Traveling with an infant is an adventure—one that I never could have appreciated before having a child of my own. In my daughter’s short ten months of life, she’s been on eight flights, visited a handful of states, and toured two premiere universities (an upcoming trip to Yale will make that three). Two checked bags and five (yes, five!) carry ons are all it takes to make these trips happen (sort of). Tom, my husband, wears Eleanor in a Weego, a brilliantly designed German baby carrier. This frees his hands for hauling the camera bag/carryon and car seat, into which we pile our coats. I lug my laptop bag, Eleanor’s diaper bag, and a small cooler of milk. We are a sight to see, to say the least. And we attract lots of attention.
As far as I can tell, however, the attention has little to do with our barrage of baggage; little to do with Tom and me (though I wouldn’t mind a little applause for repeatedly pulling off this feat); and little to do with anyone taking pity on us. Instead it has everything to do with Eleanor’s smile and wide-eyed delight, which shine through even when she’s sick, has missed both her naps, and can’t crawl or climb for hours on end. Over and over her countenance draws in strangers like a powerful tractor beam. A space of authentic encounter is created, wherein Tom and I find ourselves conversing with strangers whose eyes we might never have met. (Of course, I recognize that this phenomenon is not unique to my daughter.) Her presence (like that of most infants) humanizes our travel. Ego defenses melt away momentarily and strangers see, hear, and enjoy one another. Travel has never been more laborious or more hospitable.
At the end of our last trip, I was simply overwhelmed by this reality. We arrived at a restaurant early and immediately entered into conversation with three other early-birds waiting for the doors to open. During the meal, we conversed with a Spanish-speaking waitress, or more accurately given the rustiness of my language skills, she talked to Eleanor, who eventually ended up in her arms. Walking back to our table from the restroom, I stopped to chat with an entire family who proudly introduced me to their eleven-week old newborn. As we departed the restaurant, two more people warmly waved goodbye, giggling about our daughter’s brown bear bunting. I walked out those doors feeling unbelievably satisfied and awestruck.
I recalled the wise words of one of my seminary professors, James Loder: embedded deep within the human spirit is a longing for a self-confirming, cosmic-ordering face that never goes away. Each of us as infants learns to trust the world through face-to-face encounter with our closest caretakers whose loving gaze reflects back to us that we are good and pleasurable. Developmentally this experience lays the groundwork for establishing healthy attachment relationships throughout our lives. But eventually—and herein lies the tragedy of normal development—we learn that these faces go away. This began to happen for Eleanor recently. If my husband or I or even the dog walks out of the room, she bursts into tears or shouts with displeasure.
The achievement of object permanence has an underside. Infants discover that the faces they love most, the faces that constitute their very sense of being and wellbeing, go away. As infants, we learn to defend ourselves against this pain by repressing our longing for a face that never goes away. But there is a return of the repressed. At critical moments throughout life the longing resurfaces, and in the best of circumstances, as Loder describes so beautifully, the Spirit transforms this experience into a longing for God. God in Jesus Christ becomes for us the face that never goes away even in and through the ultimate separation of death.
There’s another piece of this tragic dimension of human development: we become less open to others, especially strangers. Infants recoil when they develop stranger anxiety. Older children learn to keep distance from those they do not know. The open, wonder-full gaze recedes. The magic is gone. I know this day will come for Eleanor (and consequently for Tom and me), and it breaks my heart. At the same time, I know it’s necessary. Boundaries can help to keep her safe from harm.
Normal human development has a profoundly tragic dimension at its core. Unhindered, wide-eyed, open encounter dissipates, or more strongly dies altogether, depending on one’s interpretation. We can experience something of this again, but its fullness and global quality is gone. Infants, as best I can tell, awaken in us that old longing for intimate face-to-face encounter. Their trust and openness elicits ours. They invite us into a shared hospitable space. For as long as it lasts, I plan to relish these encounters with strangers and friends in Eleanor’s presence. After that, I’ll pray for the Spirit to mediate our encounters with others so that somehow, in spite of our ego defenses, judgments, and deeply ingrained biases, we can greet one another again with the wonder and delight of a wide-eyed, smiling infant.