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The Prophet Jonah

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The Prophet Jonah

Sometime after my son Jonah turned 3 it occurred to me that the story of his Biblical namesake illustrates the tormented life that awaits those whose faith in others or in themselves wavers. And the prophet Jonah does not lack the desire to believe, nor does he lack for courage. It is the depth of his understanding that constrains and eats at him.

          In fact, the future Jonah’s fiercely anti-religious Belgian mother and I were able to agree on the name Jonah because we liked the length, it was neither trendy nor eccentric, and it has a warm sound in both English and French. Nonetheless, I find myself in the odd, but perhaps not so uncommon position of hoping that my son inherits little from his namesake. (Or rather, I hope against hope that it might be possible for an individual to understand as much my son will, and still retain a child’s ignorance of faith and faithlessness.) Having a child, we parents choose a name for ourselves, as we have the child for ourselves.

When Jonah Warner was born, I had plenty of not-uncommon expectations and almost no experience of other infants. The individual surprised me. He rarely cried or yelled, only occasionally letting out a howl of protest or wearing a pained look. He had a series of postures that inadvertently mirrored the poses of intellectual adults: his hands crossed over his chest, a fist to his cheek like The Thinker, a single finger raised in the air as if to make a point. During his first weeks he liked being carried through the streets in positions that allowed him to take in the light and patterns of his new world. It was as if he had been sent from another galaxy, and his job was to absorb all he could about our world and beam it back to a planet to which he looked forward to returning as soon as the work was done.

          It had never occurred to me that an infant could seem distant, even cold. (Though this might not seem surprising to those who know his father, or who are not in this case inclined to ignore the human capacity to project feelings about oneself onto others.) Of course there were plenty of times when Jonah was typically baby-like and when we would play. He liked having his diapers changed. As he was lying on his back, I would move his limbs and tickle his bottom in time to the music coming from his boombox, and he would kick his legs and smile and squeal. But often it seemed that his only interest in his parents was that we be of use — feeding, changing and transporting him. He could seem bothered or non-plussed by his mother and my kisses, and he cared little for all the people who would touch him and tell him how cute he was. He had a brooding expression, pursing his little violin lips in a way that made it look like for him life was a very serious matter, and that he perceived that most people ignored this fact, and that he did not have a great deal of time for such people, or for triviality.

          His namesake called attention to human vanity, the vanity of the will — making decisions and drawing conclusions in a world we cannot understand. Perhaps, I thought, my infant son was taking the idea several steps further. Vanity, will, decisions, conclusions — what really mattered was light and patterns. This was not only what was truly interesting about life on Earth, it was the only thing that was interesting about life on Earth.