I GREW up hearing my father quote Alexander Pope in his drunken stupor all the time. When I used to wander to their drinking table as a teenager, he would set my aside in a number of occasions, and recite to me in all seriousness the following famous lines from the English poet: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again” without so much as an accompanying explanation.
He was perhaps hoping that I would understand the world of meaning he wanted to convey in that short cryptic quote. But I dismissed it as an oblique and witty justification for his penchant for alcohol. After all, what was the poet Pope’s advice but to drink deep, drink till it becomes sobering, lest one mistake the light buzz for hubris? One must drink till one’s bowels turn over, otherwise it does not count. The amateur drinkers who cannot handle their alcohol must be separated from the pros. It was so typical of my father’s inebriated machismo that I left it at that.
However, the quote managed to lodge itself in the deep recesses of my memory. I had a suspicion that my father meant more than justify his habit and was actually pertaining to a profound butwisdom. I draw upon the same quote now with the benefit of hindsight, reading its meaning from the vantage point of the same age when my father used to recite it to me and I am slowly coming to the discovery that he was pertaining to something deeper and profound.
I have come to understand that the relationship between parents and children is a tricky emotional journey that has no beginning and end. The narrative starts way before one is born but you are forced to continue its arc even after your parents are gone just as your children will endure the inherited baggage without you. It is also an expedition that is fraught with so many painful departures and necessary returns.
From birth to adolescence, children see the world through the eyes of their parents. A child first communicates through her significant others and it is not meaningless that the first words a baby utters is either Mama or Papa. The language of the parents, is therefore, the means by which a child pieces together the elements of her initial universe and through which she learns to navigate. For the longest time, a child sees the world through the same socially-constructed lenses of her parents. Until, of course, that child finally grows up and learns her own language to construct anew her own symbolic universe.
Then a painful departure takes place. The bird has flown the coop, they say and parents can only watch as their kids take their tentative steps out into the world either to reproduce the same world that her parents and their generation gave birth to or recreate it with her and her generation’s own language. That is why we say that the role parents play in their children’s socialization matter a lot because they determine whether the next generation will have a chance to improve upon and correct the failures and mistakes of their parent’s.
It is from this vista that I now appreciate that particular quote of Pope’s poem from my father as something that may pertain to be about other serious things. The first line “A little learning is a dangerous thing…” might as well be the anthem of all fathers and mothers wary of their growing children’s first tentative steps out into the real world.
The first line encapsulates this profound fear of parents when their children finally see the world from their own lenses and not through the eyes of their mothers and fathers. Thus, the paternal warning is uttered to keep children within the boundaries of what parents consider as safe and comfortable. When they cross the line and act rashly, they are considered amateurs who have not yet achieved the refinements and deliberate capacity that come with age. There is a tendency to mock the young as a demographic who still do not know the complexities of life. My father decades ago, apparently, was giving me a coded warning about, to his mind, was my wayward radical future, a prognosis that was accurate to certain extent.
This reflection was spurned by the difficult predicament of parents whose sons and daughters have decided to reimagine their world and bring their learning to dangerous places where these matter most; the parents of revolutionaries whose love make them fear the future that their brave children are trying to build. To them now I respectfully share a quote from Lebanese Kahlil Gibran which also serve as my response to my father’s worry as channeled through the English poet: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”