I ‘m finishing up Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, a book I’ve been reading in an on-again, off-again manner all year. It’s not that it’s so put-downable. It’s just that it’s the book I need to put down when there are other priorities. But I always enjoy Taleb’s writing (even when he’s being pompous) and Antifragile is possibly my new favorite of his works (before this, it was The Black Swan, of course).
Taleb was a trader on Wall Street for decades before writing his books, all of which seem to touch on an overlapping theme of risk management. What in the world could this have to do with motherhood? Well, first, it’s possible I’m doing something here which clearly (if I read him right) annoys him: applying his principles in ways he doesn’t approve. But listen: motherhood isn’t for wimps, and if we can glean helpful ideas from business-type books, we ought to do it.
(Note: I already wrote about the fallacy of expertise in a previous post based on this book called Your Children Don’t Need an Expert. I won’t be repeating those thoughts in these posts, so you might want to read it when you’re done with this one.)
Let’s take a look of some of the gems from the latter parts of this book:
1. “Iatrogenics … usually results from the treacherous condition in which the benefits are small, and visible — and the costs very large, delayed, and hidden.” (p. 340)
Iatrogenics. This is damage that is caused by the physician (directly or indirectly — the Greek transliterated means brought forth by the healer). In the year 2000, iatrogenics was the third leading cause of death the United States. (I don’t know what it is now but I doubt much has changed.) Think about it: people are given the wrong medicine, mistakes are made during surgery, patients have unexpected reactions to treatments — this sort of thing happens all the time. “Healers” don’t always heal; many times they hurt.
So let’s use this concept metaphorically, with the “healer” being the person or thing you turn to to palliate the situation. Remember: the benefits here are small and visible. They are evident. These benefits are insidious, however, because they distract us from the fact that there are attendant costs: damage is done and it’ll only be evident in the future.
What are possible examples of this? The things that immediately come to my mind are:
- Pacifying infants and children by handing them a screen
- Manipulating children to get the behaviors we want
- Choosing to ignore disobedience because we’re tired and don’t want to deal with the repercussions
- Giving children lots of candy or junk food
- Letting children stay up late too often because they don’t want to go to bed
- Leaving children with a bad babysitter because you feel desperate for time alone
I’m sure there are many more. What can you think of?
Looking back on my early motherhood (the part that I can remember anyhow ha), I remember the lack of safety net. We had good built-in babysitters because we lived near family, but that was about it. We didn’t have the finances that would have allowed me to try to run away from our problems. I would have been tempted to avoid things let me tell you, but our lack caused antifragility, I think. It was what Taleb calls “skin in the game.” I couldn’t get away, which meant I was there to reap my consequences … which forced me to figure it out and build a livable life.
2. “The old is superior to the new …” (p. 309)
I can’t tell you how controversial was the no-screens rule we had when our children were little. We had a number of relatives not only disagree but try to undercut our decision (either to our faces or behind our backs when alone with our children). I remember once someone telling me in frustration that I was handicapping my children because screens were new (the first iPhone was released when my third child was an infant), and because they were new they were the way of the world now, and didn’t I want my children to be ready for the world they were going to live in?
Taleb says it so beautifully:
[The] absence of literary culture is actually a marker of future blindness …Antifragile, p. 314
To understand the future, you do not need technoautistic jargon, obsession with “killer apps,” these sort of things. You just need the following: some respect for the wisdom of the elders, and a grasp of the notion of “heuristics,” these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so determining of survival.Antifragile, p. 315
Taleb turns our neomania on its head when he explains that the longer a technology has been around, the longer we can expect it to be around. New things haven’t proven themselves yet. They may or may not be around in thirty years. But the book? The wheel? These things are forever.
If we strip the technology component away from the conversation, I think we see an even deeper truth: principles don’t really change. We think they do, but it’s an illusion. It’s just our applications (or denial of them and applications of the winds of fashion instead) that change. This means there’s a high probability the woman who’s successfully nursed 10 babies, handled their illnesses and sleeping troubles, and done it all with grace, gives worthier advice than your girlfriend with two kids under three who is still new to the game herself.
(Don’t get me started on homeschool “consultants” who have only homeschooled two years — sometimes less than that.)
Taleb’s rule of thumb is to search for wisdom in the old ways because the old ways you know about are time tested and have staying power. (This doesn’t mean ignore the new; it means be cautious.) Or to say it differently:
Stand ye in the ways, and see,Jeremiah 6:16
and ask for the old paths,
where is the good way,
and walk therein,
and ye shall find rest for your souls.
3. “[T]he comfortable is what fragilizes.” (p. 339)
If you want your children to be wimps that can’t handle adulthood, make sure they are always comfortable. Never let them face a moment of pain or deprivation — no hunger, no heat, no chill, no inconvenience. We assume coddled children grow up to be Veruca Salt. This might be true of a certain brand of coddling, but we can also make our children very nice but simultaneously anxious, weak, and unequipped to handle difficulties.
This is not to say we expose them to life-threatening dangers. But a little fever never hurt anyone. Did you know you don’t have to administer antipyretics the second they have a small temperature? Being sick on the couch (or just bored) without a movie to distract them will not kill them. They can wait for dinner when they are hungry. They can take a walk on a summer day (yes in the heat). They can keep walking when they have lost all desire to walk.
We had an incident today here at the house that I won’t go into, but needless to say I realized one child still has a long way to go to learn to handle frustration with grace. We could make our house more pleasant by keeping this child from ever facing frustrating, but that would not prepare the child for adulthood, would it?
We think of this in terms of the body. We know being comfortable for too long makes us flabby and weak. We feel ourselves lose strength if we avoid difficult muscular action for too long.
But I am also reminded of something CS Lewis said in God in the Dock:
[T]here will be progress in Christian knowledge only as long as we accept the challenge of the difficult or repellent doctrines. A ‘liberal’ Christianity which considers itself free to alter the Faith whenever the Faith looks perplexing or repellent must be completely stagnant. Progress is only made into a resisting material.God in the Dock, p. 89
We can keep their bodies strong and even help them face frustration, but if we avoid the larger conversations about ideas, if we discourage them from going deeper in the faith because we are intimidated by the questions they are asking, we are still a fragilizing force.
Part Two coming soon …