an evolutionary biological tendency towards socialization. By being genetically predisposed to “love,” or in their terms “to become attached to” the mother, and subsequently the parental or familial unit, it is argued that babies are given the evolutionary advantage of becoming a part of and caring deeply for the larger societies which we find necessary for satisfying our more complex needs.

While theories of this sort are explanatorily appealing, they make the common logical mistake of placing the cart before the horse. Love for a mother, a father, a family, or a society does not develop because we are genetically and evolutionarily disposed to form attachments or because it is in our biological interest to do so. Specific attachments are rather the later particular results of the encompassing foundational wisdom embodied by babies that we see when they love. Just as we saw with Ecstatic Joy, Love is a preconditional state babies embody.

Can we blame our babies’ DNA for the state of our world, a world characterized in too many ways by often violent sectarianism, increasing provincialism and attachment to the “clan”? Is there a genetic bent in babies towards attachment that leads adults into divisive social organizations and factionalism? Does love separate rather than unite?

To answer any of these questions in the affirmative would be sheer folly.

True and honest love, which we see in its primordial embodiment during the earliest days and months of our children’s lives, knows no limits and does not stop with the mother, the father, or larger family. As we said before in relation to Ecstatic Joy, when a baby smiles and laughs, we cannot help but smile back, just as we cannot help feeling warm when we enter sunlight. Love is, at this age, the sun.

As an embodiment of love, the infant is simply disposed to love. He knows of no reason to prefer one person or another as an object onto whom should bestow his “favors.” To think that he does would again be to commit the “psychologist’s fallacy.” For what is more common to see in our everyday adult lives than instances of “love” doled out to individuals as a form of manipulation, emotional bribery, or simply in the selfish attempt to feel that we are loved individually ourselves?

But let’s pause here to ask ourselves a simple question. What is our adult concept of love? Most of us would probably say that we are either looking for someone to love (in Fromm’s terms “mature love”) or looking for someone to love us (again in Fromm’s terms “infantile love”). Both of these pursuits are in fact identical.

What makes them identical, the pursuit of a person whom we might need and thereby offer love, and the pursuit of someone to give us the love we feel we lack, is that they are both based on the same subject/object dichotomy of which we have already spoken.

Again, children know nothing of this distinction.

Love is such a central motive in adult life that is almost impossible for us to leave our routine conception of it long enough to understand what we are here saying about infant love. We have so forgotten our originary embodiment of love, and yet are still ever pursuing it, that we feel entirely incomplete if we are not loving and being loved at all times. We are so fixated by the idea that the “love” and affections of a person, a group, a society, or at times even God, might satisfy this craving which we don’t even begin to understand that we do everything in power to find it or else feeling it to be impossible to find (for so it is), we resign ourselves to despair.

By becoming habituated to the division between the “self” and the “world” we are essentially engaging ourselves in a futile quest to regain the feeling of embodying love that we once knew as babies, the feeling of openly and “unconditionally” loving all things that enter the sphere of love that we were and truthfully still are despite our losing touch with it.

Man’s entire history might be rewritten as the history of the forgetting of our innate love: as the history of mankind’s pursuit in adulthood to regain the feeling of the love he once embodied as a child.

How many actions in life are performed to obtain what we typically take to be love? How many wars have been fought for its sake? How many noble and often ignoble actions undertaken to create an encompassing sense of community or to “protect” the source of affection, acceptance, and protection we think we find in the “loving embrace” of the fatherland, the patria. These words are not accidental. That we speak of the “motherland” or “fatherland” or in terms derived from such phraseology indicates the close association between “patriotism” or love of country, and the love we give to the individuals whom we single out as those we “love” most, namely our parents.

Our individual histories might so be written, too.

Contrast, if you will, this divisive, object oriented love to the wise love of our infants.

Infant love might be thought of as like a room without walls. While this might sound paradoxical, it is an apt metaphor for the encompassing sphere of active loving embodied by babies. It is a room that knows no boundaries, that is located and locatable in the live presence of the child, but which needs no key to be entered. All are welcome to come into the presence of this love. Like a room, this love is encompassing. It enfolds all who come into its universal embrace.

And just as we distinguished between “enjoyment” and being “in joy” earlier, so too must we distinguish between being “in love” as we typically use that phrase and being “in Love.”

Love is not like a coin you can give to one person or another, no matter how special or unique you might find him or her, no matter how “attractive” you might find him or her. Nor is it like a hole that you might tumble into in a careless moment.

Love, Love with a capital “L,” is more like air. Think about it. Air gives us life, it sustains us, and though it’s always present wherever we are we easily forget about it. But most importantly, we are always in it.

Babies are in Love, like we are all in air. Love lives through them while at the same time they live through it.

In infancy there is no distinction between “lover” and “beloved,” between the one who loves and the one who is loved. Rather, there is simply loving: an embodied activity oriented to the universe. If it made sense to use our adult conception of the inner and outer experiences of life, the inner “subject” of personal experience or consciousness, and the outer “objective” world of matter and things, we might say that the love embodied by babies is entirely “outwardly” oriented. Yet to say this would lose sight of the fact that babies themselves embody love and don’t simply “give” or “take” it.

We could spend the remainder of this work simply considering the differences between adult love and the wisdom of our babies so important are they. But let me rather simply end by commenting on one of the more significantly revealing aspects of adult love we find in our most developed societies, that is to say those in which children have ceased to be regarded, out of economic necessity, as objects of potential revenue or future sources of protection.

Remarkably, the confused desire to re-experience this love which we were, and in fact still are, is often cited, framed as a desire to be loved unconditionally, as a reason for having babies.

It is not uncommon to hear parents speak of their desire to have a baby in terms of wanting to experience a form of love that could, within the framework of their logical adult minds, never be experience apart from having a baby of their own. They cannot see any other relation to love other than that which they merely “understand” under the aspect of the subject/object dichotomy that characterizes adult consciousness.

And it is true that the relation between parent and child is unique and special. In fact, no other relationship in life can be compared to it.

But let us be clear. This parental “instinct” is no “instinct” at all. Just as babies are not programmed by their DNA to love, neither are we as adults, despite the explanatory utility of evolutionary biology, hardwired to want the “unconditional love” we think our children have for us and us alone. Rather, what we take as “instinct” is really the feeling of being called back towards that love we are but have forgotten. By having a child we place ourselves in the “open room” of our baby’s love. And so we live, at least for awhile, at least until she too forgets her essential wisdom, in the air of our child’s love, never realizing that we too might love wisely if only we could learn from the wisdom embodied by our child herself.

How different might the world be if we too lived and loved with the wisdom of babies?