Dear Parents,

Anyone who knows me knows I don't exactly "have a heart for children." In 2013 I wrote a post suggesting, nay, demanding a return to the good old days of child labor. And I still insist that it builds character. Calvin's dad would agree with me.



I don't have a lot of patience with children either. I would make a very vindictive Santa. 

Steven- threw a Hot Wheels car into the soup at dinner. Naughty.

Theresa- asked to drink out of an adult's soda can multiple times. Naughty.

Noah- took off his socks without asking. Naughty.

Henrietta- keeps looking at my french fries and winking like she wants one. Naughty.

Rosa- will not keep her hat on. Naughty.

Scott- called his sister a poopy head. Naughty.

Zach- laughing with the pure joy of a child's innocence... after the halftime show was over. Naughty.

Christmas would be a lot easier, though. All the elves could have the season off; winter in the tropics if they wanted. All I'd need is a container-ship-worth of coal and some steroids for the reindeer.

People always told me it that it's different with your own children. And I never doubted that was true. It's true of nearly everything, in fact. I'm very interested in my own finances; I don't give a shit about yours. My aches, pains, and illnesses are of great import to me. I don't want to waste a moment of my precious life listening to you talk about yours. My hobbies are fascinating. Most of yours are dreadfully boring. Of course my children are the sun around which my world revolves while yours are dreadful nuisances. As Adam Smith noted almost 260 years ago, we have a stronger emotional connection to the most trivial events in our own lives than to earth-shattering events in the lives of people we don't know. When I watch the local news and see that someone has died in an auto accident, I know objectively that that is more important than the fact that I've lost my phone. But I forget about the traffic fatality at the next commercial break, while my missing phone gnaws at me, raising my blood pressure and consuming my emotional energy until I've found it.

All that said, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that I would have children. That are a lot of arguments against it. But there are also some arguments for it; two of which I found compelling.

Life has existed on this planet for at least 3.5 billions years, and probably for more than 4 billion. As far as we know, the life on earth represents a unique event, the only known instance out of the estimated 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in our universe. And maybe that will change, but then again maybe it won't. The Fermi Paradox may remain... paradoxical.

Or maybe we'll identify the Great Filter. The Chicken Littles, zealots, and activists of our day like to postulate that it's nuclear weapons, GMOs, or global warming that's killing off the billions of alien civilizations that we would otherwise expect to see everywhere around the universe. That seems unlikely to me. Global warming and nuclear weapons are tricky problems, but not inextricable doom. Even we humans have managed to coexist for over seventy years with our weapons of mass destruction. If we can do it for seventy, then we could hypothetically do it for 700, which should be more than enough time to become a well-traveled, space-faring, multiplanet species. We've already sent a probe outside our own solar system. Where are everybody else's Voyagers? If we've been able to make it this far, then why can't anyone else?

You can't tell me that if you ran our current scenario out a couple billion times, every single last civilization in the universe would self destruct. No, I think it's far more likely that the Great Filter lies in our distant past, probably at the very beginning. The reason we don't have billions of galactic neighbors is because they were never born. I don't know why this isn't the default hypothesis number one for everyone who thinks about it. It seems like the most likely explanation to me, and by a wide margin. If you're looking for the Great Filter, dangerous doesn't cut it. A 99% fatality rate doesn't cut it. A 99.9999% fatality rate doesn't cut it. We've got 1024 planets on the other side of the scales of probability. We have 1024 planets trying to squeeze through that filter. The most minuscule odds would result in millions of space-faring civilizations. The Great Filter won't look dangerous; it will look impossible. 

When we look into our evolutionary past, at our present, and then into the future, we see a lot of danger, close calls, improbable events, and fortuitous twists of fate on the way to the emergence and survival of a sentient life form on earth. But the most improbable steps by far have to be those earliest leaps, such as the puzzling case of the meal that refused to be a meal, the first eukaryote cell, or the greatest head-scratcher of them all, the spontaneous assembly of the first living cells from lifeless organic compounds. Now here is an event so seemingly impossible as to beggar belief, and that is exactly what we are looking for in a Great Filter- a bottleneck so tight that it can keep out the riffraff, even when there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them lined up to get through.

All that to say, we could be alone in the universe after all. We could be a singular anomaly; the rarest of curiosities; the most precious bit of serendipity the universe has to offer. What we know for sure is that every living thing on earth today is a direct descendant of that magical moment 4 billion years ago. Since then we've been in a perpetual relay race, and you are reading this paragraph now because in all those 4 billion years, none of your ancestors dropped the baton. Every single one managed to reproduce before they died. That's not true of 99% of all the other species that have ever lived on earth, but your parents were survivors. That's quite an impressive legacy. It strikes me as a pretty important project, and I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of the story of life on earth, and not one of the closing, deadend chapters, either. I want to keep the streak alive, give others a chance to experience the universe through the mind of a sentient life form, and see if we can get another 4 billion years. You don't just walk away from the Frogger arcade in the middle of setting an all-time high score; you see how far you can go before getting run over by a truck.

But there's another reason why I started to come around on the idea of having children.

If you spend any decent length of time pondering the mystery of yourself, and I have, you'll realize that aside from the daily operations, you don't really have much to do with who you are. When fighting with my parents as a child I would sometimes ply that old teenager trope, "I never asked to be born!" At the time I thought I was really clever for having thought of it. But I wasn't wrong. Not only does no one choose to be born, but we don't select any of the other important factors either. We don't choose our genetic material, we don't choose our parents' personalities, or the values that will be instilled in us, or in what constellation of family in which culture in which country on earth we will grow up. We might currently have our hand on the wheel, looking out from our skulls, piloting these vessels of ours, but the initial trajectory of our lives was set for us. Like Frankenstein's monster, we are our parents' creations, sewn together with spare parts from the both of them.

Compare the role I had in my own creation with the role I played in the creation of my son. First off, my wife and I made an executive decision to create a human, something we had no influence over in the case of our own conceptions. Half of his genetic material is from me. The other half comes from the person I chose to be his mother. His big eyes, his mischievous curiosity, his very smile are all reflections of my taste in women. Had I chosen a different partner he would be a different person. My wife, of course, can boast exactly the same thing. I grew up in a religious household. My son does not, because of a conscious decision I made as a teenager to depart from that tradition. I grew up in the US. My son is growing up in Europe because I had an inspiring German teacher in high school. I did not choose my parents or the environment in which I would spend my earliest and most formative years. My son is imprinting his earliest memories in a world that my wife and I have created.

I've come to the startling realization that my son is a more accurate reflection of who I am than I myself am. He is more me than me.

And if he grows up and rebels against everything his father stood for? Well, ironically, that would just make him even more like his father.

Sincerely,
Sebastian Braff

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