Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The First Law of Fathering: Protect.

I don't know how long ago, Isaac Asimov laid out his Three Laws of Robotics. Basically, he posited a series of directives built into the essence of a robot that had primary control over any decision that robot made. So, the First Law is, "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." This law takes absolute priority and controls any other directive, intention, or action. The Second Law is explicitly designed to accommodate the First Law, ending with, "except where [following the Second Law] would conflict with the First Law," and the Third as well. Much of Asimov's fiction deals with situations that require a bending or breaking of the Laws, or that explore ambiguities in them.

Now, the meme has sometimes been picked up and sometimes been disregarded by science fiction writers and robotocists alike, and Asimov himself eventually came up with a "Zeroth" law to trump even the First law, but the underlying idea -- that if properly understood, right action in any situation can be addressed at least in some measure by a fairly limited set of directives -- is a good one, and an intriguing one.

This idea has an analog in Torah thought as well, though it's not entirely congruent. I can't find the sources for it as I write this, but take as a premise the idea that halacha is adequate to deal with any situation in life. There is a principle that almost all (if not all) halacha can be traced back to the 613 explicit commandments in the Torah, and there is a Talmudic source that discusses the slow recapitulation of the 613 into shorter and shorter lists, each of which contains in a kind of fractal origami the entirety of the others. I say it's not entirely congruent, because Torah law, like life itself, is more subtle, and (at least in my opinion) actually works to address any situation that could possibly arise, as opposed to the Asimov laws which are not and don't (and maybe that was part of the point of them.) There's a principle in medicine, "Primum non nocere," (First, do no harm), but if that were all there was to it then surgery -- which necessitates cutting open the patient -- would be off-limits. So it's really "First do no harm except when you should be doing harm because it comes out a net plus," which is much less pithy.

Which is all another way of asking the same question that drives much of this blog: What would be the essential, reductio-ad-necessitum Laws of Fathering? (And no, I don't think reductio-ad-necessitum is an actual phrase, but it does what I need it to.)

But I think I've got a handle on maybe the First Law of Fathering. Protect. Or, to paraphrase Asimov, "a robot father may not injure a human being his child or, through inaction, allow a human being his child to come to harm," which doesn't even really capture it half so well as, "Protect the child."

Now, I should admit, I'm going a little backwards here, in that I haven't so much derived this from first principles as I've reverse engineered it from the things I find myself thinking and feeling since I've become a father.

I remember quite clearly the intense surge of protectiveness that went through me when I first held Rachel. Through the tears, I remember whispering to her a promise that I was going to take care of her, that everything was going to be okay. And there wasn't even any crisis. G was fine, and the baby was fine and everyone was fine. But that was one of the first and most powerful understandings I came to; that it was now my job -- possibly my most important job -- to make sure that no one and nothing hurts this little girl.

I realize it's a little lot more complicated than that, more like the doctor's rule than the robotics rule, but the main thrust of it is very stark, and very pure. I know that learning to walk will mean that she will occasionally fall, just as I know that learning to love will mean that she will occasionally have her heart broken; but that's an intellectual imposition on my instinctive desire to pad the floor, or maim the boy. Even now, just writing about the moment, I am suffused with the same flush of that feeling. And surprised again at the sheer intensity of it, the heat of it.

I thought of this again in a few different situations over that past couple of weeks, variegated and not worth going into here, and then it sort of crystallized for me the other night.

G and I have been going back and forth about the whole vaccination thing since Rachel was little. I've read some baaaad stuff, and got a little freaked out when G came home with Rachel from the first pediatrician's appointment I had missed and informed me about Rachel getting this shot and that shot and so on.

G's a lot more white-bread than I am, so she pretty much thinks this whole brouhaha with the vaccines is just a little shy of silly panic-mongering. On the other I'm a borderline conspiracy wacko who is only really convinced that there isn't a hidden cure for cancer by the fact that there'd be so much money in making one happen.

So that debate's been coming up again occasionally, as Rachel has other appointments or as we find things that support our point of view. (Wanna be terrified? Read this article from Mother Jones. They want $1.50 to read it, but I thought it was worth it.) And at the end of the day, I can see G's points, and she can see mine, and we've come to a balance about things. (Certain vaccines can wait, ask the doctor about any mercury in the vaccines, etc, but Rachel does, generally get her shots.)

What I've been trying to parse out, though, is why I got, for instance, so angry reading the Mother Jones article. And then, a few nights ago, lying in bed listening to (and watching) the thunderstorm out the window, I had one of those meandering chains of thought that brought it into slightly better focus. (Better thunderstorm link.)

I was thinking about how, when she's a little older, I could imagine taking Rachel outside to play in the storm (something I am wont to do). How much fun it would be to run through the puddles and be startled by the flash and crack of the skies.

And then I wondered why I wasn't bothered by the possibility that she would (Ch'V) get hit by lightning, or that a tree limb might (Ch'V) fall and hurt her. Or why I wasn't worried about a tree falling on the house and hurting either Rachel or G. It's not that such things are impossible, or even entirely improbable.

(Ch'V = Chas VeShalom, which translates, roughly, as God Forbid.)

What I realized is that I wasn't worried about those things because I had done all that was in my power to protect Rachel from them. Or if not precisely all that was in my power -- I could, after all, have the house reinforced with steel beams, and I could never take her outside to play in the rain -- then something like that. Something like enough.

The rest. . . the rest is a matter of trust. The lightning, the tree, whatever. Those are issues for Hashem to manage. And Hashem, Him I trust. I'm not saying no one ever gets hit with lightning or what we call bad things never happen. That's a different discussion for a different forum.

What I'm saying is that I trust Hashem, and the magical thing about that trust is that it's sufficient to satisfy the First Law of Fathering. I hand over part of that job (protect) to someone[fn1] I know both can handle the job and will handle the job.
[fn1:] Someone is obviously a figure of speech. Anthropomorphizing God is pretty dangerous stuff, but it still sounds better than something.
And that's why I get so angry at the Mother Jones article. The gist of the article is that Significant Members of the Medical Establishment (SMoME) knew there was a problem (set aside the question of whether there is or is not a problem at all) and for selfish reasons buried that information. The fact is, because I'm not a medical expert, because I did not go to medical school and would have probably flunked if I did, I also repose trust in SMoME. I am charged with the First Law of Fathering, to Protect my child, and I hand over some of that job to the doctors, because I am working under the impression that they also can and will do the job. There's always a part of me that's aware that the capabilities of medical science are limited, and SMoME won't always be able to help. But to find out that they won't is infuriating.

Then, trying to figure out why it was so infuriating brought me back to the beginning of this journey, to figuring out the essential Laws of Fatherhood, or at least what feels like the First Law. But lying there, in my bed, G breathing softly beside me and Rachel in the next room (recently checked-in-on), I wasn't worried, or upset.

Because yes, the world is full of unknowns, full of potential harm to my child; it is, essentially, bigger than me. But it's also so beautiful, and designed and managed by one of very few entities who I trust, implicitly, to watch out for Rachel as much as I watch out for her.

And that was how I finally let myself fall asleep.


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